Repressing democracy online in Asia, one law at a time
Recent reports indicate that Myanmar’s military junta is about to pass a highly restrictive cybersecurity law, an earlier version of which already drew massive international and national criticism. this law would effectively close any remaining online civic space in the country and place private service providers at the will of the junta. the Cambodian government also recently imposed a decree that establishes an internet gateway, a mechanism that gives the Cambodian authorities the capacity to block any content they deem inappropriate. These are just two examples on a long list of laws seeking to restrict digital rights and the freedom of expression in the Asia Pacific region. Some of the most prominent examples include the Digital Security Act (DSA) in Bangladesh, the Cybersecurity Law in Thailand, and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act in Singapore.. Although Covid-19 has been used as a pretence to accelerate the approval of some of these laws--such as in the case of the re-introduction of the AFNA in Malaysia--this phenomenon precedes the pandemic. Since 2018, at least 15 countries1 in the Asia Pacific region have passed, or are about to pass, legislation that restricts digital rights or that poses a serious threat to civil space and discourse online in some way. While the alleged justifications for these restrictions include things like the need to combat disinformation (in Malaysia) or to enhance cybersecurity (such as in Thailand), or to more generally protect citizens against the dangers of digital content (as in Pakistan or Kazakhstan), there are serious concerns. Firstly, these laws bestow nearly unchecked power on authorities to decide unilaterally what is and is not true and what could signify a harm to society, all without due diligence. Research shows that such power becomes a threat to civic discourse online and to two key attributes of democracy, Freedom of Expression and Media Integrity. Secondly, these laws often violate the principle of liability protection for service providers, a key to internet openness. Enshrined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of the US, liability protection shelters internet service providers, or their employees, from bearing legal responsibility (with some exceptions) for the content published using their services. The principle is not free from controversy and debate; yet, it remains a key aspect of US legislation and is now being streamlined further by the European Union’s Digital Service Act. Ignoring this principle means that private companies become the executors of state repression online. Now, Twitter, Google or Meta face the dilemma of complying with online repression or jeopardizing the safety of their staff in these countries. Ultimately, these legal attacks further close civic space in Asia Pacific, a key component of healthy democracies. Although online debate and dissent opened new spaces for activism and opposition, it is now becoming the ground of increasing repression all over the region. The battle to defend democracy is also being fought on the internet, and online repression laws are becoming a favourite weapon of the enemies of democracy.
Does democracy heal? Advances, setbacks and challenges for democracy in Latin America
Sergio Bitar, a distinguished Chilean intellectual incarcerated after the 1973 coup, said that if you looked at Latin America in 1975 you witnessed a dark spectacle of dictatorships. Since then, things have changed. Today, nine out of ten people in the region live under democracies (See Figure 1). Figure 1. Democratic performance overtime Progress, challenges This means political power in Latin America is no longer decided in army barracks, in mountains, or through unfair elections. Free elections are the norm. This is a transformation. International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy Indices show this. IDEA’s “Representative Government” attribute, which measures the extent to which a country holds clean elections and has free political parties, universal suffrage, and an elected government, increased from 0.32 (on a 0 to 1 scale) in 1975 to 0.67 in 2020. Latin America is home to 3 of the 5 countries with the highest scores for this attribute worldwide (Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay). This is not the only sign of progress. Scores for the ‘Fundamental Rights’ attribute, related to individual liberties and resources, and the ‘Checks on Government’ attribute, which measures effective control of executive power, both nearly doubled in the same period. But progress has faced some challenges. As seen in Figure 2, corruption has remained stubbornly present, and International IDEA’s ‘Impartial Administration’ attribute (composed of two sub-attributes: predictable enforcement and absence of corruption) has recorded the least progress since 1975. Figure 2. Absence of Corruption Moreover, while most countries registered advances in the 90s and 00s, recently the pace has slowed and declines have sometimes outnumbered advances. Developments in Venezuela and Nicaragua mean Cuba is no longer the region’s sole authoritarian regime. This is part of a larger trend. Many experts say democracies risk dying (Ziblatt & Levitksy, 2018) and disenchanted voters are turning against democratic institutions (Mounk, 2018). Governments, parties, and leaders are attacking civil society, media, and independent institutions that check the executive powers. Today, democracies do not break down because of coups, but by democratically elected leaders who dismantle its institutions from within. And yet it moves Notwithstanding its challenges, it is vital to acknowledge what Latin America democracy has achieved over the past generation. Regular elections provide citizens with unprecedented power, improving people’s wellbeing. Democracy is not only intrinsically valuable, it is also an instrument of progress. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) say poverty in Latin America fell by 18% and extreme poverty dropped by more than half from 1990 to 2018. The first two decades of this century registered economic growth, more social investment, and decreasing inequality. Political inclusion through competitive elections has benefited social development, albeit with a time lag. Progress might seem slow and uneven, but we should not lose sight of it or take it for granted. The self-proclaimed political prophets that have appeared in our political landscape are right about one thing: there is still much to do. But for achieving this, democracy is our ally, not our enemy. Author's Note: This post is a summary of the article published in Foreign Affairs Latin America (Vol 21 (3) July-September 2021), under the same name, in Spanish, updated with data from the latest version of the Global State of Democracy Indices (v 5.1)
Restrictions for the unvaccinated: the next democratic dilemma in the Covid-19 pandemic
Even as Covid-19 vaccines become more widely available, many countries have struggled to increase their vaccination rates. Only three countries in the world currently mandate vaccination for the entire population: Austria, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan (1.8 per cent of the countries covered by International IDEA's Global Monitor of Covid-19). More common is mandatory vaccination for certain groups of people (for example, health and service sector workers), which have been implemented in 38 countries (23 per cent). There are also increasingly common measures that simply restrict access to public spaces for the unvaccinated. In fact, French President Emmanuel Macron recently said that he was hoping to "piss off the unvaccinated" by increasing restrictions and applying pressure on the unvaccinated. Such policies and mandates have been met with anger and dismay in some quarters, but are they justifiable with reference to fundamental principles of democracy and human rights? While the science is clear that vaccinations are the best and most efficient option for ending the pandemic, what are the risks of such restrictions on the health of a democracy? Excluding the unvaccinated from public life risks deepening already existing divisions. In the US, for example, unvaccinated people often have a lack of trust in government. There is also evidence that lower income individuals are less likely to get vaccinated, and there are racial disparities in rates of vaccination. In other countries, vaccine hesitancy overlaps with religious beliefs and mistrust of western governments. Also worrying is the fact that restrictions that were meant to be temporary have been extended or re-imposed, sparking fear of creeping authoritarianism. In the US, the Supreme Court is currently deciding whether the Biden Administration is overstepping in its decision to mandate vaccination or testing in private companies. Despite these concerns, opinion polls in Europe show that in the last months, mandatory vaccination is supported by a majority of respondents. For example, in Austria, 60 per cent of the population supports mandatory vaccination. Moreover, in Germany, where a 2G policy (only allowing the vaccinated and those who have recently recovered from Covid-19 to access certain venues) has been implemented, 69 per cent of the population is in favour of a universal vaccination mandate. In the US, almost 70 per cent of the population supports a vaccine mandate. How should governments balance respecting democratic freedoms with protecting public safety? Thus far, it seems that many regimes are making the decision to prioritize public safety. In fact, 46.9 per cent of all democracies have implemented at least one restriction for unvaccinated people, whereas 38.6 per cent of authoritarian regimes and 26.1 per cent of hybrid regimes have implemented them. Source: GSoD Indices, idea.int/gsod Yet another option is to use “Covid passes” to restrict access for those who are unvaccinated and/or those who have not recently recovered from the virus and/or those who have not been tested recently. 41.2 per cent of all countries use Covid-19 documentation domestically in one way or another. Here, democracies are again more inclined to implement it: more than half of democracies have implemented Covid-19 documentation, whereas only around a quarter of both hybrid and authoritarian regimes have. In the European Union, even a centralized system of Covid passes was set up to open public spaces and to make travel between countries easier. When taking into account that the rights and freedoms of a society as a collective should be protected in a democracy, introducing measures that can prevent health care systems from collapsing could be a way of maintaining the quality of democracy. The data from the Global Monitor shows that regimes of all types are trying to find a balance between restricting individual freedoms and ensuring safety for vulnerable groups of people. With the rise of 2G policies throughout Europe, the trend seems to be that in order for governments to ensure the safety of citizens, the deepening divisions in society between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated are apparently accepted as a proportional consequence.