It’s that time of year again. Freedom House has published its Freedom in the World Report for 2017. Now we will see the annual ritual dance beloved of governments and media people, but completely ignored by everyone else.
The dance always consists of the same steps. First international affairs journalists pretend they have read the whole report, but actually mine it for details about their country of interest and select the ones which support their existing position. Then Russia enters and declares Freedom House to be Russophobic. Then Freedom House counters by saying that some countries a long way down its list of free states and territories are US allies, and thus it can’t be biased.
The dance ends with everyone stamping their feet and going off in different directions until next year. States low on the list don’t really object to what is said about them, those at the top don’t need Freedom House endorsement. But there is a subtext to each Freedom House report which doesn’t go away. It consists of a number of questions: Whose democracy? Whose human rights? Whose freedom?
It is important to have an organisation which defines the concept of freedom and measures how well it is being respected in different countries. Freedom House uses a robust methodology which is adjusted frequently by leading academics. So the organisation has all the potential to serve as the guarantor of the freedoms everyone wants, even if they are also happy to live in unfree societies for one reason or another.
But the problem we all have is that Freedom House will never be allowed to fulfil that role. Another institution – the United States of America – claims to be the guarantor of freedom around the world, and has abrogated for itself the right to both define freedom and pursue whatever policies it sees fit to protect it. Very often it uses the same public definitions as Freedom House, but its private ones are totally different. So there is always going to be conflict between these two institutions, which both say the same thing but give entirely different meanings to the same words and motivations.
Unfortunately there can only be one winner in such a conflict. If Freedom House wants to talk about freedom its first step should be to free itself. It may no longer be able to do so, but should try – and then it will gain the insight it seems to lack about what unfree countries are up against when they try to claim and exercise the same rights as anyone else.
Lost in lack of translation
This year’s report says that 71 countries have registered a loss of freedom compared to last year and only 35 have seen an improvement. This is the twelfth year in succession that what Freedom House calls freedom – measured in areas such as political and civil rights, academic freedom and freedom of the press, free and fair elections, freedom of belief and opinion and minority rights – has declined across the globe.
We hear such claims frequently from the US government, that other self-professed arbiter of these questions. Without consulting Freedom House, it routinely declares that such and such a country is not free because its government prevents its people having these things. Often these allegations become the basis of an armed intervention in the name of freedom – it has happened in Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and other places readers can name.
On the surface therefore Freedom House and US foreign policy are closely aligned ideologically. Until, that is, you see what the US means in practice by the terms it uses. Here there is considerable divergence from the Freedom House definitions. The very fact that the definitions are supposed to be the same, but do radically differ, is provoking the US to take actions to eradicate those differences, at the cost of Freedom House itself.
As the residents of Ukraine have found, Americans do not define “democracy” as a system of universal suffrage within a pluralistic and genuinely competitive political context. For the US, “democracy” means “electing the person the US wants”. There is a double standard with the finger pointing, and don’t judge me by the same standard that I judge you by is the SOP.
Twice Ukrainians elected Viktor Yakukovych in elections which were widely considered free and fair – the only notable blemish in them were the attempts by CIA asset Mikheil Saakashvili to stop his supporters going to the polls by sending a group of martial arts practitioners, thugs, as “election observers.” Twice the US intervened to remove him, even though the supposed “popular choice” installed after the first intervention, Viktor Yushchenko, received less than 5% of the vote when the people were finally given the chance to make a choice.
Similarly, “freedom of the press” has a very different meaning in the US government dictionary to anyone else’s. Nowadays there is a clear distinction, recognised by both professionals and public, between “mainstream media” and “independent media”. Why? It is because the mainstream media increasingly follows the line of governments, and mimics the various proprietors—those who exert influence on those same governments.
US outlets such as Fox News and CNN have become notorious for their manipulation of facts to suit US agendas, but are regarded as part of the free media, whereas sites such as Squawkbox or The Canary are derided as partisan, non-credible sources, simply because they give alternative takes on the news, supported with facts. When Russia Today moved into general news coverage, in competition with Fox and CNN, it was derided as “Putin’s propaganda channel”, whilst other outlets with the same remit, such as the BBC World Service, can broadcast exactly the same news without and nobody bats an eye.
Therefore the US is not going to let Freedom House get away with using the same words, but giving a different meaning to them. It cannot openly say that it disagrees with the Freedom House definitions of the key terms of freedom. But it has used another old trick to ensure that it becomes as much a slave as the African-Americans the Republican Party was ironically formed to free in the nineteenth century.
Death by a thousand grants
There used to be an organisation in London called Refugee Arrivals Project (RAP). This was founded by S.J. Karwani, an Afghan, in order to provide reception support for newly-arrived asylum seekers. It would provide people who could speak to new arrivals in their own language, take them through the processes they needed to go through to get their claims registered and obtain welfare assistance, and then refer them on for further help.
The British government already had agencies whose job it was to do these things, but they weren’t doing them well enough. Furthermore, refugee support agencies often felt the UK government was punishing refugees rather than helping them, and failing to provide them with the support they were entitled to. RAP and the British government thus had the same remit, and used the same words about providing support and advice, but defined those same words very differently.
Originally RAP was an independent agency. Then the government offered it a gift of furniture. The founder objected to accepting this gift, as he felt it would lead to the organisation being compromised. But he was overruled, as furniture was considered harmless.
Then the government offered money, and in time became its primary funder. RAP couldn’t survive without these funds, and those who got involved with it were more and more from other government-funded organisations. Eventually it had no choice but to become an official reception agency, implementing government policy – even if that meant doing the hurtful things it had been founded to combat. Eventually the government cut out the middleman and it withered away. The government paid to have its own definitions of support imposed on asylum seekers, and got away with it.
Freedom House derives over 80% of its funding from the US government. This was not always so, but as time has gone on the US has grown ever more interested in holding it hostage. No one else can match the US government funding, and Freedom House would not be able to do its current work without it, so it has no choice but to increasingly provide support for US policy.
If Freedom House attacks a US ally, why does it do this? Because that country is not free, according to the metrics Freedom House has devised? Or to give the US government excuses to call it names, increase US involvement in that country to impose its own, different, definitions of freedom, and keep the possibly ungrateful ally in its place?
Not us, guv
Freedom House poses another problem from a US government point of view. Not only does it use the same words as the US government and insist they should be given their actual meanings, it uses metrics which apply across the board, however they may be filtered by misperception – and might one day be aimed squarely at the US itself.
When a new government is installed in a country the US has intervened in, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we are told that one of its virtues is “stability”, as if there was no stability before. A long succession of governments have been supported by the US simply because they have brought “stability”, for example South American military regimes.
This “stability” is supposed to lead to freedom, by freeing the people from uncertainty and arbitrariness. We are supposed to infer that an unstable country is not free, and therefore needs to be given a higher level of freedom in this way, despite the inherent contradiction between central control and freedom of action.
At the time of writing the US government is not functioning due to feuding between the President and Congress over borders and illegal refugees who arrived as children and want to stay without having to follow the same rules as legal immigrants. Everything paid for out of the federal budget, services and salaries, is supposed to come to a halt. This is exactly the instability the US intervenes in other countries to prevent or end, but it has wilfully entered into it itself—for partisan political gain.
This year’s Freedom House report states that freedom has declined in the US itself. The organisation is not likely to support the notion that it is alright for the US to be so unstable the government can’t function, but not other countries.
Similarly, the political complexion of a country is not considered a threat to freedom in itself. Governments of the left are not considered worse than governments of the right, or vice versa, however radical those governments may be. What the government does, rather than its ideology, is the metric against which Freedom House assesses it.
There is nothing in the Freedom House methodology which would support the US government notion that all Islamic governments are repressive simply by being Islamic, rather than how they apply their ideology. Nor are left wing governments, such as those of Venezuela, considered essentially repressive until they put repressive policies in place. This contradicts US government thinking in a fundamental way, even though the same words are used. The US is of course blind to its own desire the pass increasingly repressive laws in areas such as healthcare coverage, abortion and travel permits for people from Muslim countries for ideological reasons.
Shitholes in chains
Recently Donald Trump is alleged to have referred to African states, Haiti and El Salvador as “shitholes” during a discussion on immigration with Congressional leaders. If these comments really were made they are no more than can be expected, given another US definition of freedom it wishes Freedom House would adopt, and is funding Freedom House to eventually adopt.
The countries referred to are considered poor, offering few prospects for their populations. In every country the US exerts its influence, one of the key pillars of that influence is promoting prosperity; but this is regarded as the same as economic freedom: free markets, deregulation, liberal tax laws, incentives for those who want to go down this route, provided all this is controlled by the US.
In US thinking, prosperity and freedom go hand-in-hand. In Bulgaria the former Communists still have significant support because Communist policies improved living standards in rural areas, which are still afraid of economic reforms. But in US eyes, if a country is poor it is because it is not free, not for any other reason.
Freedom House is now showing concern over rich countries such as Denmark, which are passing laws against immigrants. These laws must be justified, in US government thinking, because Denmark is a rich and therefore free country. But still Freedom House is not-toeing-the-line, and not saying that poor countries are automatically worse, though for how much longer we will have to see.
The US made a point of hosting the UN when it was founded, to show its commitment to freedom and democracy, then declared it was harbouring a bunch of Communists. Let’s not forget that Freedom House was also a US initiative, but is slowly being taken over to prevent it being what it is supposed to be. The same tactics used against recalcitrant countries are being used against this US creation. No wonder some countries lack freedom, when this is what happens to organisations which try and do something about it.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.