Nancy Okail, director of Freedom House’s Egypt office in Cairo, is one of dozens of activists being prosecuted by the Egyptian authorities as part of a crackdown on independent civil society groups in the country. She previously worked for the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and Egypt’s Ministry of International Cooperation, serving under the same minister—Fayza Aboul Naga—who has played a prominent role in the current campaign against nongovernmental organizations.
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Hungary’s descent into the Partly Free category in Freedom House’s just-released annual assessment of global media independence should set off alarms for those who believed the country’s press freedom was firmly established.
For much of the past decade, global press freedom has been in retreat. This may seem counterintuitive in an era marked by the constant development and refinement of new communication technologies. Yet even as the internet, blogs, microblogs, mobile-telephone videos, and other forms of new media are reshaping the information landscape, governments are finding new and more sophisticated ways to control news coverage and manipulate political discourse.
by Jeffrey Smith
Program Officer, Africa
Côte d’Ivoire was once a promising model of economic prosperity and stability for West Africa, but in the last decade alone it has fallen prey to two civil wars, untold human misery, and large-scale impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations. The complex problems currently besetting the country are linked to the failure of its leaders to both commit to and successfully foster genuine democratic principles and practices.
by Tyler Roylance
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in a New York Times opinion piece yesterday that the United States and Europe must learn to share the world with multiple “new forms of governance and capitalism,” and recognize that “the era of Western primacy” is coming to an end. It is certainly correct that “non-Western” developing nations are playing an increasingly important role in world diplomacy and the global economy, but the terms and categories he uses to describe this phenomenon lead him to provide some rather poor advice.
The magazine Commentary once published an article titled, “Has There Ever Been Anything Like the Soviet Union?” The piece appeared during the last decades of the Cold War, and the title was meant to convey the message that in the long and sordid annals of despotism, the USSR was unique—in the completeness of its totalitarian scheme, in the staying power of its mechanisms of control, in its global reach, and in its determination to assemble a terrifying arsenal even as its domestic economy lay in ruins. Eventually, of course, the Soviet Union succumbed, but for over 70 years it survived and even thrived as a model of anti-freedom that inspired regimes ranging from East Germany to North Korea.
by Rachel Jacobs
Research Analyst, Countries at the Crossroads
Burma’s parliamentary by-elections on Sunday were seen as a “make or break” moment for the reform process that has taken place over the last two years. The country, long ruled by one of the world’s most repressive authoritarian regimes, inaugurated a new parliament and a nominally civilian government in early 2011, though both are still dominated by the military and its allies. The authorities have since taken a series of other steps, such as the release of some political prisoners that were designed to improve relations with democratic powers including the United States. The international community in turn has sought to engage the new leadership and encourage further reforms.
by Karl Beck
Southern Africa Projects Director
After a smooth start in the early post-apartheid period, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), is increasingly afflicted by contradictions between its idealistic principles and the baser behaviors of many of its officeholders. These behaviors currently include threats to institute tighter controls over the judiciary and the ANC’s civil society critics, especially the independent media. A discernable trend toward intolerance of judicial brakes on executive power, and also toward a general aversion to any criticism of executive policies and actions, raises troubling questions about the future of democratic governance in South Africa.
by Katherin Machalek
Research Analyst, Nations in Transit
Last week, the authorities in Belarus executed two young men who had been convicted of an April 2011 subway bombing in Minsk. While the deeply flawed trial and the swift, primitive nature of the men’s deaths may have disturbed the international community, they were not unusual for Belarus, which has consistently hovered close to the worst possible ratings on issues like the rule of law in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World and Nations in Transit reports.
by Husain Abdulla*
On February 14, 2011, large numbers of peaceful protesters turned out across Bahrain to demand fundamental changes to the island kingdom’s political system. Exasperated with the autocratic rule of the al-Khalifa family, they called for free and fair parliamentary elections, an end to the gerrymandering and other tactics that politically marginalize certain groups (particularly Shia Muslims, who form a majority of the electorate), and the immediate release of all political prisoners. However, security forces overseen by Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa—an uncle of the king who has served as prime minister since 1971—brutally crushed the protest movement, arresting, injuring, and killing many innocent citizens. As a result, more than 13 months after the protests began, the existing obstacles to Bahraini democracy remain largely intact.
On March 21, David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about human rights abuses in Russia. Below are excerpts from his testimony at the hearing. The full testimony can be read here.
The release of some 3,000 e-mail messages believed to be from the personal accounts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and members of his inner circle has shined a light on the cynicism and deceit of the dictatorial regime in Damascus. Assad is revealed to mock his own countrymen as well as the reforms he promised in response to the antigovernment protests that began a year ago. In the e-mails, he refers to these reforms as “rubbish laws of parties, elections, media.” That he offered them at all, of course, would seem to fly in the face of his long-standing assertion that the uprising is an assault by foreign-backed terrorists, as opposed to a legitimate demand for political change by Syrian citizens.
by Katherine Brooks*
On March 5, the day after Vladimir Putin won a new term in the Russian presidential election, around 20,000 members of the country’s broad-based opposition movement gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square to protest what organizers deemed an unfair and illegitimate vote that was marred by electoral fraud. The demonstration ended with nearly 250 arrests in Moscow alone, as a number of the protesters refused to leave the park in an act of civil disobedience.
Hadeel Kouki is a young Syrian activist who was detained and tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s regime for demanding her basic human rights. At the most recent session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, she spoke on behalf of Freedom House about her treatment by the regime and called on the Human Rights Council to take action to stop ongoing atrocities committed by the Syrian regime against its people.
Watch Hadeel Kouki's testimony, starting at 1:35:16, or click here.
by Nicholas Bowen*
Despite the recent focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s deteriorating human rights situation has been the subject of mounting international concern for a number of years. The conservative presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who first took power in 2005, has harmed Iranians’ interests through its divisive factional infighting, economic ineptitude, and deepening confrontation with both the democratic world and Iran’s Arab rivals. But a newly published United Nations report has highlighted the extent to which the regime’s policies have also degraded the country’s already poor human rights conditions during Ahmadinejad’s tenure.
Back in the 1980s, a Washington attorney named Paul Reichler generated some controversy when he signed on to represent the Sandinistas in various legal conflicts with the American government. Having led a successful guerrilla war against the longtime dictator, Anastasio Somoza, the Sandinistas had quickly moved to consolidate a system akin to a Marxist one-party state. From day one, the Sandinistas embraced an anti-Yankee rhetoric and committed themselves to the anti-imperialist struggle in the Americas. The United States responded by working to undermine Sandinista rule through, among other things, supporting the insurgent movement known as the contras.
by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick*
At a meeting of cultural workers on February 26, following his landslide reelection victory on February 12, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov announced that the Era of Might and Happinesshas officially begun in Turkmenistan. Thus ends the Era of Great Renewal, as the Turkmen leader dubbed the first five years of his reign. That in turn was preceded by the Golden Age of the late president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov. Evidently, no more reform is needed, and the people are supposed to be happy with what they have.