One of the most important stories of the past three decades has been the expansion of freedom from its European and North American core to parts of the world long considered inhospitable to freedom of expression, minority rights and the autonomy of the individual. That trend appears now to have stalled.
According to Freedom in the World, the index of global political rights and civil liberties issued annually by Freedom House, 42 countries could be regarded as free in 1976. By contrast, the number of free countries today stands at 90, a number that includes countries recently under the sway of communist totalitarianism, absolute monarchs and states where military rulers seemed invulnerable.
From the end of Western Europe’s last dictatorships in Spain and Portugal in the mid-1970s, through the collapse of global communism, to breakthroughs in major states such as Indonesia and Ukraine, freedom has advanced dramatically in almost every region.
Despite these successes, a troubling trend is evident today. While freedom was on the march during the 1980s and much of the 1990s, it has failed to make headway during the past nine years when the proportion of countries designated as free by the index has remained flat.
What accounts for the current period of democracy stagnation?
One factor is an erosion of press freedom. In Russia, Mexico and the Philippines the murder of journalists has become almost routine. Greater, if subtler, long term threats lie in the smothering of free media by regime-directed economic pressure, the denial of licenses to privately-owned television stations, state takeovers and criminal slander charges against reporters who criticize the leadership.
By muzzling the press, authoritarian regimes also exacerbate a second serious threat to democracy: pervasive corruption. In democracies, the press is an essential instrument in the fight against graft; in authoritarian settings where the state and business often function as interlocking directorates, the press cannot perform this function.
A third problem is the absence of rule of law. In many fragile democracies this is reflected in judiciaries that are intimidated by the political leadership and/or are corrupt. Progress towards fair access to justice is critical to the consolidation of gains made by democratic elections.
Finally, there is a new and aggressive push-back against democracy by a growing number of regimes that target organizations, movements and media that advocate for democratic freedoms. While there is nothing new in the suppression of political dissenters by dictatorships and authoritarians, there are features of the current assault that differentiate the new phenomenon from past methods of repression.
First, the targets are often independent civic organizations, watchdog groups and the press, who are seen as threatening the ruling elites. Second, regimes are less likely to employ the techniques of extreme repression: military takeover, torture, crude violence in the night. Instead, governments use legalistic techniques to put voices of opposition out of business. The state’s power to license media is one instrument, as is the ability of tax police to harass independent NGOs. The goal is an environment in which opposition parties are powerless and other sources of democratic opposition are neutralized.
A number of regimes are engaged in the pushback: Zimbabwe, Iran, Egypt, Belarus, Uzbekistan. But three stand out as especially significant because of their zeal in domestic repression and their role in exporting the models and techniques of suppressing freedom: Russia, China and Venezuela. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has given critical support to neighbouring despots while practising raw intimidation against nearby democracies. China routinely undermines democratic reform and anti-corruption efforts in Africa through its aid and trade policies. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez brags of a policy of “infecting” regional countries with his anti-democratic Bolivarian socialism.
The fact that most countries today conduct honest elections and permit peaceful transfers of power is, in fact, a great stride forward. However, the loss of freedom’s momentum reminds us that there are entrenched interests opposed to establishing democratic accountability. Governments that tolerate rampant corruption, repress the press and fail to uphold the rule of law should be taken to task with the same sharp tone as are governments that rig elections.
Jennifer Windsor is executive director of Freedom House. Arch Puddington is director of research for the organization.
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