Stort utbud av internationella tidskrifter i La Paz, Bolivia.

New forms of media, such as mobile phones and the internet, benefit democratic development because it is becoming more difficult for those in power to control information.

Photo: Victor Brott

Democracy, human rights and freedom of expression

Freedom of expression

Published: 2 December 2009 Updated: 2 May 2016

Freedom of expression is a human right and central to democracy. People shall have the right to express themselves, and have access and right to disseminate information and opinions. A free word contributes to democratic development, through support to organizations working with independent media, artistic freedom issues or ICT and human rights.

A democratic society is not possible without freedom of expression. Journalists and other media actors have a key role in examining those in power and uncover anomalies. Sida has contributed to trainings of thousands of journalists, for instance in Belarus. Development assistance is also allocated to organisations that work to improve media laws, foster a pluralistic and democratic media development and aim to increase knowledge and improve working conditions for journalists and public debaters. Cultural workers such as musicians and writers are also supported. Furthermore, Sida works to increase security of journalists and for the release of imprisoned journalists and cultural workers.

In some countries, journalists critical of regimes are not allowed to perform their work. Many are forced to leave their countries and continue their work in exile. Sida is supporting a number of radio stations in exile that work to bring about democratic change in their home countries. In many countries radio is the main source of information for people living in poverty. Radio is an efficient and inexpensive tool to reach out to many people and with the possibility to broadcast in several languages. One example is Indonesia where Sida has been contributing to independent radio broadcasting for many years.

Freedom of expression is of great importance for respect of human rights. It is about giving people the power and freedom to place demands on how the state and authorities manage their tasks. In this way, freedom of expression plays an important role in how people perceive other rights such as the right to clean water, housing and access to health care.

Sida uses a broad terminology within freedom of expression, including free and independent media, artistic freedom as well as Internet freedom and both digital and physical safety for human rights defenders. As freedom of expression today, in one way or another, is dependent of ICT and modern technologies there is often a focus on Internet issues or new media. This is done through support on bilateral, regional and global basis, as issues related to freedom of expression are present on all levels of Sidas work.

Freedom of expression and internet activism

Mobile phones and the internet have provided an opening for new possibilities in the struggle for freedom of speech and democracy. An increasing number of people in developing countries and authoritarian states use digital technology to mobilise their commitments to social issues and to communicate about what is happening around them in manners previously not possible.

Sida supports information and communication technology (ICT) in various ways, among others through initiatives aiming to instrumentalise the digital space for human rights and democratisation. Sida cooperates with a wide range of partners, from large multilateral organisations to small initiatives, most of whom advocate for democracy and human rights in repressive contexts and developing countries.

Actors within democracy and human rights may apply for support for activities that primarily use ICT, such as education for human rights activists, democracy activists and journalists about IT security and getting around censorship and filtering. It may also involve trainings in online community journalism that help socially engaged bloggers reach out, as well as in construction of web portals. Sida also supports development and distribution of technological solutions, such as operating systems that allow anonymous surfing without digital traces. By involving tens of thousands of people directly, the goal is to reach out to hundreds of thousands or millions more through the internet.

While social media has become an effective tool for pro-democracy activists, many of the regimes that they protest against have learned how to use the technology against them, e.g. by shutting down key websites, disseminating propaganda or setting traps for activists. An important task for Sida is to use ICT and the internet to uncover strategies that authoritarian regimes use for limiting freedom of expression and then come up with ways to support those working for openness and pluralism.

Social media played an important role in the struggle for democracy and gained wide attention during the so called “Arab spring” uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Syria. This phenomenon was later seen in Belarus and China, where a series of political demonstrations gathered huge crowds and mobilised broad international support, all with help of digital technology. Internet has become an important channel to mobilise people and to report from events in text, audio and video. Such reports have also become important sources of information for foreign media, especially because foreign journalists find it increasingly more difficult to work in such repressive environments.

In a more digitalized world women and girls are specially targeted and face more often than men and boys harassment online, cyber stalking, sexual harassment, surveillance and unlawful use of personal information such as pictures and videos. As gender based violence online has increased, Sida has also engaged in support to organizations working against these phenomena. By strengthening women’s leadership and ensuring their safety online the organizations are able to create a sustainable digital environment for all.

Swedish development cooperation has previously helped actors working against online censorship and Internet filtering, or against surveillance and detention of bloggers. In the special initiative for democratization and human rights it is therefore important to learn from previous experiences and be responsive to learnings on how engagement best can be done.

Page owner: The Communication Department

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