The findings for Freedom in the World 2013, which were released this week, reflect a complex picture for the state of global freedom. On one hand, the number of countries ranked in the Free category increased to 90, an impressive share of the world’s 195 sovereign states. At the same time, more countries, 27, suffered significant setbacks in their freedom indicators than showed notable gains, 16, marking the seventh consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements.
On January 2, Ecuador’s National Assembly approved President Rafael Correa’s request to take a 30-day leave of absence during the campaign for the February 17 general elections. The law allows for a maximum of 30 days of unpaid leave for a candidate running for immediate reelection. Correa’s leave will be effective from January 15—11 days after the beginning of the electoral campaign—until February 14. The president stated that he had requested the leave to ensure that government business is unaffected by his campaigning, and also as “a courtesy.”
One year ago, U.S. lawmakers discovered what happens when you mess with the internet, as Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and millions of ordinary users helped “black out” the net on January 18 to protest SOPA and PIPA—two controversial pieces of legislation that were designed to fight online piracy, but threatened instead to censor the internet and disrupt the way it functions. Since that day, there has been a rise in new laws around the world that restrict free speech online and prompt arrests of internet users, a key trend identified in Freedom House’s 2012 Freedom on the Netreport.
This past week marks the first anniversary of an unprecedented assault on civil society in the history of Egypt. The Egyptian authorities raided 11 offices of human rights and democracy NGOs, including Freedom House’s Office in Cairo. The raid came after several months of an aggressive smear campaign in the Egyptian media against foreign funded NGOs. The campaign particularly targeted local and international human rights defenders, defaming their activities, casting doubts on their intentions and accusing them of being a threat to national security.
As 2012 winds down, it is time again to reflect on the year’s human rights developments. Unfortunately, the bad seemed to outweigh the good this year, as many authoritarians held on to power and continued upheaval in the Middle East threatened to derail any democratic progress.
On December 16, 2011, police in riot gear accompanied by plainclothes officers swept into the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen to put down a protest by striking oil workers that had turned to rioting. At least a dozen protesters were shot dead. Dozens more were wounded. One protester was killed by police in a nearby town, and another died after being tortured in the investigation that followed. In the aftermath, it was clear that the incident would test Kazakhstan’s commitment to impartial justice and free speech. Unfortunately, the government’s response has been a classic authoritarian crackdown.
Last month, North Korea claimed preposterously to have discovered a “unicorn lair” in an ancient burial site. This month, there are deadly-serious reports of a successful missile launch. And so the world lurches again from laughing at North Korea’s curious totalitarian theme park and wacky dictator, to wondering with concern whether this leader, like the capricious child with superhuman powers in the science-fiction story “It’s a Good Life,” will destroy the world.
Before autocratic regimes fully grasped the democratic nature of the internet, netizens basked in the sunshine of global intercommunication. But in a backlash against digitally driven uprisings, such as those of the Arab Spring, tyrants are now maneuvering to bring users’ online and mobile activities under the shadow of outdated and arbitrary legal restrictions. One sign of this crackdown is the alarming number of digital activists behind bars around the world.
This week and next, 193 governments are gathering in Dubai to consider putting the internet under a new regulatory structure that could fundamentally change the way the web works, with dire consequences for global internet freedom.