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

Freedom at Issue:

Insights on the global struggle for democracy

On June 17, two policemen came to the home of 71-year-old Hasan Choriev in Qarshi, Uzbekistan. They asked him to come to the prosecutor’s office for a “conversation.” No one has seen him since.

Now that Muhammad Morsi has become the third executive authority to be replaced in Egypt since early 2011, many residents are optimistic about the future of the country, even as they fear the potential for renewed bouts of political violence.

U.S. president Barack Obama’s current visit to South Africa, the second stop in his three-nation tour of Africa, presents an opportunity to examine the state of the country’s democracy. Former president Nelson Mandela is rightly praised for overseeing a smooth transition from apartheid in the early 1990s, and South Africa remains the anchor of an African subregion that is dominated by Free societies, according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report. However, the country’s scores have been slowly deteriorating for several years, and it has yet to achieve a rotation of power among competing parties—an important step in the maturation of democratic governance. These are signs that South Africa, which is often cited as a model for other African states, should not take its freedoms for granted.


The transition from the 20th to the 21st century marked a pivotal moment in the Western Balkans. By the end of 2000, the three leaders—Franjo Tuđman of Croatia, Alija Izetbegović of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Slobodan Milošević of Serbia—who had presided over the most destructive crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War were no longer on the political scene. Moreover, the electoral success of democratic coalitions in Croatia and Serbia, the progress toward democratic standards recognized in Albanian local elections, and electoral reforms introduced in BiH all aroused a sense of optimism for democratization in the region. Thirteen years later, where do these countries stand on the path toward democracy? Has their performance fulfilled expectations?

“Democratizing the media” is a common refrain in Latin America these days. It can be heard in weekly presidential “cadenas” and verbose diatribes during the biannual hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). While the phrase may suggest a process that would lift restrictions on media and increase citizen access, it has been invoked to support policies that do the opposite, becoming a favorite slogan of the region’s least democratic leaders, chief among them Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa.

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.