Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Freedom in the World 2017: Israel a leader in a dismal and worsening Middle East region

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Shmuel Levin

 

The US based Freedom House think-tank has released the initial findings of its annual Freedom in the World report. The report analyses the state of political and civil freedoms, as well as the state of governance frameworks, in each country around the world, based upon a "combination of on-the-ground research, consultations with local contacts, and information from news articles, nongovernmental organizations, governments, and a variety of other sources."

This year's report marked the 11th consecutive year in which "declines outnumbered improvements". As such, the Middle East region was no exception to this trend, aside from the general exceptions of Israel and Tunisia. Closer to Australia, the Philippines, China, and Thailand also saw further regressions in freedoms in 2016.

Freedom and the Middle East

The Middle East and North Africa region has long sat towards the very bottom of the annual Freedom House report. In particular, the 2017 report takes an acutely harsh view of Egypt, and its President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who seized power in a 2013 coup. The report castigates al-Sisi's leadership as demonstrating "not just a feckless and thuggish security apparatus that has failed to quell the insurgency, but also a pattern of corruption and economic mismanagement that is bringing Egypt to its knees." The report also criticises the billions of dollars in aid from the Gulf monarchies that have been wasted "partly on megaprojects of dubious value that enrich regime cronies".

While Egypt received an overall score of 26/100, Saudi Arabia sits even further down the list, with a score of 10/100. The Gulf monarchy received the lowest possible scores for both political freedoms and civil liberties, and was placed as one of the 10 least free countries in the world. As the report notes, although Saudi Arabia is attempting to reform its economy, no effort is being made to reform politically.

The one "modest reform" in Saudi Arabia for 2016 was the curbing of the religious police' ability to "pursue and detain civilians" and new restrictions on the religious police which require them to only operate outside of business hours. However, "as in previous years, Saudi human rights and political activists were systematically persecuted and imprisoned in 2016" and "despite its poor record, Saudi Arabia was re-elected to its seat on the UN Human Rights Council in October." The report also highlights Saudi Arabia's continuing "destructive military campaign" in Yemen.

In turn, Yemen only scores slightly higher than Saudi Arabia with a score of 14/100. Despite the Houthi rebels forming their own government, the report notes that "they have made no guarantee that they will restore the country's past political pluralism. Media independence has been all but eliminated as a result of the conflict, and civil liberties in general have effectively been suspended". Similarly Libya, scored only 13/100, in light of the "ongoing security crises, including overdue elections and the lack of a fully functional government with nationwide recognition and authority", all of which creates weak conditions for human rights. 

The main Shiite stronghold in the Middle East, Iran, does not fare much better, at only 17/100. As noted in the report, "human rights abuses continued unabated in 2016, with the authorities carrying out Iran's largest mass execution in years and launching a renewed crackdown on women's rights activists. The regime maintained restrictions on freedom of expression, both offline and online, and made further arrests of journalists, bloggers, labour union activists, and dual nationals visiting the country, with some facing heavy prison sentences." 

The report also draws significant attention to Turkey. Erdogan's response to the failed 2016 coup is castigated as an "unvarnished form of authoritarianism", where "over 150,000 people-including soldiers, police, judicial officials, civil servants, academics, and schoolteachers-were detained, arrested, or dismissed from their positions in a massive purge of suspected coup plotters and other perceived enemies of the state."
As such, Turkey underwent the largest change in score of any country in 2016, with a decline in score from 53/100 to 38/100, and the second largest year-to year decline over the last decade, behind the Central African Republic. In addition, Turkey received a ‘downward trend arrow', as an indication of the "security and political repercussions" of the failed July 2016 coup.

At the very bottom of the list sits Syria with an aggregate score of -1 [sic]. Whilst the report for Syria has not yet been released, the overview report does note the effects of Syria on other countries. This includes the role taken by Russia, Iran, and "a multinational array of Iranian-backed Shiite militias", in assisting the Assad regime. Additionally, the overview notes that the conflict in Syria has led to the hardening of European borders and the signing of an agreement between Turkey and the EU to block refugees.

Interestingly, Iraq is the only Middle Eastern country to be placed on a list of ‘Countries to Watch' in 2017, as its weak government will need to deal with the ongoing battle against Islamic State, as well as having to contain Shiite militias and reintegrate its Sunni minority population.

The Middle East exceptions: Israel and Tunisia

Despite the overall Middle East's reputation as unfree, two exceptions are now designated as ‘free' countries in the report. First is Israel, with a score of 80 out of 100. This number is lower than most other free nations, but considerably higher than most other countries in the region. 

Whilst the full report of individual countries has not yet been released, previous years' reports have praised Israel's electoral processes, political pluralism and anti-corruption measures, but also note restrictions on civil liberties such as limits on religious inter-marriage and the administrative detention of Palestinians. Israel's ‘Press Freedom Status' is also designated as only ‘partly free'. Ostensibly, and somewhat controversially, this is due to the growth of the Israel Hayom newspaper which has been criticised in previous years on grounds that its "owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets" and because of the unchecked expansion of paid content, i.e. content which appears as general content, but is in fact paid for by an external source. As such, the report gives Israel the highest score on political rights, 1/7, but a slightly lower score of 2/7 on civil liberties.

In contrast, Gaza and the West Bank are designated as ‘not free'. The West Bank's total score is 28/100, receiving the worst possible figure of 7/7 for political freedoms, and only 5/7 for civil liberties. Interestingly, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip scored slightly higher for political rights at 5/7, but worse on civil rights with 6/7.

The second Middle East exception is Tunisia, with a score of 78/100. Contrary to some reporting, Tunisia joined Israel as the region's second designated "free" country in 2015 following its transition into democracy.

A number of significant achievements are noted for Tunisia in 2016. These include the passing of a gender parity law which ensures greater female representation in local elections, new measures to ensure judicial independence, and a more restrained response to anti-government protestors. In addition, the Truth and Dignity Commission has held two public hearings on national television and radio, offering victims of human rights abuses under the former regime a chance to share their testimony". As the report's overview puts it: "Tunisia has transitioned to a functioning, if precarious, democracy in which citizens enjoy unprecedented political rights and civil liberties. Still, corruption, economic challenges, and security threats remain obstacles to full democratic consolidation."

South-East Asia

Closer to home, a number of countries have drawn special attention in this year's report. The Philippines scored 63/100, with a "downward trend arrow" due to "thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out as part of newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, as well as assassinations and threats against civil society activists." Aside from the killings, Duterte's "aggressive public admonitions of his critics" has also "contributed to a climate of fear among activists". The Philippines also made it to the "Countries to Watch" list, given the possibility of Duterte continuing with these extreme policies in 2017.

China, which sits at the low score of 15/100, also received a "downward trend arrow" for its new cybersecurity and foreign NGO laws, heavy sentences handed down to activists, and newly introduced restrictions on religious freedoms. In addition, Thailand (which currently sits at 32/100) was singled out for continuing to restrain public criticism and for its new Constitution, which increases military influence in civilian politics.

However, praise is given in the report to South Korea for holding peaceful demonstrations against President Park Geun-hye, and for her ultimately peaceful departure.

Both Australia and New Zealand received scores of 98/100 and the highest possible ratings for political freedoms and civil liberties.

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