For those of us lucky enough to live in relatively liberal countries, freedom of speech seems a natural part of life; it’s a fundamental human right as opposed to a luxury or a privilege, and rightfully so. Despite the fact that freedom of speech is a very basic human right, many countries struggle with the oppression of this right on a daily basis.
One such country is Eritrea, the Horn of Africa nation, recorded in 2012 by the Committee to Protect Journalists as being the world’s most censored country, into which no foreign reporters are allowed and the media of which is entirely controlled by the government. Only mildly less restricted in terms of freedom of expression is North Korea – according to the same study the second most censored country in the world – while due to recent rates of political unrest the rates of censorship have increased dramatically in Syria and Iran, which take places three and four on the list respectively in the study.
The issue of free speech has come to light in America recently, with a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider if a New Mexico photography company should be able to refuse to record a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony on the grounds of freedom of speech. The case has been in discussion since 2006. It showcases the consternation that still surrounds the issue of freedom of speech, even in mainly emancipated countries, and the too-often conflated ideals of free expression and hateful bigotry. This list numbers ten countries worldwide with the highest rates of freedom of speech, and looks at the various specific regulations pertaining to their media.
At number ten as of 2014 is Jamaica, which has undergone something of a revelation in terms of the popularisation of freedom of speech in the last four years. In late 2010 Miss Jamaica World 2010 and Harvard Law School graduate Chantal Raymond established a blog, freespeechjamaica.com, which aimed to create awareness of the issue and a forum for freedom of speech and expression in the country. The blog is endorsed by the Media Association of Jamaica Limited, and to date has addressed topics such as libel law reform and Jamaica’s limitations as to free speech and censorship. The ‘about’ section of the blog itself states that its aim is “to bring awareness to the importance of freedom of expression, to illuminate any form of censorship and limitations on freedom of expression which aims to promote silence, and to give voice to the disenfranchised and neglected in society”, which has clearly been a success thus far.
The freedoms of speech and of the press are guaranteed in the constitution of Chile, which is the ninth freest country in the world in terms of speech and expression. In 2013, the country accordingly scored a press freedom score of thirty-one on a scale of nought to one hundred, with zero being the highest level of freedom possible. While the country does have some limitations — Chile’s two main media companies, Copesa and El Mercurio, have control over 90% of the country’s newspapers, which is somewhat problematic in terms of media pluralism — it equals the balance with total freedom in other areas, such as there being no government restrictions whatsoever on the Internet.
At number eight is Uruguay, by all accounts a generally forward-thinking and liberal country in many respects: it has recently legalized marijuana use, same-sex marriage, and is the second country in Latin America to have legalized abortion. The country also boasts President José Mujica, who is a man known worldwide for being the world’s poorest president; instead of living lavishly, he gives away a startling margin of his income to charities, and drives a Volkswagen Beetle. As would presumably follow, the country as a whole has a notably tolerant attitude to journalism and freedom of speech, with politicians attacking the media only in very rare cases, and a general widespread understanding that the media has a large amount of scope and should not be retaliated against as a viable reaction — in short, Uruguay’s attitude to free speech is a healthy and exemplary one.
Freedom of speech is again a part of the constitution of the country at number seven, Portugal. A recent report on Portugal’s human rights stated that the country’s government generally responded well to the provisions for freedom of speech and of press in practice. The country has an independent press, a democratic political system and an effective system of courts of law in relation to the administration of justice, which help to ensure consistent freedom of academia, press, and speech.
At number six is Estonia. Article 45 of the Estonian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and of expression of opinions, and the country has a press freedom score of sixteen on the aforementioned scale of nought to one hundred. Political strain and tensions between Estonia and Russia can sometimes affect media freedom within the country, which implicitly inhibits the level of freedom of speech in Estonia as a whole. However, this is countered somewhat in the significant presence of media available in the Russian language in Estonia for the high level of Russian-speakers that help to make up the country’s population.
5. United States
At number five is the Land of the Free, the United States of America. The US is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which state an individual’s right to freedom of expression and speech, so it is unsurprising that the country should rank so highly. The approach of the United States in this regard adheres to the idea that free exchange of ideas promotes understanding and advances illumination of both truths and falsehoods.
Nowadays, freedom of speech in Japan is constitutionally well-protected. However, this wasn’t always the case; prior to the new constitution of 1946, freedom of speech was granted by the Emperor but was subject to any restrictions imposed by the statutes. As a result, freedom of speech and expression was inhibited under the Public Peace Preservation Act, the Newspapers Act, and the Publications Act. Freedom of speech was severely inhibited and limited prior to World War II, but Japan now demonstrably ranks fourth in the world for freedom of speech, a dramatic and important turnaround for the country.
3. United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is renowned worldwide for its respect and tolerance towards free speech, and has included the European Convention on Human Rights in its laws since 1998. The observation of this convention means that limitations can in some cases be imposed on the practise of free speech: for example, should the freedom of expression in question be deemed a danger to national security, it can be opposed, as can free speech which threatens health or morals, or the protection of a person’s rights or reputation. Whether or not this is in some ways a violation of the very principle of the notion of free speech remains to be seen.
Australia is not, in fact, party to any bill of Rights, meaning that freedom of speech is not protected officially in the country. However, in 1992 it was decreed that the country’s constitution implies a freedom of political speech, so technically Australian citizens are free to speak about politics in any way, shape or form. While this doesn’t officially extend to any area outside of the political, to be able to voice any opinion whatsoever on a country’s government implies a certain amount of power, and may account for Australia’s high placing on this list. In any case, the government needn’t worry about what people are saying, as Australia has one of the highest government approval rates in the world.
1. New Zealand
The number one country for freedom of speech is New Zealand. The country’s 1990 Bill of Rights act states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”, a pretty much definitive explanation of free speech. As of 2013, the country ranks 8th in the Press Freedom Index, and its relaxed and inclusionary attitude to freedom of speech and expression has been attributed to its being a parliamentary democracy.