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Freedom under siege as tyranny flourishes – report

11 March 20210 comments

Freedom is under siege across the globe with fewer than twenty per cent of the world’s people living in ‘fully free’ countries, according to the Washington-based think tank Freedom House.

In its latest annual ‘Freedom in the World’ report, which tracks global trends in political rights and civil liberties, the US’ freedom rating has dipped, India  has seen its status change from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’.

The report said that as the COVID pandemic and violent conflict raged across the globe, democracy suffered significant losses to authoritarian movements.

It said “democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favour of tyranny”.

The report said many world leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, while activists, lacking effective international support, faced heavy jail sentences, torture, or murder in many settings.

The report, titled ‘Democracy Under Siege’ marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedoms.

And countries experiencing deterioration of freedoms outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.

“The impact of the long-term democratic decline has become increasingly global in nature, broad enough to be felt by those living under the cruellest dictatorships, as well as by citizens of long-standing democracies,” the report said.

It said almost 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year and the ongoing decline has sparked claims, especially from Chinese and Russian commentators that democracy is inherently inferiority.

The report said these countries were seeking to strengthen their international influence while escaping accountability for abuses, while antidemocratic actors within democratic states who saw an opportunity to consolidate power.

“They are both cheering the breakdown of democracy and exacerbating it, pitting themselves against the brave groups and individuals who have set out to reverse the damage,” the report said.

“The malign influence of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship, was especially profound in 2020. Beijing ramped up its global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days,” it said.

“Its efforts also featured increased meddling in the domestic political discourse of foreign democracies, transnational extensions of rights abuses common in mainland China, and the demolition of Hong Kong’s liberties and legal autonomy.

“Meanwhile, the Chinese regime has gained clout in multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council, which the United States abandoned in 2018, as Beijing pushed a vision of so-called non-interference that allows abuses of democratic principles and human rights standards to go unpunished while the formation of autocratic alliances is promoted,” the report said.

As COVID-19 spread during the year, governments across the democratic spectrum repeatedly resorted to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedoms like movement and assembly, and arbitrary or violent enforcement of such restrictions by police and non-state actors, the report argues.

“Waves of false and misleading information, generated deliberately by political leaders in some cases, flooded many countries’ communication systems, obscuring reliable data and jeopardizing lives,” it said.

“While most countries with stronger democratic institutions ensured that any restrictions on liberty were necessary and proportionate to the threat posed by the virus, a number of their peers pursued clumsy or ill-informed strategies, and dictators from Venezuela to Cambodia exploited the crisis to quash opposition and fortify their power,” the report said.

India, the world’s most populous democracy, dropped from Free to Partly Free status as the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi continued to crack down on critics and overseeing a “ham-fisted” lockdown in response to COVID-19, the report aid.

It said this led to the dangerous and unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers.

“The ruling Hindu nationalist movement also encouraged the scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilante mobs,” the report said.

“Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism,” it said.

The report also highlighted the “parlous state” of US democracy, noting the assault on the US Capitol building.

“In the early days of 2021 as an insurrectionist mob, egged on by the words of outgoing president Donald Trump and his refusal to admit defeat in the November election, stormed the Capitol building temporarily disrupted Congress’s final certification of the vote,” the report said.

“This capped a year in which the administration attempted to undermine accountability for malfeasance, including by dismissing inspectors general responsible for rooting out financial and other misconduct in government; amplified false allegations of electoral fraud that fed mistrust among much of the US population; and condoned disproportionate violence by police in response to massive protests calling for an end to systemic racial injustice,” it said.

“But the outburst of political violence at the symbolic heart of US democracy, incited by the president himself, threw the country into even greater crisis.

“Notwithstanding the inauguration of a new president in keeping with the law and the constitution, the United States will need to work vigorously to strengthen its institutional safeguards, restore its civic norms, and uphold the promise of its core principles for all segments of society if it is to protect its venerable democracy and regain global credibility,” the report said.

It said the widespread protest movements of 2019, which held hope for better governance across the globe, saw increased repression in 2020.

“While successful protests in countries such as Chile and Sudan led to democratic improvements, there were many more examples in which demonstrators succumbed to crackdowns, with oppressive regimes benefiting from a distracted and divided international community,” the report said.

“Nearly two dozen countries and territories that experienced major protests in 2019 suffered a net decline in freedom the following year,” it said.

Although countries with higher levels of freedom have been in retreat for several years, in 2020 it was struggling democracies and authoritarian states that accounted for most of the global decline.

The proportion of Not Free countries was the highest it has been in the past 15 years. On average, the scores of these countries have declined by about 15 per cent during the same period. At the same time, the number of countries worldwide earning a net score improvement for 2020 was the lowest since 2005.

The report said this suggests that the prospects for a change in the global downward trend are more challenging than ever.

Read the full report here: