Sound the Alarm for Democracy

May 12, 2014 • Press Freedom, Research • by

Internet gurus and serious researchers have had great expectations that the internet will give us new freedoms and the potential for democratization. Sadly, the empirical findings provided by two American researchers, Karin Deutsch Karlekar (Freedom House) and Lee B. Becker (University of Georgia), show that this optimism is misplaced: They assert that in many parts of the word press freedom and freedom of expression as well as other elementary traits of a democracy like freedom of assembly, independence of the judiciary and rule of law have been deteriorating significantly. This has happened in countries where authoritarian governments (like in Turkey, in Russia, also in Hungary or Ukraine) have weakened such civil liberties, but also in long established democracies,  namely in Western Europe where “mostly economic problems hinder the capability to show leadership in these important issues”.

The study of the two researchers is based on a long term comparison of data which Freedom House, an American nonprofit organization has gathered since the early 1980s worldwide. Unlike „Reporters without Borders“ in Europe, this NGO not only tracks press freedom, but also checks how the other basic civil liberties and democratic political rights are developing. The comparison shows that democracy and press freedom correlate closely: The first seems not to work without the latter, and if the latter is at risk, democracy itself is usually also seriously endangered.

There is little doubt that Freedom House and Reporters without Borders are trying hard to gather their data thoroughly and candidly. Nevertheless, such comparisons across cultural borders remain difficult and problematic – which means that research like Karkelar‘s and Becker’s which draws long term conclusions from the existing data files should be treated with some caution.

It needs to be added that at present no research study can even estimate what dramatic consequences there are for press freedom and for freedom of expression in the wake of revelations that the NSA and their fellow secret services have access to all of our personal data. With the disclosures made by Edward Snowden, we know that Western democracies have obtained more power and information over their citizens than Putin, Erdogan, the Iranian mullahs and other autocrats could ever hope to accomplish together.

Photo credit: Stephen Melkisethian / Flickr Cc

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