Democracy’s Receding Trend
The name Maria Ressa may not mean anything to most people. However, she is a Filipino, a former CNN bureau chief, 2018 Time person of the year, and co-founder of the independent news site Rappler. For several years, she has been in the crosshairs of the ruling government led by President Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa and another colleague at the Rappler currently face up to six years in prison after being convicted of libel by a court in the Philippines.
In speaking to the BBC about her conviction, Ressa noted that her and the Rappler were not the only ones on trial. In her candid assessment, Ressa stated: “I think what you’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts – not just of press freedom, but of democracy.”
Writing in the Atlantic, Sheila Coronel argues that Ressa’s saga exemplifies how democracy recedes today. Coronel also makes the following telling observation:
“This is how democracy dies in the 21st century: in a musty courtroom, with a judge invoking Mandela. There are no power grabs in the dead of night, no tanks rolling down the streets, no uniformed officers taking over TV stations. Just the steady drip, drip, drip of the erosion of democratic norms, the corruption of institutions, and the cowardly compromises of decision makers in courts and congresses.”
In Belarus, mass protests have erupted, prompted by a series of arrests of President Alexander Lukashenko’s main rivals. As two of Lukashenko’s key opponents in upcoming presidential elections sit in detention, CNN reports that opposition activists view this development as an attempt to take popular candidates out of the presidential race.
In the United States (US), the Trump administration recently fired one of the country’s most powerful prosecutors, Geoffrey Berman, who headed the Manhattan US Attorney’s Office. Under Berman, investigations were launched into some of Trump’s allies, including Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. Berman’s firing has caused some to question the independence of the US justice system and other constitutional norms, including respect for the rule of law.
Prior to Berman’s ouster, the Trump administration was already under scrutiny for what many saw as heavy-handed tactics and rhetoric in dealing with protestors who have been exercising their constitutional rights in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Readers will recall that Floyd was the African American man who died at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020.
Whether it be in the Philippines, in the US, Belarus or elsewhere, there are worrying signs for democracy around the world. According to Tom Gerald Daly, an Assistant Director at the Melbourne School of Government in Australia, one of the most pressing challenges facing liberal democracy worldwide today is the creeping, incremental deterioration of democratic rule in country after country. Daly calls the result of this challenge a global ‘democratic recession’, or what I refer to as a democratic deficit.
Reporters Without Borders released the 2020 edition of the World Press Freedom Index in April. This Report typically evaluates the situation of journalists in 180 countries and territories. This year’s Report identified a global democratic crisis due to polarization and repression, as one of the factors which will prove pivotal for press freedom over the next decade. Of course, press freedom is a hallmark of democracy and any suggestion that it could be compromised en masse over the next decade is deeply troubling.
Some may ask why any of this is important. However, across most Caribbean countries, we have grown accustomed to certain constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. As democracy recedes around the world, we should not lure ourselves into the fallacy that we will be left unscathed. Therefore, we have a responsibility to hold our democratically elected leaders and our institutions accountable. We also have a collective responsibility to uphold the democratic norms which have served us well, including free, fair and transparent elections; freedom of speech; freedom of the press and many others.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” If each of us worked to enhance the freedom of others, it will be for the benefit of entire countries, regions and the world.