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The Power of Our Voices

International Impact Report 2023

At the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in February 2023, samba schools dedicated their parade to defending freedom of expression. (Photo: Mídia NINJA via CC BY-NC 2.0)

At the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in February 2023, samba schools dedicated their parade to defending freedom of expression. (Photo: Mídia NINJA via CC BY-NC 2.0)

At a glance

Our impact in 2023

As a result of ARTICLE 19's advocacy...

Meta (used by 49% of people worldwide) overturned its policy on blocking certain content about the Iran protests.

This win is especially significant because we advocate against banning words and phrases outright, and for moderators and community guidelines to always take account of context when censoring content that affects what billions can see, hear, and say.

Over 1,500 journalists, activists, and human rights defenders are better equipped to defend expression for all.

Of these, over 90% are from the Global South.

1 in 10 people worldwide now enjoy stronger legal protections.

How free were we in 2023?

Until very recently, it was presumed that freedom of expression was impossible to measure. This lack of data meant we couldn’t know how many people enjoyed or lacked freedom of expression worldwide. 

That’s where our Global Expression Report comes in. 

Its unique metric, based on 25 indicators of freedom of expression, allows us to score 161 countries around the world and track their progress over time.

As a result, we now know how free each and every person is to express themselves, communicate, and participate in society – whether posting online, taking to the streets, or investigating the information needed to keep leaders accountable. 

We can measure where states have improved, call out backsliding, and inform ourselves about how we can protect and enhance our freedoms.

And we can use the data to demand a better world for all.

In 2023, our new interactive microsite attracted 6 times more visitors to the Global Expression Report data compared to 2022.

And the data was used to call for progress – from Brazil to Belarus.

In Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (leader of the opposition-in-exile) amplified Belarus’s shocking scores to demand change, reaching the 200,000+ people who follow her. 

In Brazil, the media featured the report in articles about restrictions on freedom of expression, the growth of populism, and attacks against the press. 

And in Kenya, as a result of ARTICLE 19 advocating for leaders to create evidence-based policy, the government will include data from civil society for the first time in its reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals.

The findings of our Global Expression Report 2023 made for grim reading:

  • The 21st century has so far been a disaster for freedom: repression has increased for 80% of us worldwide.
  • That’s more than 6 billion people living with less freedom of expression than they had in the year 2000.
  • Only 13% of us now live in Open countries – fewer people than at any time this century so far.

These statistics are sobering.

But knowledge is power. 

Together, we can use the data to turbo-charge our case for change. 

Because if the stories in this report show one thing, it’s this:

When we raise our voices together, we can reclaim our rights, rebuild democracy, and reignite free expression for all.

Our global goals

1. Defining a new digital era for all

2. Safer communities, stronger voices

3. Information is power

Goal 1

Defining a new digital era for all

(Image: izusek / Shutterstock)

(Image: izusek / Shutterstock)

(Image: Team CommUNITY)

(Image: Team CommUNITY)

Mardiya Siba Yahaya.

Mardiya Siba Yahaya

(Image: ARTICLE 19)

(Image: ARTICLE 19)

Mardiya at a Team CommUNITY gathering in 2023. (Photo: Alia Haju)

Mardiya at a Team CommUNITY gathering in 2023. (Photo: Alia Haju)

Mardiya (L) with other digital rights defenders at a Team CommUNITY event in 2023. (Photo: Alia Haju)

Mardiya (L) with other digital rights defenders at a Team CommUNITY event in 2023. (Photo: Alia Haju)

Amplifying the voices of digital rights activists in the Global Majority

Mardiya’s story

Surveillance, censorship, and abuse are some of today’s biggest challenges to free expression online – and marginalised communities typically bear the brunt of these problems more than others.

Yet, because they are underrepresented in strategic spaces, their voices, needs, and wants are absent from debates that seek to address the major challenges of our time. 

That’s where Team CommUNITY comes in.

Housed at ARTICLE 19, Team CommUNITY (TCU) is a network of global digital defenders on the frontlines of the battle against surveillance, censorship, and other challenges at the intersection of human rights and technology. 

Mardiya Siba Yahaya joined Team CommUNITY in 2022 as Africa Community Lead.

Her role was made possible by the team's Global Equity Fund, which elevates traditionally underrepresented voices, who have unique and critical vantage points and expertise, into leadership positions in the digital rights field, where they can serve as beacons and advocates for their own and similar communities. 

In this role, Mardiya learned how to build, nurture, and support digital rights defenders in Africa. But it wasn’t always easy – especially at the start, when she was just 24.

‘Africa’s digital rights community were dealing with security threats, internet shutdowns, and surveillance every day. Working in Africa and being African myself, I understood these things intimately, but building trust was still hugely important – and that was difficult because I was so young.’

Over time – and with TCU’s support – Mardiya was able to nurture a strong community in the region: 

‘I had a lot of training: how to build community, how to keep people – including myself – safe. I learned so much from the TCU team. Whenever I hit a roadblock, they gave me tonnes of support. I felt like they genuinely wanted to help me grow.
‘I learned to always be asking: What does this community actually need? What kinds of resources do we need to provide? Led by those needs, I was able to build the network, and then they were able to support themselves – it became self-sustaining.’ 

Mardiya excelled as Africa Community Lead – so much so that, in September 2023, they were promoted to Global Community Manager.

In this new leadership role, which involves organising meetups, outreach, and support, Mardiya uses the skills she strengthened at TCU – complemented by her impressive experience and knowledge – to support the digital rights community worldwide:

‘This space can be intimidating for new people, so I find ways to ease them – especially young people who, like me, are just starting their journey in digital rights.
‘In our training, I was taught: “Community work is like cooking – and you’re the chef!” You’re bringing all these ingredients together. Sometimes it pans out really well; other times, you miss an ingredient, and you need to bring that in.’

And she is using her role to add vital new ingredients to the community: 

‘I brought some people together to talk about digital rights in francophone countries in Africa and the Middle East, where a huge amount of work is happening but it’s very under-resourced. They decided they wanted this to be a recurring conversation, so we supported them to grow their network, which is becoming a space for long-term relationships and collaborations.
‘Like recently [February 2024], there was an internet shutdown happening in Senegal. Because we’d created this francophone community, I reached out to ask what sort of support they needed on the ground. They said circumvention tools. So we are working on creating a broader understanding of the region with the VPN community to create the space for long-term transnational support through some of the tools available to the community during shutdowns.’   

By funding her initial role with TCU, the Global Equity Fund gave Mardiya a springboard into leadership, as well as a platform for her creativity and astuteness.

This enabled her to break down structural barriers for other underrepresented digital rights activists:

‘We invest in getting people from the Global Majority to in-person events, where they can showcase their work and build new connections. In 2023, we helped cover some travel for someone from North Africa to attend a TCU event, where we introduced them to a few useful contacts. They built new partnerships there, and they’ve now advanced a pioneering project that protects activists, journalists, and civil society from escalating digital threats.’

As such, the Global Equity Fund has not only amplified underrepresented voices like Mardiya’s, but has also put her in an impactful role where she leads the creation of crucial tools for digital rights activists in the Global Majority.

Through the Global Equity Fund, Team CommUNITY supported 109 high-risk people in 2023.

And it is only with their experience and expertise that we can build an internet for the many – not the few.

(Image: netzpolitik.org, CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)

(Image: netzpolitik.org, CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)

‘You have to listen to the community. You have to let the community lead. And you have to embody the values that you want to see.’ 
– Mardiya Siba Yahaya

Beyond ChatGPT

Drawing red lines around the worst excesses of AI

(Image: Adbusters)

(Image: Adbusters)

Generative AI took 2023 by storm.

But all the hype around chatbots ignores the real problem: deeply invasive AI-based surveillance.

These technologies are increasingly touted as not only an inevitable development but the solution to everything from border control to public safety. Yet they pose a grave threat to people’s right to protest, to journalists’ right to report, and to our right to move through the world without being spied on. 

As ever, these threats disproportionately affect marginalised groups – from the anglocentrism of large language models to the eugenics-based pseudoscience of emotion recognition technology.

ARTICLE 19 has been engaged in the debate around AI long before ChatGPT came onto the scene. Throughout 2023, we called for a ban on biometric technologies.

And we had some significant successes – globally, regionally, and locally.

Our AI advocacy pays off at the UN

Throughout 2023, we successfully lobbied the UN to ensure digital technologies respect human rights, leading advocacy for a resolution on new digital technologies – especially AI.

As a result, a new UN resolution highlighted the importance of respecting, protecting, and promoting human rights throughout the lifecycle of AI systems. It also, crucially, stressed that certain applications of AI ‘present an unacceptable risk to human rights’. 

This was the first time a UN resolution recognised such red lines.

Konstantin Kotov in 2019. (Photo: Natdemina, via Wikimedia Commons)

Konstantin Kotov in 2019. (Photo: Natdemina, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Image: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock)

(Image: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock)

Iranian democracy activists and their allies at a protest in Trafalgar Square, London, on 16 September 2023: the 1-year anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death. (Photo: Alisdare Hickson)

Iranian democracy activists and their allies at a protest in Trafalgar Square, London, on 16 September 2023: the 1-year anniversary of Mahsa Amini's death. (Photo: Alisdare Hickson)

Information Security Analyst and women’s rights activist Azam Jangravi.

Information Security Analyst and women’s rights activist Azam Jangravi.

A collective of Iranian graffiti artists took a stand against the aggressive Internet censorship policies being implemented by the Islamic Republic. Loosely translated, the graffiti says: 'User Protection Bill = Protection of Murder'. (Photo: Khiaban Tribune)

A collective of Iranian graffiti artists took a stand against the aggressive Internet censorship policies being implemented by the Islamic Republic. Loosely translated, the graffiti says: 'User Protection Bill = Protection of Murder'. (Photo: Khiaban Tribune)

Armita Garavand

Armita Garavand

Image from Saqqez, Kurdistan, shared widely on social media during the 40th day of mourning for Jhina (Mahsa) Amini.

Image from Saqqez, Kurdistan, shared widely on social media during the 40th day of mourning for Jhina (Mahsa) Amini.

(Image: mundissima / Shutterstock)

(Image: mundissima / Shutterstock)

Journalist Carmen Aristegui on Radio Abierta. (Photo: ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America)

Journalist Carmen Aristegui on Radio Abierta. (Photo: ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America)

Groundbreaking ruling on facial recognition at the European Court 

Back in July 2019, people crowded Moscow’s streets to protest against several independent candidates being blocked from standing in municipal elections. The police and national guard declared the protests unauthorised’, arrested hundreds, and sentenced at least 15 people to years in prison. 

One of those people was Konstantin Kotov, a software engineer and activist who was sentenced to 4 years, sparking international outcry – including from ARTICLE 19.

A month later, Russian citizen Nikolay Glukhin staged a one-man peaceful protest on a Moscow train, carrying a life-sized cardboard cutout of Kotov holding a banner that read:

‘I’m facing up to five years … for peaceful protests.’

Police identified Glukhin using facial-recognition CCTV cameras in the metro station, screenshots of which were used to convict him. He appealed, but the Moscow City Court ruled against him. 

But Glukhin didn’t back down. 

He fought his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.

And in July 2023, following ARTICLE 19’s intervention, he won.

The European Court found that Russia had violated his rights to freedom of expression and privacy by using facial-recognition technology to arrest and convict him.

This landmark victory established an important framework for further facial-recognition cases in Europe. 

The Court also selected it as a key case of 2023, meaning it was one of the most important cases it dealt with all year. 

Iran

Meeting digital repression with digital resistance

The Iran authorities ramped up their crackdown on protesters in 2023, adding new tactics like weaponised blinding to their brutal arsenal. As usual, marginalised communities were targeted more than others: nearly half of those killed were from the persecuted Kurdish and Baluch ethnic minority groups.

Yet despite this crushing repression, Iranians refused to be silenced.

ARTICLE 19's Mahsa Alimardani talks to France 24 on the 1-year anniversary of Jhina (Mahsa) Amini's death.

‘Even with eyes blinded, we can see the spark of hope.’
A blinded Iranian protester, talking to ARTICLE 19

The authorities also intensified their efforts to create a state of tech-enabled gender apartheid, rolling out AI and facial-recognition technology to identify, target, and punish women wearing ‘improper’ hijab: a horrifying reminder of the dangers of these technologies, especially in the hands of a regime that does not shy away from crimes against humanity

ARTICLE 19's Mahsa Alimardani discusses 'smart cities' in Iran on MIT Technology Review's podcast

Online, too, hundreds of people were arrested and persecuted for expressing their views. And that’s when they could get online in the first place. Internet shutdowns continued apace, especially during protests, providing cover for the authorities to murder and maim with impunity. Tech-savvy Iranians used VPNs to circumvent the regime’s censorship – only for the regime to disable those VPNs. 

Throughout 2023, ARTICLE 19 supported the most at-risk people in Iran – including protesters, ethnic religious minorities, and LGBTQI+ people.

We:

  • Improved their knowledge of digital security;
  • Developed tech to help them evade censorship and internet shutdowns; and
  • Provided emergency assistance to arrestees.

In 2023, we provided emergency support to 1,200 people on the ground – more than twice as many as the previous year.

Like the man involved in the struggle for rights for his ethnic religious minority group.

Following his arrest, we secured his social media and email accounts, so the authorities could not access them.

He was released within a few days because the authorities could find no incriminating evidence against him.

And the woman who lost 4 family members on flight PS752, which Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down on 8 January 2020, killing all 176 on board.

She was one of dozens arrested at the funeral of 17-year-old schoolgirl Armita Garawand, who died after being assaulted by Iran’s ‘morality police’ for wearing ‘improper hijab’. We secured her social accounts – including group messages between the families of flight PS752 victims – when she was being transported to a detainment centre.

As a result, she was released 3 days later, and the families’ privacy was protected.

We also amplified Iranians’ voices at the international level throughout the year: giving evidence at the UN Human Rights Council, calling on national governments to step up, and supporting the Independent Fact-Finding Mission, which will document violations – and which, together with our partners, we lobbied the UN to create. 

ARTICLE 19 extends our heartfelt thanks to all the anonymous individuals who risk their lives to help us support vulnerable people on the ground. 

Your bravery, generosity, and determination inspire us every day.

Mexico

Victory for surveilled journalists: Supreme Court orders government to make spyware contracts public 

Pegasus is a dystopian nightmare. The powerful spyware tool, developed by Israeli company NSO Group and licensed to governments worldwide, can turn your mobile phone into a pocket-sized surveillance device: secretly harvesting your photos, recording your calls, and spying on you through your camera.

Mexico’s government has invested over USD $60 million in Pegasus, which it uses to spy on journalists, activists, and human rights organisations that investigate government and military abuses of power. Mexico is both Pegasus’s biggest market and the world’s most dangerous country for journalists: a disastrous mix for the journalists who risk their lives to expose the truth – and for the public, who rely on them to deliver accurate information. 

In 2023, ARTICLE 19 Mexico and Central America worked with our partners to expose and challenge this illegal espionage.

In December, we attended court for a case in which the judge acknowledged that journalist Carmen Aristegui’s phone was tapped with Pegasus from 2015–16; that she was targeted because of her journalism, which investigated corruption at the highest levels; and that this spying had put herself, her family, and her sources at risk.

These acknowledgements were welcome progress – particularly given the historical refusal to recognise the truth, let alone deliver justice, in this area – but the judge ultimately had to acquit the accused because the Attorney General’s Office had provided insufficient evidence.

On 6 February 2024, the Supreme Court ordered the Ministry of Finance to make public the contracts used to acquire Pegasus spyware.

The government fought this ruling all the way, filing two appeals stating that they couldn’t publicise the contracts due to national security concerns – a rationale that the Court denied. 

Both of these cases were huge strides forward for Mexico. 

But as long as those responsible enjoy impunity for illegal digital espionage, journalists will remain under threat.

That’s why, in addition to working for justice for individuals, ARTICLE 19 is calling for a moratorium on surveillance technologies until stronger regulations are in place to prevent such abuses.

EU

ARTICLE 19 leads civil society advocacy on landmark laws to decentralise digital power 

The EU’s Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act are landmark laws with huge potential to decentralise power in digital markets, protect our right to free expression, end many of Big Tech’s harmful practices, and empower us to tailor our online experiences.

Many of ARTICLE 19’s recommendations were included in the final laws – and, due to our deep expertise in competition law and policy, we led civil society advocacy on the Digital Markets Act. 

But any law is only ever as good as its implementation. 

That’s why, in 2023, our advocacy pivoted to ensuring these laws are properly enforced, including by bringing together academics and regulators in Brussels to spark deep collaboration.

As the Israel–Hamas conflict escalated, European Commissioner Thierry Breton made demands of Meta, X, TikTok, and YouTube regarding the spread of related disinformation and illegal content on their platforms – demands that we believed to be at odds with the DSA itself.

ARTICLE 19 and our partners shared our concerns, resulting in clarification and a series of roundtables on the Act’s implementation.

We will continue to closely monitor the EU’s enforcement of these landmark laws throughout 2024 to ensure they live up to their promise.

Taming the Titans: New ARTICLE 19 podcast

In 2023, our new podcast series on Big Tech and human rights, Taming the Titans, asked: 

  • How did a handful of companies come to dominate our digital lives? 
  • What does this mean for our human rights and our societies? 
  • What can we do to get that power back? 

Hosted by Emily Hart, each episode features an expert from Europe, where the conversation crystallised around the DMA, and an expert from Latin America, where the conversation is gaining force.

(Image: Ivan Marc / Shutterstock)

(Image: Ivan Marc / Shutterstock)

Bridging the digital divide for rural and remote communities

The UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) plays a key role in delivering information and communication technologies worldwide – and therefore in facilitating online expression and access to information. 

As one of the few civil society organisations with a seat at their table, ARTICLE 19 pushes for human rights to be at the heart of their decisions: from assigning satellite orbits to improving infrastructure in the Global South.

Back in 2022, our years of advocacy resulted in the ITU acknowledging – for the first time – that community-centred solutions are vital for people in rural and remote areas to get online, express themselves, and access information. This hard-won victory will help people in underserved areas who are neglected by large providers, for whom connecting the unconnected is not a priority because it is not profitable.

Building on this success, our 2023 advocacy resulted in:

  • The ITU Radiocommunication Sector requiring Member States to support meaningful connectivity by 2030, as part of their commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals. This was a result of our pioneering advocacy: we were the first civil society organisation to contribute at this forum.
  • The ITU Development Sector launching a call to identify best practices in developing and implementing community networks in rural and remote areas. 
  • Brazil’s national telecomms agency, ANATEL, creating a Community Networks Working Group to progress national work in this area.

Despite the importance of bodies like these for getting people online and bridging the digital divide, civil society is woefully underrepresented in their decision-making, especially in their most technical sectors, which are inaccessible and jargon-heavy – and the forum where the most impactful decisions are made. 

That’s why, throughout 2023, we tried to demystify these bodies: what they do, why it matters, and how to get involved. 

From explainer blog posts to a new interactive microsite, we supported civil society and public interest technologists to understand what’s at stake – and to get their voices heard.

Goal 2

Safer communities, stronger voices

Peaceful protest in Toronto, Canada, against Israel’s invasion of Gaza, 28 October 2023. (Nadtochiy/Shutterstock)

Peaceful protest in Toronto, Canada, against Israel’s invasion of Gaza, 28 October 2023. (Nadtochiy/Shutterstock)

The Bagmusa Dalit cobbler community in Sonargaon, Bangladesh. (Photo: The Advocacy Project, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed)

The Bagmusa Dalit cobbler community in Sonargaon, Bangladesh. (Photo: The Advocacy Project, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed)

Children of the Bagmusa Dalit cobbler community at school in Sonargaon, Bangladesh. (Photo: The Advocacy Project, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed)

Children of the Bagmusa Dalit cobbler community at school in Sonargaon, Bangladesh. (Photo: The Advocacy Project, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed)