Freedom at Issue: Insights on the global struggle for democracy | Freedom House

Freedom at Issue:

Insights on the global struggle for democracy

Early this month, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the law governing the election of the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, was unconstitutional, further weakening the legitimacy of the legislature nearly a year after the more powerful lower house was dissolved by court order. Nevertheless, the administration of President Mohamed Morsi is pressing ahead with plans for the Shura Council to adopt controversial new legislation that would restrict the activities of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the country. The flaws of the old law were underscored on June 4, when a criminal court convicted dozens of foreign and Egyptian CSO activists on trumped-up charges and permanently closed their organizations. But the latest draft of the new bill offers little hope that conditions for civil society would improve if it were enacted.

During a recent visit to the Netherlands, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that “sexual minority rights are not violated in Russia,” using the term sexual minorities to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Putin’s words contradict his own actions and the policies of his administration. The Russian government encourages violent attacks on LGBT people, enforces a nearly universal de facto ban on efforts by LGBT activists to hold events in public spaces, and restricts the basic rights of LGBT people and their advocates by outlawing the so-called propaganda of homosexuality and “nontraditional sexual relations.”

Government backlash against social media is becoming more common worldwide. In their efforts to control the new platforms, despotic leaders—in the Arab states to Turkey’s south especially—have tried throwing users behind bars, legislating what can be said online, and even arguing that social media should be banned on religious grounds.

Almost as troubling as the recent revelations about the U.S. government’s sweeping collection and analysis of the personal information of law-abiding internet and phone users are the inadequate “just trust us” response to the outrage and the administration’s lack of decisive action to regain the faith of a tense American public and wary netizens abroad.

The public has been told that the Obama administration is avoiding new entanglements in the Middle East as part of its “Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy,” better known as the Asia Pivot. This relative neglect of the Arab world at a decisive moment in its history has already exacted a terrible price, with popular calls for democratic political reform increasingly squelched by tear gas, torture, and air strikes, and warped by desperation and cynical sectarian demagoguery. A new U.S. push for democracy and human rights in China might help offset the moral and strategic damage elsewhere, but there was no evidence of such an effort in the recent meeting between the U.S. and Chinese presidents in California.

Dennis Blair is a former U.S. director of national intelligence and a Freedom House board member. The views expressed in this post are his own.
There has been a great deal of concerned commentary in the media about American intelligence agencies gathering information on Americans. As a former director of national intelligence, I was directly involved in these issues, and can state unequivocally that the only conditions under which the national intelligence agencies gather any information about Americans—their phone calls, the records of phone calls they make (called “meta data”), their e-mails, the records of the e-mails they have written, their tweets, Facebook postings, or any other form of electronic communication—is when the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) has given permission, based on a reasonable suspicion that the American is involved in terrorist activity.

Authoritarian regimes around the world are banding together to bypass international institutions and human rights norms that conflict with their abusive practices. Unlike the alliances of the Cold War era, these partnerships have few ideological underpinnings other than a shared rejection of democracy and the rule of law. But such cooperation has offered aid and solidarity to dictators under pressure, and created a marketplace through which repressive regimes can meet their technology, security, and energy needs without the headaches of transparency and accountability. And if the seven-year decline in global freedom recorded by Freedom House is any indication, authoritarianism is, sadly, a growth industry.

In the weeks since the Boston Marathon bombing, a number of Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have made pointed comments on America’s indirect encounter with the ongoing conflict between the Russian government and Islamist insurgents in the North Caucasus region. The message can be summarized in two phrases: “We told you so” and “We’re all in the same boat now.”

In the half decade since the beginning of the economic crisis, global press freedom has declined, and the EU has been no exception to this trend. Reporting on a new survey on press freedom, Jennifer Dunham and Zselyke Csaky find that Greece and Hungary have experienced large declines in press freedom in recent years, with Lithuania, Latvia and Spain also seeing falls. They write that the economic crisis has exacerbated deep-rooted problems across Europe’s media environments leading to a decline in print media circulation and diversity, as well as a greater concentration of media ownership.

This week’s announcement that the Guardian Council had disqualified Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as a candidate in the June 14 presidential election is an especially pointed reminder of the unique and uniquely preposterous election system devised by the Islamic Republic’s leaders to ensure their hold on power.