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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Liberty and democracy under assault

Democracy is in retreat around the globe, according to Freedom in the World 2018, the latest edition of the annual report on political rights and civil liberties, published by Freedom House.

The report finds that 2017 was the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with 71 countries sufferinv net declines in political rights and civil liberties, and only 35 registering gains. Once-promising states such as Turkey, Venezuela, Poland, and Tunisia were among those experiencing declines in democratic standards. The recent democratic opening in Burma/Myanmar was permanently damaged by a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya minority.

“Democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, President of Freedom House. “Democracy’s basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—are under siege around the world.”

Freedom in the World 2018 reports on how China and Russia have taken advantage of the retreat of leading democracies, increasing repression at home and exporting their malign influence to other countries. To maintain power, these autocratic regimes are acting beyond their borders to squelch open debate, pursue dissidents, and compromise rules-based institutions.

A major development of 2017 was the retreat of the United States of America as a champion and an exemplar of democracy. While Freedom House has tracked a slow decline in political rights and civil liberties in the USA for the past seven years, the decline accelerated in 2017, owing to growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, and a reduction in government transparency.

Although American institutions like the press and the judiciary have remained resilient, attacks upon them could ultimately leave them weakened, the report concludes, with serious implications for the health of US democracy and America’s place in the world. Meanwhile, the abdication of the traditional US role as the leading champion of democracy is of deep concern and potential consequence in the ongoing struggle against modern authoritarians and their pernicious ideas.

“The core institutions of American democracy are being battered by an administration that has treated the country’s traditional checks and balances with disdain,” Abramowitz said.

Authoritarian challenge

“The Trump administration has made a sharp break from the political consensus of the last 70 years by casting aside democracy as the animating force behind American foreign policy,” Abramowitz added. “The hastening withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to supporting democracy overseas makes the challenge posed by authoritarian regimes all the more powerful and threatening.”

In another significant development, Turkey moved from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broadened and intensified the crackdown on his perceived opponents that began after a failed 2016 coup attempt, with dire consequences for Turkish citizens.

Over the period since the 12-year slide began in 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline, and only 62 have experienced a net improvement.

KEY GLOBAL FINDINGS

•   Of the 195 countries assessed, 88 (45 percent) were rated “Free”, 58 (30 percent) “Partly Free”, and 49 (25 percent) “Not Free”.

•   The United States saw declines in its political rights due to:

–    Growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign and a lack of action by the Trump administration either to condemn or to prevent a reoccurrence of such meddling

–    Violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, including the President’s failure to divest himself of his business empire, his hiring of family members as senior advisers, and his appointment of cabinet members and other senior officials despite apparent conflicts of interest

–    A reduction in government transparency, including an unusual pattern of false statements by the administration, the President’s failure to disclose basic information such as his personal tax data, policy and other decisions made without meaningful input from relevant agencies and officials, and the removal of information on issues of public interest from government websites for political or ideological reasons

•   Corrupt and repressive states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea put global stability at risk by perpetuating long-running regional conflicts, fueling humanitarian crises, and in North Korea’s case, rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal.

•   Sharp democratic declines in Tunisia in 2017 threatened the only Free country in the Arab world and the sole success story from the 2011 Arab Spring.

•   The forced resignation under military pressure of elected president Robert Mugabe pushed Zimbabwe over the threshold from Partly Free to Not Free.

•   Myanmar’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2017 demonstrated the flawed nature of the country’s limited democratic opening, which had been welcomed by the international community since 2010.

Worst of the Worst:

•   Of the 49 countries designated as Not Free, the following 12 have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties, earning less than 10 points on a 100-point scale (beginning with the least free): Syria, South Sudan, Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Libya.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.