Countries which restricted free speech and assembly increased from 26% of countries in 2014 to 41% of countries in 2022.
The scope of restrictions on free speech and assembly have broadened to every aspect of life, from public gatherings to digital posts. The rolling back of rights since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan has silenced a generation, and in Tunisia, gatherings to oppose the dictatorship and commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring were met with violence and arrests. The rise of authoritarianism and military coups has restricted free speech and assembly in in Belarus, Burkino Faso, Myanmar and Sudan.
84% of countries in the Middle East and North Africa restricted free speech and assembly.Compared with 83% in 2021
Samira Nasser and Sabah Hassan, two members of the executive office of the General Federation of Iraq Trade Unions (GFITU) and employed in public sector companies, were accused of defamation for Facebook posts and were subsequently referred for administrative investigation on “malicious charges”. Both were demoted and transferred to other public companies. Samira Nasser, who worked as an agricultural engineer in a dairy factory, was transferred to the hydraulic industries company. GFITU organised a solidarity campaign and managed to have the transfer reversed after more than two months.
On 14 January 2022, which corresponds to the tenth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, dozens of thousands of Tunisians opposed to the dictatorship took to the streets but were unable to demonstrate, as thousands of police blocked access to Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the capital's main avenue, and used water cannons, truncheons, tear gas and arrests – with physical violence – against the protesters. Some of the protesters arrested were released the same day while others were to be referred to the courts.
61% of countries in Asia-Pacific restricted free speech and assembly.No change from 2021
On 27 May 2021 the government of Sri Lanka issued a decree making it almost impossible for 12,000 village government officers to strike, and it stripped hundreds of thousands of other public sector workers of their basic rights. The decree was a response to a threatened strike by the government officers who were demanding COVID-19 vaccinations. The decree claimed that the government services and departments under the strike ban were “essential” in the “face of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The union representing village workers had to immediately call off the impending industrial action.
The Fijian police denied the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) a permit to march and hold a rally in Suva on 1st May 2021. No reason was given in writing, but the FTUC was told verbally that there was concern about the COVID-19 pandemic. No restrictions were being applied to other gatherings, such as sports and recreational activities, however.
This was the sixth year in a row that a permit to march was denied to the FTUC. Despite the government’s repeated assurances to the ILO and the UN Human Rights Council of its full respect for workers’ and human rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, it seemingly had no intention of honouring its commitments.
Bangladeshi police repeatedly banned union meetings and then physically stopped participants from joining a meeting where a regional committee of the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC) was to be formed.
The IBC is the coordinating body of Bangladeshi affiliates of the global union IndustriALL. On 24 September 2021, a meeting was planned to take place in the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) office in Chattogram to form a regional committee. However, a phone call from the police to IBC’s senior vice president, Salauddin Shapon, put a stop to that.
Another meeting was planned in a different area the following day. But again, the police contacted the vice president to say the meeting could not take place there either.
In a third attempt, the IBC decided to hold the meeting at the office of another affiliate, the Bangladesh Textile & Garment Workers League (BTGWL). When IBC leaders arrived, police officers, including some in plain clothes, blocked the gate and did not allow anyone to enter.
Since August 2021 when they took power in Afghanistan, the Taliban have severely restricted the rights to peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression. In Herat, Taliban fighters lashed protesters and fired weapons indiscriminately to disperse the crowd, killing two men and wounding at least eight more. The Taliban subsequently banned protests that did not have prior approval from the Justice Ministry in Kabul.
45% of countries in Africa restricted free speech and assembly.Compared with 50% in 2021
On 1 May 2021, May Day celebrations by the Chitungwiza District branch of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) were prevented from going ahead by the police, who came to the venue, harassed workers, denied them entrance to the hall and threatened to arrest them.
The ZCTU regional official present demanded that the police provide a written explanation for banning the event, which the senior police officer in charge refused to do.
ZCTU has experienced many such situations for a long time. People sent from the president’s office or the police themselves interrupt ZCTU activities, harass and disperse workers or they demand to see programmes or to sit in on the meetings.
On 20 October 2021, public sector employees who went to deliver a petition to the Public Service Ministry were met with what they described as an “unprecedented show of force”. The petition called for a salary review for 2021, an end to casualisation of the public service, stopping the privatisation of the public service and stopping trade union bashing.
The national commissioner of police banned the march, citing “national security” and “public safety and order”. When workers gathered to march and to hand over the petition, having followed all necessary protocol, the police dispersed workers using tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Two buses carrying public service workers, including members of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) and the Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union (SDNU), were stopped by the police, and tear gas was fired at them. The doors of the bus were closed. As workers tried to leave, they were shot at. Eventually the back windows were broken, and workers managed to escape. A total of 36 were reportedly injured, and a young bystander was killed. Other reports said that at least 80 people were injured in the violence in the Eswatini capital, Mbabane, and the city of Manzini.
In December 2021, the Municipal Council of Mbabane, Eswatini, denied public sector associations (PSAs), which include the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), permission to march across the city to deliver a petition to the Ministry of Public Service.
The letter from the municipality referred to a directive received from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development to “indefinitely suspend the issuance of permits for all processions within urban areas”, dated 21st October 2021.
Pro-democracy protests in Eswatini have been ongoing since May 2021, with trade unions and other civil society groups calling for democratic elections and an end to absolute monarchy in the country, which bans political parties from participating in elections. Throughout these protests, it is estimated that 72 protestors have been killed by police and government forces. Hundreds have been injured, while some remain missing. Some activists have gone into hiding and others have fled into exile. In a statement on 18 October 2021, Eswatini’s commerce minister, Mancoba Khumalo, stated that workers risked losing their jobs if they participated in the pro-democracy protests against King Mswati.
After the coup in January 2022, trade unions in Burkina Faso attempted to organise a rally. They were prevented from doing so by the military junta. Since then, unions have been unable to organise collective actions.
24% of countries in the Americas restricted free speech and assembly.Compared with 20% in 2021
Throughout 2021, health sector workers held multiple protests against the enactment of the Health Emergency Law passed on 4 February 2021, which prohibits strikes and protests by health sector workers. This law was passed without having been agreed by the workers. Trade union organisations have demanded guarantees that they can carry out their work in decent working conditions and that freedom of association will be allowed; however, their demands have not been heeded.
15% of countries in Europe restricted free speech and assembly.Compared with 22% in 2021
On May Day 2021, 212 demonstrators were detained in Istanbul, Turkey, for attempting to hold a protest in defiance of the government’s strict coronavirus lockdown rules. In the lead-up to the historic day, police closed all roads leading in to Taksim Square, the site where 34 people were killed in a 1977 May Day protest. Due to security concerns, a ban on May Day demonstrations in Taksim Square has been in effect for several years.
When the Kazakh people started organising peaceful protests for democracy and social justice in January 2022, the police and armed forces responded with extreme brutality, killing more than 160 people and arresting more than 8,000 people.
On 18 May 2021, the Bobruisk District and City Court convicted the chair of the workplace union at the JSC “Belshina” (tyre works), Sergei Gurlo. Gurlo was found guilty of violation of Article 369 of the criminal code for “insulting a law enforcement officer on social media”, which he allegedly did in 2020. Sergei was sentenced to 18 months of restriction of freedom in a clear attempt to restrict the right to expression of a trade union leader. The case was tried in closed hearing, and Sergei was forced to sign a non-disclosure document concerning the criminal case materials.
On 8 June 2021, President Alexander Lukashenko signed new legislation that punishes those accused of participating in unauthorised demonstrations with imprisonment of up to three years. Those who are found to have participated in or promoted "extremist activity" would face up to six years in jail. The definition of “extremist activity” was not clearly defined in the new legislation, and fear arose that the new provisions would be used to suppress any dissent. This new law follows laws enacted on 24 May 2021 making it compulsory to obtain a permit from the authorities to organise mass events and prohibiting journalists from reporting live from such events.