Democracies in retreat…

Last year Freedom House, the much respected freedom watchdog issued one of its most compelling reports:  Democracy in Crisis. The global report warned that democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades.

So what was its call to arms this year?  Democracy in Retreat.

Last year it  said that guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law were  among  democratic freedoms under attack. It added that 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. ‘This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom’

What’s changed in a year? Not a lot, though New Zealand can  stand proud. We are among the  top bracket of countries with  high scores in a range of measures used to assess democratic rights.   The Freedom House  findings  show that  while democracies may be in trouble,  the uprisings in Hongkong and Russia –  indicate that people are also  in revolt.   Its analysis  digs deep and reveals some of the  factors  contributing to democracy’s decline.

‘….so far it has been anti-liberal populist movements of the far right—those that emphasize national sovereignty, are hostile to immigration, and reject constitutional checks on the will of the majority—that have been most effective at seizing the open political space.’

‘In countries from Italy to Sweden, anti-liberal politicians have shifted the terms of debate and won elections by promoting an exclusionary national identity as a means for frustrated majorities to gird themselves against a changing global and domestic order. By building alliances with or outright capturing mainstream parties on the right, anti-liberals have been able to launch attacks on the institutions designed to protect minorities against abuses and prevent monopolization of power’.

‘These movements damage democracies internally through their dismissive attitude toward core civil and political rights, and they weaken the cause of democracy around the world with their unilateralist reflexes. For example, anti-liberal leaders’ attacks on the media have contributed to increasing polarization of the press, including political control over state broadcasters, and to growing physical threats against journalists in their countries.

‘At the same time, such attacks have provided cover for authoritarian leaders abroad, who now commonly cry “fake news” when squelching critical coverage’

Key points in the  2019 Freedom House global report:

  • The United States remained firmly in the ‘Free’ category but ranked behind other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

  • By contrast, freedom of assembly improved, with an upsurge in civic action and no repetition of the previous year’s protest-related violence.

  • Ethnic cleansing is a growing trend, observed in 11 countries in 2018, compared to 3 countries in 2005.

  • A growing number of governments—24 in recent years—reached beyond their borders to target expatriates, exiles, and diasporas with physical surveillance, kidnapping, and even assassination. Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey put a spotlight on authoritarian regimes’ uninhibited cross-border pursuit of their perceived enemies.

  • In a positive development, 2018 saw more countries with large improvements (more than 5 points) than in 2017. Politicians unexpectedly responded or were forced to respond to public demands for democratic change, serving as a reminder that people continue to strive for freedom, accountability, and dignity, even in countries where the odds of success seem insurmountable.

Recommendations  are    aimed at strengthening and protecting core values in established democracies include:

  • Respecting human rights at home, including by

welcoming fact-based reporting, enforcing anticorruption

laws, encouraging citizens’ participation in

elections, and ensuring that all migrants, refugees,

and asylum seekers receive fair and proper treatment

under the law.

  • Investing in civic education. In the United States, new

legislation or funding opportunities can encourage

states to develop civic education curricula that

emphasizes fundamental tenets of democracy.

  • Strengthening measures that guard against foreign

influence over government officials. Greater transparency

requirements for officials’ personal finances

and campaign donations, and the establishment

of a code of conduct for engagement with foreign

officials, can help insulate governments from foreign

attempts to subvert democratic institutions.

  • Investing in election infrastructure to guard against

foreign interference in balloting. In the United

States, funding should focus on replacing outdated

voting machines, strengthening cybersecurity for

existing systems, and improving the technological

expertise of state elections staff.

  • Require social media companies to report foreign

efforts to spread online disinformation and propaganda.


  • Confronting abuses of international institutions such

as efforts by illiberal leaders to manipulate Interpol,

the UN Human Rights Council, and other international

institutions for their own ends.


  • Encouraging the protection of journalists and freedom

of the press by pushing back against anti-media

rhetoric that aims to strip journalists of legitimacy,

supporting programs that strengthen journalists’

technical capacity, and ensuring that attacks on

journalists are prosecuted.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.