France sees ratings plunge in global freedom of expression report

By Jan van der Made - RFI

In its yearly report, the freedom of expression watchdog group Article19 paints a grim picture of declining global liberties across the globe. The NGO says that France's standing dropped to position 14 out of the 27 European member states.

"France considers itself to be a champion of human rights, but on freedom of expression, they are not as good as they think they are," says David Diaz-Jogeix, Programme Director of human rights monitor group Article 19.

Diaz-Jogeix told RFI that one of the reasons France has slipped in the ratings is due to a memo issued by French Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin in October, calling for the pre-empting ban on all Palestinian solidarity protests.

"This is a disproportionate and discriminatory attack against the right to peaceful assembly," he says, adding that police "routinely use excessive force during demonstrations".

Moreover, in its report, Article 19 took note of "an unprecedented act of censorship" when French authorities banned the use of TikTok in the context of the situation in New Caledonia, that faced anti-French riots over government plans to make changes in the local electoral process.

This also was a "disproportionate measure against freedom of expression," according to Diaz-Jogeix.

Despite this, France isn't all bad when it comes to freedom of expression worldwide and it is listed well within the group of countries which, according to Article 19 are "open" when it comes to press freedom and freedom of expression.

Of the 27 EU countries, 20 countries that are "open," with Denmark as the champion of free expression.

Six EU countries are off the mark: Poland, Greece, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, while Russia and Belarus close the ranks.

"We are very concerned on the overall trend that the European Union and the member states is taking in terms of freedom of expression," says Diaz-Jogeix, "although Poland is making a comeback after it faced a large decline in terms of freedom of expression for the past ten years."

With Donald Tusk's new government in 2023, Diaz-Jogeix says steps are being made to revert the anti-democratic measures of the previous government, specifically the reform of the public media and decriminalisation of defamation.

Article 19 says challenges range from attacks to journalists and people who investigate people in power, "to general restrictions of freedom of expression in terms of people expressing themselves, demonstrating, banning protests, or banning particular words on certain protests."

Digital censorship includes online content removal to internet shutdowns during elections or demonstrations against those in power" and issues surrounding "disinformation, misinformation, and foreign interference on freedom of expression." 

European elections

With the elections for the European Parliament coming up next month, Article 19 is specifically concerned about forces that may go against people trying to express their political opinions.

"We are dealing with a considerable amount of countries in which there is restriction of speech, there is restriction of debates on issues that are of importance to the public opinion, there is attacks on journalists, there are illegal threats against journalists if they investigate things that get politicians, people in power or big companies into trouble," says Diaz-Jogeix.

Even Germany, which ranks seven with the Article 19 list of EU countries, has problems.

"They also banned pro-Palestine demonstrations and the Minister of Interior even banned the phrase "From river to the Sea" without properly considering the context and larger debate that interests public opinion."

While in some EU countries, such as Hungary and Bulgaria, the press is muzzled, controlled or censored by the government, in others, notably France and the Netherlands, governments are threatening to drastically cut public media.

Article 19 says governments should instead " reinforce" public broadcasting services, making sure that the public radio and television work for everybody within the society.

"We need to create an environment in which lawsuits against journalists are not misused by the powerful to suppress stories of huge public interest to the European citizens," says Diaz-Jogeix.

"Governments can take very proactive measures to improve freedom of expression if they decide to do so," he goes on.

Rapid deterioration

According to Diaz-Jogeix, more than half of the world's population is living in a country where there is a crisis of freedom of expression.

"And only less than a quarter live in countries where freedom of expression is open or less restricted".

Worst performers in East Asia are North Korea, China, Myanmar and Vietnam, while India has seen a rapid deterioration in its freedoms.

In central Asia, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan score the lowest.

In Africa, the main culprits are Eritrea, Egypt and South Sudan.

In the Middle East: Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. In the Americas it's Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba that are least likely to allow people to speak out freely.