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Is international democracy decaying?

A few weeks ago, the Economist Intelligence Unit published the 10th edition of its Democracy Index, a comprehensive ranking of nations that looks at 60 measures in five categories, ranging from electoral process to civil liberties. For the second consecutive year, the United States failed to make the top bracket of “full democracy” and was grouped in the second one, “flawed democracy.”

But the more worrying aspect is that America’s slide is part of a global trend. In this year’s report, scores dropped for more than half the world’s countries. What Stanford professor Larry Diamond described 10 years ago as a “democratic recession” shows no sign of ending. The nature of this recession is perhaps best seen by looking at the state of the free press worldwide.

Take Kenya, until very recently considered a hopeful story of democratic progress. Last month, President Uhuru Kenyatta instructed the country’s main television stations not to cover an opposition event, and when they refused, he took them off the air. The government then ignored a court order that the stations be allowed to resume broadcasting.

Kenya’s violations of press freedom are trivial compared with those of Turkey, which is now the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Let me underscore that fact. The government that has imprisoned more journalists than any other country is democratically elected.

It might be possible to brush these stories aside as the inevitable backtracking of developing societies. But what then to make of the turn of events in Hungary and Poland, two countries that wholeheartedly embraced democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union?

In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s administration has used a series of clever tactics to muzzle the free press. It has showered friendly media with advertising money and drastically cut advertising spending in critical platforms. After Orban’s government starves, harasses and intimidates independent media, friendly oligarchs buy out the media companies, thus ensuring favorable coverage.

Many of these same tactics are now being employed in Poland, which has been a poster child for its stellar political and economic reforms since the fall of communism.

Even in long-established democracies like Israel and India, we are witnessing systematic efforts to shrink independent media that is critical of the government. In Israel, the criminal allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which he denies, include his dealings with press barons to ensure favorable coverage. In addition, Netanyahu’s efforts to keep public broadcasting weak have earned him condemnation even from right-wing politicians.

In India, Narendra Modi’s government has launched a highly questionable fraud and money laundering case against NDTV, a powerful and persistent critic of some of its policies. Recently, a journalist who exposed an embarrassing vulnerability in a government database was referred to the police rather than hailed as a whistleblower.

More than 20 years ago, in an essay in Foreign Affairs, I warned that the distinctive problem facing the world was “illiberal democracy” — elected governments that systematically abused their power and restricted freedoms and liberties. Most people dismissed the danger because American democracy, they said, was robust, with strong institutions that could weather any storm. Press freedom, after all, is guaranteed under the First Amendment.

In just one year in office, Donald Trump has already done damage. Besides denigrating critical media outlets and lauding friendly ones, he has threatened to strengthen libel laws, strip network licenses and tax the owner of a particular newspaper. His administration has blocked the merger of a news organization he considers biased, while facilitating the merger of an organization with more favorable coverage.

Institutions are collections of rules and norms agreed upon by human beings. If leaders attack, denigrate and abuse them, they will be weakened, and this, in turn, will weaken the character and quality of democracy.

The American system is stronger than most, but it is not immune to these forces of democratic decay.

Fareed Zakaria is a Washington Post Writers Group columnist.

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