In an exclusive interview with Al-Jazeera, Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, discusses the challenges and the future of the right to freedom of expression, and why what she does as part of her mandate matters.

The biggest threat to freedom of expression today is the backsliding of democracies, says Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. She believes that elections in India, the United States and Mexico this year will be crucial to determine how the right to freedom of expression will fare in those countries and the rest of the world.

She shares her concerns about the repressive environment in authoritarian regimes including in Bangladesh, where journalists are locked up and left to die in prison. The vilification of Professor Muhammad Yunus and what some people have called personal vendetta of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, sends a message to the people of the consequences for speaking out, she says. 

In the Philippines the acquittal of tax evasion charges against journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa shows the importance of journalists and media freedom, that hounding her will not take the government anywhere, and that upholding the rule of law and human rights are critical for democracy. She speaks about the distressing circumstances for the Russian opposition political leader Alexei Navalny in the Arctic prison and her efforts to seek answers from the Russian government.

In Gaza, journalists are paying a heavy price for doing their jobs. “Killing journalists is the fastest, most obvious, crudest way of censoring speech and killing speech,” she says. Ms. Khan called on the prosecutor of the international criminal court to pay particular attention to the plight of journalists. The UN expert called the situation in Gaza “a genocide in the making”. She calls out the hypocrisy of states that champion human rights for being silent and standing on the sidelines while Gazans are being obliterated.

Despite the repressive environments, inequalities and gender disparity in the right to freedom of expression and access to information and digital technology, Ms. Khan believes that the internet has created enormous opportunities and she is hopeful about the future.