In an op-ed published in the New York Times last April, we took a cautiously optimistic view on the possibility of a breakthrough for media freedom in post-Mubarak Egypt. We argued that if state-controlled media, especially television, underwent serious reform, it would tip the balance toward an open information landscape, particularly when combined with the revolution in online social media in the country.
Now, one year since the January 25, 2011, onset of the uprising in Egypt, we are far more cautious than optimistic.
As we mark the first anniversary of the events that led to the Arab Spring, it is worth highlighting the uprisings’ far-reaching repercussions for freedom, both in the region and beyond. Freedom in the World, the report on global freedom issued annually by Freedom House, found more declines than gains worldwide for 2011, but we believe that the overarching message for the year is one of hope and not reversal.
During her 2009 visit to Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the arrest and punishment of militiamen responsible for the widespread sexual violence and broader human rights violations that have devastated the eastern Congo for more than a decade. She described the situation as “one of mankind’s greatest atrocities.” But since flawed November 2011 elections led to renewed violence in other parts of the country, she has failed to defend human rights—and political rights—in the DRC with the same conviction.
On December 28, with little fanfare, Russia’s foreign ministry released a 90-page human rights report on the United States, Canada, and assorted European countries. There is no accompanying introduction, preface, or methodology for this rather slapdash document, entitled On the Human Rights Situation in a Number of the World’s States, but the selection of countries and their respective treatment makes it fairly clear that the report is meant to be a stick in the eye of the Kremlin’s perceived enemies, rather than any genuine attempt to promote human rights around the world.
A months-long campaign against civil-society groups by Egypt’s military leadership came to a head Thursday when Egyptian security forces raided the Cairo offices of Freedom House and several other international and local nongovernmental organizations. These attacks were a major setback to the hopes that emerged this year with the revolution in Tahrir Square. If corrective measures are not taken, the attacks will severely damage Egypt’s long-term stability and prospects for a more democratic future.
As the waters of Thailand’s monsoon-swollen rivers are finally receding and this year’s unusually devastating floods are declared over across the country, the political landscape is still reeling from the disaster. The months-long crisis and the official response raised a number of questions about the weak points in Thai government institutions. Many reports have assigned blame to individuals or focused on structural factors like corruption and overdevelopment, but the most important issue highlighted by the floods may be the unresolved status of the armed forces. The ambiguity of the military’s constitutional role has enabled its long-standing entanglement in all aspects of political life, including at least 20 coups d’état in the last century.
International attention has turned to Eurasia in recent days, as Kazakhstan uses deadly violence and draconian information controls to crush widening labor unrest in its strategic oil region, and Russia faces the most serious popular challenge to its puppet-theater political system in many years. But long before the current shocks, when things were looking more placid in both countries, there was abundant evidence of trouble to come. Six months ago, Freedom House published a report that pointed to the glaring vulnerabilities of dead-end authoritarian regimes across the former Soviet Union. It noted that these entrenched authoritarian systems exhibited many of the same features that led to the collapse of their Middle Eastern counterparts in the Arab Spring.
There is never a dull moment for the media sphere in China, home to the most elaborate censorship apparatus in the world. Drawing on nearly 40 issues of the China Media Bulletin, Freedom House staff have identified the following as the year’s worst and weirdest developments surrounding press and internet freedom in China.
At the end of November, a Kenyan High Court judge ruled that Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir should be arrested “should he ever set foot in Kenya.” The decision is a welcome sign that Kenya’s judiciary is emerging from its long subservience to the country’s powerful and often unaccountable executive branch, and that international law might soon be catching up with more alleged war criminals.