Does Freedom Still Ring? A conversation with Freedom House CEO Mike Abramowitz

Does Freedom Still Ring? A conversation with Freedom House CEO Mike Abramowitz
Freedom House CEO Mike Abramowitz (a YouTube screengrab)

The head of Freedom House speaks plainly about what that body does, what he felt about the Zimbabwean election, and the challenges to liberal democracy in the face of challenges from places like China and Russia.

We sit down for breakfast with Freedom House CEO Michael Abramowitz and his Africa programmmes head, Jon Temin. They are here to give Abramowitz a real introduction to South Africa, but, most important, to be part of one of the observer missions of the just concluded Zimbabwe election. In that, Abramowitz and Temin joined a larger delegation from a number of other American NGOs and policy advocacy groups.

Abramowitz is fairly new in this position, coming from careers with both The Washington Post and the National Holocaust museum in the capital. (And this writer learns to his surprise that he once worked briefly with Abramowitz’s father in Washington.)

Freedom House is one of those bodies whose influence exceeds its relatively modest (at least for Washington) budget of just under $30-million for its operations and programmes. While it has positioned itself as an independent, pro-democracy, public policy advocacy body, it is also true that the preponderance of its budget ultimately derives from the US government, although Abramowitz is careful to explain that those donors do not set Freedom House’s policies or political orientation.

Their highly visible (and judgemental) annual “Freedom in the World” report is financed through non-US government funding, for example. And in the current year’s report, Freedom House downgraded the score of the US, in response to political developments in that country, and the US comes in for some serious self-examination as a result.

The organisation’s well-known map of the world, delineating whether countries have free, partially free, or not free political systems is often a feature on the walls of offices within the Washington policy analysis community. In addition to this graphic, a veritable table top’s worth of its reports are frequently quoted in the media, by various governments, and civil society organisations. Further to their annual evaluation of the state of freedom in the nations of the globe, their output includes a variety of specially commissioned reports and studies, including a sombre study on freedom’s future, entitled The Democracy Project, and Freedom on the Net 2017, among other writing.

The former report, carried out by two university study centres – the George W Bush Institute and the Penn Biden Center (sponsored by a former Republican president and a former Democratic vice president) – begins with the ominous words:

Democracy is facing its most significant challenge of recent years. Worldwide, the uneven distribution of economic progress and unrelenting pace of change have tested the capacity of institutions and their leaders to deliver. At the same time, authoritarian regimes and populist national movements have seized the opportunity to undermine democracy and the example of freedom it represents. The phenomenon has not spared the United States, where confidence in our governing institutions has been weakening over many years and key pillars of our democracy, including the rule of law and freedom of the press, are under strain. These trends have raised questions about whether the public has begun to lose faith in basic democratic concepts and what can be done to strengthen popular support.”

Meanwhile, their report on net freedom offers its own concerns, saying:

Governments around the world have dramatically increased their efforts to manipulate information on social media over the past year. The Chinese and Russian regimes pioneered the use of surreptitious methods to distort online discussions and suppress dissent more than a decade ago, but the practice has since gone global. Such state-led interventions present a major threat to the notion of the internet as a liberating technology.”

(One wonders if this report was read with complete satisfaction in the Trump White House.)

In its literature and website, Freedom House describes itself as “an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world. We analyse the challenges to freedom, advocate for greater political rights and civil liberties, and support frontline activists to defend human rights and promote democratic change. Founded in 1941 [back in the midst of World War II], Freedom House was the first American organisation to champion the advancement of freedom globally. We recognise that freedom is possible only in democratic political environments where governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed. More than 2.5 billion people live in countries that Freedom House designates ‘Not Free’, more than a third of the globe’s population.”

As a result, Freedom House has been around for a while and has a significant degree of street cred, although not, perhaps, with dictators and uniformed autocrats.

As we begin our conversation, Abramowitz explains that their Freedom in the World report is their flagship, but they also do advocacy training to amplify the voice of civil society activism globally, along with other publications. However, this particular trip was centred on becoming part of the observer mission in Zimbabwe’s election.

Abramowitz and Temin were doing their electoral observing in the heart of “Mugabe country”. As Abramowitz accepts, the violence of the events of the past several days following the voting “was concerning”. Abramowitz adds that while what happened had come off a rather low bar, there had been some improvement in electoral standards and practice in Zimbabwe in contrast to past practice. Still, questions remained as to whether or not it had actually reached the standard of “free and fair” as an election. Still, some parallel measuring by local observers did demonstrate results that were roughly in sync with the actual voting outcome.

The real question was whether Emmerson Mnangagwa had actually crossed over the 50% level that obviated the need for a run-off. Ultimately, the jury remains out as to whether the recent election had achieved the promised clean break with the past of the Mugabe era. Still, any hoped-for rush of foreign investment into that country seems rather a long way away, given the current unsettled circumstances. That means prospects for real economic growth remain distant.

And what of the prospects for democracy, more generally, throughout Africa? Abramowitz says the continent is facing something of a democracy recession, where the gains that had been made in the so-called third wave that began in the 1970s – in Latin America and as a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall – now face pushback against democratic practice. Freedom House now argues some 70 or so nations are showing retrograde progress, in comparison to the 30-plus heading the right way. This is happening on every continent, and includes slippage in the US itself. Both China and Russia have now emerged as enemies of democracy.

Africa is not immune from this trend. Temin adds that the real dividing line, now, is between what is happening in West and East Africa. In the East, the circumstances in nearly all the nations, save in Ethiopia, are facing the wrong way. Still, perhaps Ethiopia can be a goad to change, if its economic growth rate and its continuing democratic movement are both maintained. Temin points, instead, to the evolution of democratic societies in West Africa, from the Gambia to Ghana.

There is a positive spill-over of modelling in West Africa that you don’t see in East Africa,” he says.

But, what of Nigeria; the big enchilada in West Africa?

The 2019 election looks a bit shaky now, but we know there will be an election there,” Temin notes.

What about China? Its apparent preference on the African continent is for stable regimes, not democratic ones. Abramowitz says China definitely poses a problem for African regimes and it is not a particularly appealing form of government as a model. A generation before there was hope China’s economic liberalisation would lead to more open government, but that is not happening. And that is a challenge to those who believe in the democratic experiment.

Asked about the fascination in Africa for China’s rapid economic growth and its apparent zero tolerance for corruption, there definitely is the appeal of China to autocratic leaders. Abramowitz pauses and says he wonders if he should be able to articulate better answers in reply to the Chinese challenge of authoritarian capitalism.

He offers a long-term view.

We think democracy and liberal democratic values will have a long-term appeal and will create conditions for better economic growth and more secure nations.”

He wonders, over the longer term, whether or not the Chinese can maintain this momentum, what with their repressive approach with its cracking down on people’s ability to think freely.

And as for China (due in part to Xi Jinping’s international efforts, and Donald Trump’s retreat) as the avatar of the liberal, open, global trading order, isn’t that an astonishing development – especially the part in which the US is the antithesis of this?

At Freedom House, we are quite concerned about this,” Abramowits says.

There are two questions here, he argues. America still maintains a robust democratic order with a free press, despite the pressures on it. Still, the undermining of the press as an independent check on the government does feed into a narrative that is being picked up all over the world. This isn’t quite an answer to the question of the US abandonment of the liberal trading order, but is a response to some larger trends in American politics.

In some ways, Abramowitz argues, counterintuitively, Trump’s electoral victory actually suggests a kind of vitality in a political system where a man can come from nowhere politically, defeat the entire Republican establishment and then dispatch another figure with a quarter-century of political legacy. In that sense, Trump obviously was able to tap into the real anxieties of some voters.

But doesn’t this expose a weakness in the political order as well, he is asked. Abramowitz goes on to consider whether Trump is cause or symptom of a visible challenge in contemporary American political life. Following a major political attitude survey project, he said that Freedom House found Americans – 80% or so – remain deeply committed to the American democratic project. And this percentage has been the case for many years. On the negative side, however, a large number of Americans think their nation’s democracy is getting weaker – as a result of such issues as the influence of big money in politics and legislative gridlock. This should be a serious wakeup call to the country’s leadership. (This gives an opportunity to think back to prior eras such as the 1930s with its “fear of the other” that lent support to fascist-leaning groups.)

And what about the rise and rise of social media? Abramowitz says Freedom House is very interested in this evolution. However, the issue of info-warfare and bot armies to sow discord is not just an American problem. It is a global question, South Africa included. Ironically, less than a decade ago, everyone thought all these technological advances were an unalloyed blessing. But the bad guys figured it all out as well.

Change focus, he is urged. Look at the Arab Spring, why did it fail? There was a region-wide push for democracy, apparently. Now one sees a Libya, an Egypt and a Syria. The Arab Spring’s fresh air is not completely gone, Abramowitz says. There is still Tunisia, he replies. But maybe advocates of democracy underestimated the determination of authoritarians to hold on to power, he muses. The Arab world is the one region on the planet where democracy has not taken root the way it has – at least notionally – done so everywhere else. People in charge seem truly determined to hold on to their power. That’s another reason why having a free press remains so important.

Shifting attention towards Russia, Abramowitz notes there was a moment when it seemed it was heading towards a democratic Russia. He observes that in the ‘90s, Russia was a partially democratic state. However, at Freedom House, they measure safeguards against corruption, and Abramowitz says you can’t have a functioning democratic society co-existing with large levels of corruption. (One wonders if that is a heads-up for South Africa?)

But what happened in Russia? Perhaps there are five or six things, Abramowitz says, but the failure to deal with the economy; the selling off of state assets to oligarchs, the shutting down of any checks and balancing of state power, these were all in the authoritarian’s standard playbook. Once there is no check on power, the people on top can then do what they want.

He returns to a contemplation on South Africa.

Civil society and the media are crucial, and, so far at least, that makes me hopeful about South Africa,” says Abramowitz. By a hair, perhaps, but they have held. Yes.

Regarding the Trump administration, they have not been as welcoming to freedom and democracy promotion efforts of bodies like Freedom House as were the Clinton and Bush administrations (and even the Obama administration had some issues with groups like Freedom House, Abramowitz says). But, at least so far, the broad, bipartisan support in Congress has been crucial in holding off any deep cuts in funding to Freedom House.

And as to why they divide the world into three baskets – free, partially free, and not free – rather than simply offer a binary, Abramowitz argues one size does not fit all and that progress can legitimately be made in some areas, but not all, or alternatively, the downward trajectory is not uniform. This must be recognised.

Finally, how does Freedom House regard Israel? Abramowitz explains that their methodology is to look at the circumstances of the people inside individual geographical jurisdictions; thus they have separate scores for Ukraine and Crimea, given the current political realities. In that way, there are separate reports for Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel within its pre-1967 borders. Israel, even within those borders, while it is a democratic state, doesn’t get a free pass as a result of pressure on press freedom and a crackdown on NGOs.

One is left with the question of whether or not the Trump administration and its minions take the time to consume all the reports generated by groups like Freedom House. Does the information on those many pages get read and thought about to get people with authority to move beyond their easy prejudices and sloppy thinking? And if not, must groups like Freedom House somehow step up their efforts in order to make this research easier to assimilate and think about? Should they just shift to clever graphics and lots of pictures, rather than complex ideas and nuanced reasoning? What a thing to have to contemplate. DM


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