The UK Should Champion Media Freedom

Dissatisfaction with democracy is at a 25-year high, according to a University of Cambridge study published in January. 

The 2020 Global Satisfaction with Democracy report revealed that dissatisfaction has increased mainly amongst those in developed countries, with the number of people across 154 countries dissatisfied with the state of democracy in their countries rising by nearly 10% since 1995, from 47.9% to 57.5%. 

The problem is particularly acute in Europe. Whilst some European states, including Switzerland, Denmark and Norway reported all-time high levels of satisfaction, some of the report’s least satisfied democracies were also revealed to be in Europe. Romania, for example, revealed a 20% increase in dissatisfaction with democracy. 

Of particular interest in the report was the increase in satisfaction with democracy in many eastern European states. Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have each seen a gradual strengthening of satisfaction with democracy. This comes at a time when the actual state of democracy in some of these nations is at risk, with increased threats to media freedoms and other human rights. 

In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has pushed through constitutional and legal changes since their election in 2010 that have not only consolidated the party’s control over independent institutions, but also hampered the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and NGOs. George Soros-funded Central European University, for example, has been forced to move from its Budapest campus to Vienna. Freedom House, which measures the levels of freedom in countries around the world, downgraded Hungary’s status from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’ in 2018 due to these attacks. 

The decline of media freedom, a key pillar of democracy, across Europe in 2018 is particularly alarming. The damaging effect of restricting a free press was evident in the planning of Holocaust memorial events in late January. Remembering the horrors of the Holocaust offers an opportunity to bring nations together and learn the lessons of oppression. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, it presents a political opportunity to distort history.

The Russian government has recently launched a campaign to whitewash the Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and subsequent invasion of Poland, claiming instead that Poland bears responsiblity for starting the Second World War.

Poland, for its part, has been pushing its own version of history. Whilst still labelled as ‘Free’ by Freedom House, since the electoral victory of the Law and Justice Party in 2015, freedom of the press and of speech has taken a worrying turn.

In 2015, the Polish government proposed a law that would criminalise any mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust. After an international outcry the law was watered down, but state media have successfully vilified and silenced critical voices – a dangerous and worrying precedent.

The distorting of rememberance of the Holocaust is one worrying example of what can happen when democracy is eroded and freedom of the media is not guaranteed. There is no limit to the truths that can be distorted when a hostile state controls the press. 

Upcoming research from the British Foreign Policy Group will explore the state of media freedom across the world and in the UK, as well as assessing the role the UK can play in protecting this vital pillar of democracy. In 2019, although there was an unprecedented fall in the number of journalists killed, the number of those killed in countries at peace continued to be as high as in previous years. Nearly half of all journalists currently imprisoned are held in China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 

The UK, traditionally a bastion of press freedom and democracy, is taking a strong leadership role in the fight for global media freedom. In 2019, the UK hosted the first ever Global Conference for Media Freedom, in collaboration with Canada.

Promoting the importance of media freedom internationally via this Conference is an important first step for the UK. Other, more difficult steps should now be taken. Now outside of the EU, Britain can talk more candidly about the declining state of freedom of the press amongst several EU members. This discussion should be extended to UK allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where state media acts as an extension of the government and challenging voices are suppressed. 

In order to champion democracy and human rights, these are steps worth taking.


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Flora Holmes

Flora Holmes is a Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group.