Ruth Smeeth of Index on Censorship tells Sian Norris her concerns about a raft of contradictory Government policies on freedom of expression, as the Online Safety Bill returns to Parliament

The Government has “no ideological consistency” in its approach to free speech, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship Ruth Smeeth told Byline Times.

Speaking in advance of the organisation’s 50th Anniversary, Smeeth expressed her concerns that a raft of Government bills tackling issues of free speech contradict one another, including the Online Safety Bill which will be published on 17 March, the Policing Bill, the review of the Human Rights Act, and the proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act.

Smeeth also discussed the global challenges for freedom of expression coming from Russia and its allies in Belarus, and from China. 

But she was clear that there is hope in the bravery of people fighting for the right to speak and challenge repressive regimes. “When we look back to the last 50 years,” Smeeth explained, “we had Vaclav Haval write for us from prison and then he became President. There are really extraordinary people writing for us about the issues they face from China, Belarus – people who keep fighting even when they are in prison. Hope is in those people”.


Contradictions in Government

The Online Safety Bill – which is to be published in full this week – has been promoted by the Government as a way to tackle issues such as online abuse and to protect children from harmful and extremist content. 

But anti-censorship campaigners have expressed concerns about both unintended and intended consequences on free speech. 

This includes the risk of racial profiling, with existing means of removing harmful content disproportionately likely to delete posts written in Arabic and in Afro-Caribbean patios. 

“I’ve got huge concerns,” said Smeeth. “First of all because the Government is passing responsibility for what is and isn’t acceptable language to Silicon Valley – it is they who will be deciding what it is acceptable to say in the UK. They’re going to be small-c conservative, so they will over-censor and over-delete”.

Smeeth gives the example of one MP suggesting “rape” joins the list of words that could be flagged as harmful content. A well-meaning gesture in the context of rape threats, “but what about women going on social media to discuss their experiences of rape?” she asks. 

The focus on harmful content also ignores the ways in which extremist groups game language and come up with new signals to communicate their hateful message. Think of how the ‘okay’ and glass of milk emojis becoming white power symbols, for example, or the use of Pepe the Frog memes to communicate a political standpoint. “I worry we will end up with new speech codes,” Smeeth said.  

Ending anonymity to try and tackle online abuse has also provoked concern. Smeeth, who endured horrific online abuse when she was a Labour MP, knows all too well the pain and distress of this kind of targeting. But, she explained, “hardly any of the people targeting me were anonymous – they didn’t have to be and they didn’t care enough to hide who they were”. 

She’s concerned that people with a very real need to be anonymous, such as LGBTIQ people in conservative communities who are seeking solidarity online, or political dissidents trying to get news out of their country to the wider world, will lose their spaces to communicate. 

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The Online Safety Bill is one of numerous bills that have been criticised for clamping down on freedom of expression. Alongside it is the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which seeks to restrict the right to protest and gives police draconian powers to shut protests down if they are too noisy or disruptive. It also allows the police to pre-emptively ban individuals from attending protests, and criminalises “locking on” – when a protester attaches themselves to a piece of infrastructure or another person. 

The bill flies in the face of the Government’s criticism of so-called “cancel culture” and its approach to free speech on campus. A white paper published last year sought to protect freedom of expression in universities and quoted ADF International – a branch of the US organisation Alliance Defending Freedom which has been called a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Centre for its anti-LGBTIQ beliefs – raising the question of who this Government thinks free speech is for. 

“Students will be allowed to protest at universities,” said Smeeth, “as they should be. But if they try to protest outside Westminster, under this new bill they could get arrested if they’re too noisy. It’s so incoherent”.


International Threats

Beyond the UK’s borders, freedom of expression and assembly is under threat in repressive regimes across the world.

From the targeting of women journalists including Rana Ayuub and Maria Ressa, to the arrests of pro-democracy activists such as Jimmy Lai, and the crackdown on anti-war protesters in Russia, the need for dissident voices to speak is as great as ever – but frighteningly dangerous.

One of the greatest threats identified by the Index on Censorship is China. The organisation has regularly covered threats to freedom of speech in the country ever since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Today, the Chinese Government’s control over speech and protest is hegemonic within the nation – and it has moved beyond the country’s own borders. 

“We are seeing the pressure of the Chinese Government on academic freedom even here in the UK,” Smeeth told Byline Times. “Chinese students studying here have to check in with the embassy once a month and universities are changing the way they teach Chinese history. In France, the Chinese Government put pressure on a museum to cancel an exhibition about Genghis Khan. Even the Disney movie Mulan faced pressure to cast a Han Chinese lead in order to fit the Government’s narrative about China’s history”. 

One of the worst examples of the crackdown on free speech is in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy activists have been jailed and a new security law that severely restricts the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression. 

But even in these extreme pressures, those who are fighting for democracy in Hong Kong and China continue to resist. “We have a duty to get their stories out into the world and to keep shining a spotlight on these issues so people in China know they are not alone,” Smeeth explained. “That is the ultimate form of solidarity”. 

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