The report by the Freedom House on the state of democracy in the world has been published. It states that “democracy in the United States has weakened significantly”. There is also an article on the emergence of ‘hybrid regimes’ in places such as Serbia and Addis Ababa. China is also a prominent concern in this report. In fact, it says that “China is exporting its approach to internet censorship and surveillance”.
U.S. democracy has “weakened significantly”
The annual Freedom in the World report released by Washington, DC-based Freedom House this week is a grim reminder of the decline in global democracy. According to the report, the United States is among the nations that has suffered a downturn in its democratic systems.
For the past thirteen years, the Freedom House has tracked a downward trend in political rights in 68 countries around the world. This year, the United States ranked on par with Greece and Mongolia.
The report also pointed to a rise in authoritarian regimes. In particular, Freedom House said it was “frightening” that the United States has fallen so far behind nations such as Hungary, China, and Venezuela. It cited recent attacks on journalists, academia, and other democratic norms.
In addition, a growing polarization has led to gridlock in the U.S. Senate, a decline in political rights, and an increased influence of special interests in the political process.
As a result, the United States continues to suffer a large personal liberty deficit compared with rich, democratic nations. The report points to three issues driving the long-term decline: the deterioration of public trust in political institutions, the rising prevalence of authoritarian leaders, and the ongoing deterioration of American democracy.
The report noted that the United States lags behind other nations in a variety of areas, including a bias towards criminal justice, harassment of minority religions, and gender identity. But, it also pointed to an improvement in Armenia, where Nikol Pashinyan was elected reform-minded prime minister.
Other threats to US democracy include an attack on immigration, a move to change the country’s electoral system, and an effort to weaken term limits on political leaders. All of these changes have the potential to undermine the US’s ability to promote a free and fair election.
The organization’s report also notes that the US is on a path towards authoritarianism, and that this will be accelerated by ongoing deterioration of American democracy.
Overall, the report indicates that the future of the United States depends on whether or not it strays toward the path of true democracy. That will depend in part on the next election.
Serbia has ‘hybrid regimes’
A report by Freedom House classifies Serbia as a hybrid regime. It is part of a group of countries in the Western Balkans that are considered transitional or hybrid regimes. The report cites pressures on journalists and judicial independence in Serbia last year.
Serbia’s political and media scene is characterized by polarization and propaganda. While there are some legitimate outlets, the government and its supporters dominate the news landscape. In particular, Sputnik, a Russian state-funded news website, broadcasts media reports without context for years.
Media polarization can be measured in style, language, and degree of aggression. In the case of Serbia, the polarization is also shown in the proportion of people who trust the news and those who don’t. Some media outlets don’t follow the Code of Journalists of Serbia, which requires fact-based reporting and high standards of professional ethics.
Corruption scandals undermine the integrity of democratic institutions. Moreover, the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, has described the EU’s insistence on strong democratic institutions as a “jihad of the rule of law.”
Despite its democratic record, Serbia has fallen in the ranks of the Nations in Transit region, which includes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Albania. Serbia’s score dropped to 3.79 from 3.80 last year and was downgraded to a hybrid regime.
Recent illiberal politics control the electoral processes and the media sphere. For instance, explicit photos of torture have been shown in press conferences of President Aleksandar Vucic. This is seen as a way to shock the public.
Government-organized nongovernmental organizations have openly supported the regime. They disseminate misinformation and win public projects and bids. Their public relations departments send manipulative reports daily.
The European Commission recently announced that it has decided to open a new cluster in the Serbian part of its accession negotiations. These moves will help the EU to further strengthen its position in the country. But the EU must ensure that Serbia maintains its commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
The European Union has called on Serbia to engage in a serious societal dialogue and implement its assessment.
China is exporting its approach to internet censorship and surveillance
In the last year, China was the worst abuser of internet freedom. A number of countries around the world are embracing a similar approach to internet censorship and surveillance, according to Freedom House.
More and more governments are turning to Beijing for advice and support. Chinese firms have provided data-analytics tools and telecommunications hardware to poorer countries, and facial recognition technology is being used to monitor local populations. But as a new round of censorship and surveillance concerns mount, democracies need to take a stand against Chinese-style censorship.
There are many options for defending Internet freedom. Democracies can limit the export of surveillance equipment and tools, tighten import controls, and impose sanctions on tech companies. They can also defend their own companies against Chinese demands. The US government has proposed the Global Online Freedom Act, which would direct the Secretary of State to designate countries that restrict Internet freedom as “internet-restricting countries.”
Some nations are taking steps to prevent the emergence of digital authoritarianism. For instance, Egypt has rewritten its restrictive media laws to apply to social media users. Malaysians voted for a new prime minister who promised to rescind the country’s fake news law.
Using fake news as a pretext, authoritarians have tried to consolidate their control over information. In addition, prosecutors and security agencies have abused legal procedures and abused state secrets legislation to target critics.
Rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach, restrictions on online content should consider international human rights standards. They should also include robust oversight and include consultations with civil society. However, it is important to be careful to ensure that any evidence of bilateral collaboration between the two countries does not lead to violations of human rights.
Companies that provide ICT services should be based in the country, and they should be subject to local monitoring by civil society groups. This could include a ban on foreign companies that work with governments with a low record of human rights.
As more countries move toward a model of extensive censorship and surveillance, the private sector should be proactive in developing tools that are accessible to their users. If a company fails to do so, it may face serious consequences.
Addis Ababa has ‘hybrid regimes’
According to Freedom House, Ethiopia has a hybrid regime, one that combines a liberal democracy with authoritarian tendencies. As such, Ethiopia’s judicial system and political institutions rarely deviate from government policy. The Prosperity Party, which is ruling the country, has partially reverted to an authoritarian model.
After the inauguration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, the Prosperity Party maintained its dominant position over the opposition. However, the party had to contend with the emergence of new challenges. Those challenges included political violence, as well as an insurgency in the Tigray region. In August, the Ethiopian parliament approved a law that weakened restrictions on political groups.
Following the assassination of Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa, a wave of arrests occurred in the capital. High-profile political leaders and activists were detained. While some political groups were allowed to register as candidates, others were denied the right to run. This led to hundreds of civilian deaths.
Human rights organizations began reporting atrocity crimes in the Tigray region. The government has charged members of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, under the Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism Crimes Proclamation of 2020.
While the government has imposed restrictions on non-governmental organizations, local advocacy groups have returned to the country. They have been able to voice their criticisms through various media outlets, including social media. Some of the groups are supported by international NGOs.
In May, the Ethiopian House of People’s Representatives designated the TPLF as a terrorist organization. This action left the government with a wide range of options for detaining opposition groups.
Since the end of the state of emergency, Ethiopian academics have been more vocal about the government. Academic conferences have been held at state universities to discuss controversial topics, and critics have been able to voice their views through various social media outlets.
Ethiopia’s judiciary, however, remains under political and informal pressure. Many routine civil cases take years to resolve. Furthermore, the domestic abuse laws are not enforced consistently. In addition, the financial sector is effectively under the control of state-owned banks, which have limited private business opportunities.
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