restricted access A Conversation with Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House
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A Conversation with Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House

Who is the target audience of Freedom House reports?

From the beginning, we have sought to provide analysis that combines scholarly rigor with a methodology and vocabulary that is accessible to the general public. Obviously, there is a niche group of policymakers here and in Europe, as well as journalists, scholars, political activists and dissidents, who make up our core audience. But our data are also widely used by educators and students, including at the secondary level.

We have also developed a growing audience among foreign government officials. This is in large measure due to the important role of democracy and honest governance in the calculations of international development agencies, financial institutions, and governments. Especially since Freedom House findings have been formally incorporated into the foreign assistance process of the American government, we have experienced a major increase in communications with foreign diplomats, who want to discuss, or complain about, our conclusions about their countries.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom on the Net report examined internet activism and “increasingly sophisticated restrictions on internet freedom” by authoritarian regimes. Based on the report, what opportunities and obstacles do new technologies offer in promoting freedom?

New technologies offer a significant opportunity to advance democracy. Throughout the world, online activists and ordinary social media users utilize these tools to organize, lobby, and hold their governments accountable. Women’s rights groups, free speech advocates, and human rights organizations have staged successful advocacy campaigns to overturn or prevent the passage of oppressive laws. In many authoritarian states, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, exposés by online and citizen journalists revealing corruption, police abuse, and pollution often force the authorities to acknowledge the issue, and in some cases, hold the perpetrators accountable. Unfortunately, the transformative power of digital media is not limited [End Page 35] to individuals fighting to promote freedom. Technological advances also bring new tools to censor the web and intimidate citizens who are engaged in online speech that is deemed to threaten the regime, insult the dominant religion, or sow social discord. Authoritarian regimes monitor the personal communications of their citizens for political reasons, with the goal of identifying and suppressing government critics and human rights activists. Such monitoring can have dire repercussions for the targeted individuals in those countries, including imprisonment, torture, and even death.

In 2007, Freedom House published a report indicating a “profoundly disturbing deterioration”—a greater number of countries were becoming less free than were becoming more free. Could you share insights on this finding?

According to our findings, more countries have experienced declines in freedom than have experienced gains during each of the last eight years. This is unprecedented in the forty-one-year history of Freedom in the World. At the same time, this decline is not in itself a cause for alarm. Many of the declines represent quite small setbacks and not a pell-mell retreat from the gains of previous decades. Many countries that embraced democracy over the previous four decades had little experience with the institutions of freedom, and their adherence to good government standards is beginning to fray. Especially in times of relative scarcity, corruption is emerging as a particular evil, especially as top-to-bottom graft and favoritism erodes popular faith in democratic institutions.

A more serious problem that is reflected in our findings is the durability of what we call modern authoritarian regimes. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party leadership are the best examples of this phenomenon, but there are others as well: Aliyev in Azerbaijan, the Iranian clerics, Correa in Ecuador, the post-Chavez group in Venezuela. Modern authoritarians preside over countries that are well-integrated into the global economic and diplomatic systems and often possess energy riches. [End Page 36] The leaders are unabashedly antidemocratic and anti-Western. They devote their energies to the control of the political process, the press, civil society, and the rule of law. They avoid the excesses and stupidities of communism, especially in economic policy, but use nuanced and sophisticated methods to control the levers of power. Modern authoritarianism has emerged over the past fifteen...