Freedom at Issue:

Insights on the global struggle for democracy

By: Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, Guest Blogger

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those of the Arab Spring, tyrants are now maneuvering to bring users’ online and mobile activities under the shadow of outdated and arbitrary legal restrictions.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.

December 7 will mark the death of press freedom in Argentina, if the country’s largest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, is to be believed. That date is the deadline by which Clarín must divest many of its assets or see them forcibly auctioned off in accordance with a 2009 media law. As in much of Latin America, Argentine media are controlled by a relatively small collection of private owners, and the law aimed to open the media landscape to a greater diversity of voices by limiting the number of licenses a single company can hold. However, Grupo Clarín and free speech advocates have argued that the government-backed legislation violates property rights and threatens freedom of the press. Given the contentious relationship between Clarín and the government, the group insists it is being unfairly targeted for political reasons.

This year has been a busy one for democracy advocates in Romania. In June, after the courts confirmed a two-year prison sentence in the corruption case of former prime minister Adrian Năstase, the newly appointed government—led by his Social Democratic Party (PSD) protégé, Victor Ponta—launched an unprecedented onslaught against several democratic institutions. These attempts to dismantle checks and balances, which received harsh criticism from the European Union, culminated in an unsuccessful July impeachment referendum against current president and longtime Năstase rival Traian Băsescu.

At least eight journalists and three human rights defenders are serving their terms in the prisons of Azerbaijan, according to a recent Human Rights Watch briefing. That should tell you a lot about the country’s crucially limited freedom of expression.

Elections have traditionally been interpreted as fair and competitive just as long as they were free of blatant fraud on election day. Modern authoritarians took note. Increasingly, they have developed strategies that aim to fix the outcome of political contests weeks, months, or even years before the ballots are cast. Their goal is to win elections while avoiding the brazen acts of vote rigging that inevitably trigger international opprobrium.

As China's Communist Party leaders prepare meet in Beijing for the monumental 18th Party Congress, the regime's army of domestic security forces has been busy trying to silence dissidents and preempt protests, online and offline.
 

On October 25, the year-long process of reregistration of religious groups in Kazakhstan came to an end. In the fall of 2011, after a number of startling terrorist attacks rocked Kazakhstan’s carefully cultivated image of stability, the government passed a new law requiring all religious organizations in the country to submit new applications for official registration. Without registration, the activities of the groups would be illegal. Both “traditional” religions, like Russian Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam, and “minority” religions underwent the procedure, which included complex and ambiguous new membership requirements and “expert” vetting of religious texts. Under the new rules, the number of religious organizations in the country has dropped by over 30 percent, from 4,551 to 3,088. The number of confessions with at least one registered organization dropped even more dramatically, from 42 to 17.

Ten years ago, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored an overwhelming victory in elections for the Turkish parliament. Its triumph represented much more than a normal rotation of power between one traditional party and another. As a party—or, perhaps more accurately, a movement—with roots in moderate Islamism, the AKP stood poles apart from the secularist parties that had dominated Turkish politics for much of the previous century.

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