Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Crumbling State of Liberal Democracy: Some reflections on the International Democracy Day 2020

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Adnan Abbasi

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Crumbling State of Liberal Democracy: Some reflections on the International Democracy Day 2020


Global Views 360

Publication Date

September 16, 2020


Representative image of people raising question | Source: via Freepik

The liberal democratic world order which was accepted as a preferred governance model in major parts of the world has been under assault by the increasing authoritarian leaders since the last few years. The monopolization of power by subverting the in-build checks and balances of the democratic institutions is now a new norm in even the large democratic countries like the  United States or India as well. The International Democracy Day, which falls on 15 September, gives us an opportunity to reflect on the present state of liberal democracy in the world.

Monopolization of Democratic Institutions

In recent years democratic institutions across the world have shrunk into the hands of a few.

In the United States, President Trump is interfering in the running of independent democratic institutions. John Torpy—American academic, sociologist, and historian—currently Professor at City University of New York—fears that US democracy under Trump is going under “swamps”. Mentioning about President Trump’s obstruction of the democratic institutions, he writes “As many people have noted, if the president can simply refuse to cooperate with Congressional requests for documents and witness testimony, we live not in a democracy, which requires that officials be accountable for their actions, but in an autocracy, in which the executive can make decisions without the possibility of oversight by others.”

Viktor Orban, the President of Hungary | Source: Elekes Andor via Wikimedia

In Hungary, democracy is on the proverbial deathbed. Hungarian President Viktor Orban—amidst COVID-19 pandemic—passed a bill in parliament granting his government access to emergency powers. This bill—which is now the law of the land in this European Union country—gives the absolute power to the executive without any checks by the parliament. Political commentators like Zoltan Cegledi argue “The government’s will to destroy, limit and exhaust democracy is permanent. Its future victims will be the remnants of autonomy.”

In India, lately the government scrapped the question hour from the parliament citing the spread of COVID-19. Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad expressing his concern on the decision said "In a democracy, the government is answerable to people of India through Parliament and the Parliament comprises members of Parliament representing different states, political parties, and regions of this country. People of the country have no access or means to ask the question to the minister inside the Parliament. So, their representatives are the members of the Parliament. These MPs ask questions on behalf of people of India."

This is not the first time the government of India changed the rules for the conduct of those institutions where it may get questioned. The RTI Act gave people of India the right to seek information from the different institutions of the government (excluding the intelligence). In 2019, the Indian parliament passed an amendment to the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005, which is being criticized widely.

Prabhash K Dutta mentions in his article published on India Today that this amendment removes the fixture of duration for the five years for chief information commissioners as well as the information commissioners and altered their salaries, for both they will be separately notified by the government. He furthermore mentions “This, in a political sense, means that the government can threaten or lure the chief information commissioner and information commissioners with arbitrary removal or extension and curtailment or increase in salary depending upon their suitability for the ruling dispensation.”

Lady Justice: Allegorical personification of the moral force in judicial systems | Source: Tingey Injury Law Firm via Unsplash

In some countries, the executives are also interfering in the judicial process. President Andrzej Duda of Poland has lately signed a law that gives him power to appoint the judges as well as penalizes the judges of the court to question any appointments done by the President in the judiciary. Malgorzata Gersdorf—the president of Poland's Supreme court—termed it as “Muzzle Law”.

In Hong Kong as well, after the implementation of the New Security Law by the Mainland severely affects the independence of the judiciary and gives China-appointed Chief Executive the power to appoint judges in the “cases of security.”

In Egypt the government under Al Sisi has subverted the judicial system by expanding the scope of military courts. These courts  are directly controlled by the army (not the judiciary) and the defendants can neither access a lawyer nor are brought to a judge after the arrest.

Throttling the flow of information on internet

The assault on democratic discourse has extended to the internet, which has emerged as an important tool for easy and quick access of information. However the authoritarian streak in the ruling establishments do not not want the information to spread so fast.

Anti CAA Protest in Assam, India | Source: Ankur Jyoti Dewri via Wikimedia

An apt example is the widespread shut down of the internet during the time of protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) across India. These shutdowns were not only to gag the Anti-CAA protestors but also unconstitutional according to the law of the land.

In Indian province of Kashmir, the internet was totally shut down for almost 5 months from 5th August 2019. The services were later restored but even today, 16th September, 2020 there is no access to the high speed internet in the region.

In some other countries like Belarus and Ethiopia, as well, the government resorted to shutting down the internet during the public protests.

Similarly the popular social media platforms like facebook, twitter, reddit, and many others which are used to freely share information, are restricted or banned in many countries.

This all happened in 2019-20 despite the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution stating that cutting access to the internet violates  article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights back in 2011.

Suppressing the dissidents

Anti Al-Sisi protests in London | Source: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr

In Egypt, the government is resorting to Military Court trials, and ditching the normal judicial system. The detainees are put under inhumane conditions (people tried here are mostly the dissidents against the government). Vanshita Banuana from Global Views 360 writes “There have been multiple reports of torture, sexual assault while placed in detention. In prison too, detainees face inhumane conditions, not being allowed to see family, exercise or get sunshine and fresh air. Thousands of student protestors, journalists and political dissidents have been tried in these military courts, and hundreds more have been killed extrajudicially. At the same time, citizens’ tools to criticise these steps are undermined, such as by limiting the domain of NGOs, censoring news and social media, and blocking around 600 websites.”

In India the government uses many draconian laws to suppress activists working for the marginalised communities. The Unlawful Activities Act (UAPA) is the most controversial and draconian law which is being used frequently by the government to curb the dissenting voices.

Indian government, as a part of its ambitious smart city project, is installing CCTV camera systems in the major towns across India. The footage from these cameras along with the AI based facial recognition technology is a deadly combination for curbing dissidence. Privacy experts like Arun Mohan Sukumar fear “If you don’t have adequate checks and balances, there’s a high chance the government will be tempted to use the data for highly dubious purposes.”

A ray of hope

As Victor Hugo said “When Dictatorship Is A Fact, Revolution Becomes A Right.” The people across the world have started speaking up against the assault on democratic values and institutions. They face hardship, vilification, and incarnation but remain committed to fight for the protection of liberal democracy. This gives us hope that the liberal democracy will ultimately prevail as it is what Abraham Lincoln described, “The government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

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January 19, 2021 8:34 AM

Internet privacy in Brazil: An example of already weakened state of Democracy

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro’s ascent to power attracted international attention for their potential impact on human rights. His highly controversial positions on Brazil’s past military dictatorship, civil rights and his greater support for conservative agenda is very likely to jeopardize freedom of expression and the nation’s fragile democracy. Bolsonaro’s ascent to power has not been welcomed by people around the globe.  His blind eye towards democracy has created a human rights crisis in Brazil. In 2017, violence reached a new record in the books of Brazil with an estimated 64,000 killings. More than 1.2 million cases of domestic violence were pending in the courts at the start of 2018. About 5,144 people were killed due to police brutality in 2017 and weakening state control of prisons has facilitated gang recruitments. Brazil has lost over 100,000 people to COVID-19, the pandemic which Bolsonaro strongly repudiated as a conspiracy. The president’s desperate authoritarian attempts to forcibly seize control has pushed the nation into a political crisis inter alia free fall of the economy, a pandemic, a human rights crisis and a democratic recession. “This is the worst crisis Brazil has faced in its history. It’s a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a public health crisis. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I can’t think of another moment when the country was in worse shape than it is right now.” These are the exact words of Professor James Green, a Brazilian studies teacher at Brown University, a man who has lived through the military dictatorship in Brazil which lasted from 1964 to 1985.

Amidst these crises, Bolsonaro has periled the integrity and autonomy of Brazil’s most vital democratic institutions. In May 2020, the scandalous president even contemplated ramping up the military to shut down Brazil’s Supreme Court as they continued investigations into his network of advisors and his family. The anti-terrorism bills pushed in the senate after the ascent of Bolsonaro is another key example of endangerment to democracy. The vague and broad definitions of terrorism in the bill potentially criminalizes protests and even basic social movements. These are inconsistent with the standard of precision that Brazilian criminal law maintains. The capricious characterization of a “terrorist act” leaves the door open to subjective and arbitrary decisions which is not new to the nation.

The anti-terrorism bill says that it is “terrorist act” to interfere or tamper computer systems or databases with any political or ideological motivation even without a malicious intent. This would jeopardize the work of several security researchers and journalists in Brazil. Unfortunately, they are not alone.

On 30th June 2020, the Senate of brazil passed the PLS 2630/2020   (Law of Freedom, Liability, and Transparency on the Internet) popularly known as the fake-news law. Fake news has definitely been a problem all over the world. 17 states have passed some form of regulation directing disinformation during the pandemic. The term “fake-news” has been engraved in the global political discourse in the last half decade. With the decline in global levels of press freedom, the domino effect of so-called “fake-news laws” is attracting some serious risks to press freedom and freedom of expression. It is certain that Bolsonaro took advantage of the pandemic situation and passed the fake-news law with the excuse of COVID-19 misinformation. There are several underlying concerns and apprehensions about this law.

  1. Traceability requirements for private messaging services like WhatsApp and Signal would require the apps to store the logs and records of “broadcasted messages” which implies all the messages sent by over 5 users which reaches at least 1000 people within the span of three months. Messaging service companies are required to report most of the information to the government of Brazil hence creating a centralized log of data interactions. This breaks the end-to-end encryption service provided to the users by some of the messaging apps. If companies do not oblige to weaken the technical protection given to the users of Brazil, the bill forces them to leave the country.
    This imposition of “tech mandate” was condemned by Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as they called it out for weakening privacy protection. Attached to this is a “technical capability derivative”, whether or not platforms will be able to trace back individual messages.
  1. Article 37 of the law mandates all the private messaging and social networking apps having a customer base in Brazil to appoint a legal representative who will have the power to remotely access user logs and databases. This pseudo attempt to localize the measures not just gives rise to privacy concerns but also questions if the Brazilian Senate has undermined United States’ laws such as Electronic Communication Privacy Act and CLOUD Act. Both of these laws mandate US-based social networking service providers to follow and check certain legal safeguard before handing the private data to any foreign law enforcement agents.
  1. If any social media account is reported to be inauthentic or automated, the online platform would have to confirm the identity of the user and verify the identity with any government ID in Brazil or a passport for a foreigner. The government can also demand confirmation of identity for any account through the means of a court order. This provision broadly attacks anonymity and privacy of users online and ignores its benefits on the internet such as whistle blowing and protection from stalkers.
  1. This law also makes it illegal to create or share any content online which may pose a risk to” economic order or social peace” in Brazil. Both of these terms are vaguely defined and even vaguely present. This opens gates to a wide range of content creators to be called out as “illegal”. The law also criminalizes intentionally being a member of an online group whose main activity is sharing defamatory content. This includes all meme groups which primarily share memes about anyone in an authoritative position in Brazil. This definitely puts a subjective cap and poses significant challenges to the freedom of expression and restricts basic ability of Brazilians to engage in discourse on online platforms.

The fake-news law makes social media companies legally liable for content published online on their platforms which acts as an incentive to them to restrict the freedom of speech of Brazilians at the time of any social or political unrest or even times like the present. While Brazil faces a real problem of fake news, this hastily written statute is not the right solution. At the time of a pandemic, when most of the world is functioning on a virtual sphere, the reckless fake-news law has added weight onto the fragile thread holding Brazil’s democracy. Jair Bolsonaro has managed to push democracy to a breaking point even without the drastic steps that he earlier contemplated.

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