Soft censorship ‘a rising danger’

Soft censorship is a rising danger to press freedom and democratic processes around the world, say two leading experts.

It is an often little visible official effort to influence the media through means other than direct censorship or force, according to Vincent Peyrègne, chief executive of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, and Mark Nelson, senior director of the Centre for International Media Assistance.

These include the arbitrary placement of government advertising, as well as biased subsidies, licensing arrangements, and for broadcasters, frequency allocation, all of which can sustain or destroy the financial viability of media firms, they write for The Economist.


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‘No space for opposition’ in corrupt MPLA’s Angola

rafael marquesAngolan journalists like Rafael Marques (left), who reports on high-level corruption by government officials, are facing the cudgel of criminal defamation, according to the International Press Institute.

Members of Angola’s ruling MPLA elite are conspicuous beneficiaries of lucrative government contracts and sinecures, the FT’s Lionel Barber notes.

Elias Isaac, a burly activist for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, an NGO funded by George Soros, sums up Angola’s postwar challenge, he writes:

“We have a multi-party democracy but we don’t have a pluralist society. There is no space for the opposition.”

Over lunch, Isaac describes how MPLA cells have infiltrated the private sector, while big business is dominated by former generals and the party. “It’s just like Russia – nothing has changed.”

Asked about the new sovereign wealth fund, Isaac says: “The president missed a great opportunity. He could have risked not appointing someone close to him. Instead he confirmed our suspicions of elitism and nepotism.”


Marques is an award-winning journalist and human rights activist, specializing in political economy, the diamond industry, and government corruption. A former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, his writings have helped set the agenda for political debate in Angola by exposing abuses of power and endemic corruption.

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The Arab 1848?

The Arab upheaval has been the cause of profound bewilderment in the developed world and among policy makers, not least in Washington. Great enthusiasm for the Arab Spring was quickly replaced by confusion and concern regarding Islamic democracy or an Islamist Winter, depending on one’s perspective, analyst Azar Gat writes for The National Interest.

The European revolutions of 1848, the ‘Spring of Nations’, with their great hopes and dashed dreams, have often been cited as an analog. But what can the European experience of modernization and regime change teach us about the contemporary Arab world?

What makes nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the current Middle East similar is their relative position on the road to modernization. According to the most authoritative estimates, real GDP per capita in non-oil producing Arab countries is in the same range as mid- to late-nineteenth-century Europe. Urbanization rates in Egypt and Syria are, respectively, just below and above 50 percent, a level crossed by the United Kingdom around 1850 and by Germany around 1900. Illiteracy in the major Arab countries still hovers between 20 to 30 percent, again in the same range as in mid-nineteenth century Europe….

While these major indicators are of fundamental significance, differences remain that should also be factored in. Whereas nineteenth-century Europe and the West were the world’s pioneers and world leaders in modernization, today’s Arab countries are among the world’s strugglers, with only Africa trailing behind. Because of this, the Arab world enjoys many of the fruits of modernization as imports from outside—in communications, household appliances, computers, medicine and the like. This also means that the Arab world is susceptible to pressures from the hegemonic developed world – most notably economic, partly military, and, more ambivalently, intellectual – even if the efficacy of such pressures is inherently limited. Finally, there are all the differences of culture and historical traditions, for, as we know, the process of modernization, while most powerful and deeply transformative, is far from being linear.

In comparison and analysis, certain key concepts serve as prisms, Gat suggests: democracy, liberalism, development, nationalism, religion, and stability.


The call for democracy has reigned supreme in the enthusiasm that surrounded the Arab Spring and the fall of the Old Regimes throughout much of the Middle East. It remains the strong expectation of Western opinion and the official demand by Western governments, most notably that of the United States. In today’s West, democracy is perceived as the ultimate ideal and political norm, unconditioned by extraneous circumstances. But in reality, rather than democracy being an abstract, timeless idea waiting to be recognized and adopted by right-minded people, its successful implementation has always depended on and closely correlated with a number of developmental factors variably embedded in the process of modernization.


Liberals everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe were deeply concerned that democracy would jeopardize liberal rights, such as respect for human life, free speech, freedom of religion, toleration for a diversity of opinion and identity, and, above all, the right to property. They feared that the masses would place little value on these hard-won sociopolitical norms, or else would be swayed by non-liberal creeds, whether traditionalist-conservative or revolutionary. ….

The Muslim Brotherhood’s reign in Egypt was too brief to offer conclusive evidence, but the omens were not very good. The Brotherhood in power were relatively restrained, for the reasons mentioned. Nonetheless, they were ideologically and politically intolerant towards the large Christian minority, the Copts, and failed to respond to widespread incidences of violence against them. ….

Western opinion and policy makers wish to see democracy installed and maintained, while also wishing that liberal values and norms be protected. They naturally tend to regard democracy and liberalism as inseparable, as the two have become in liberal democracies during the twentieth century. However, when the two sets of cherished values and norms conflict, which of them is to be given precedent? This question has long been absent from the script of Western and liberal democratic discourse. Moreover, liberal parliamentary regimes that were not democratic but later grew to become fully so were very much the norm in nineteenth-century Europe. But their opposite, the recently posited concept of ‘illiberal democracy’, has rarely if ever materialized anywhere. The reason for this is that liberal values seem to be essential for a deep respect for a democratic system, as opposed to an opportunistic or instrumental attitude towards it. Illiberal democracies do not only infringe on liberal values and norms, but are also ever in danger of turning undemocratic too.


In some ways, political and social Islam resembles political and social Catholicism in nineteenth century Europe. Catholicism organized itself politically in reaction against the forces of secularism, modernity, liberalism and democracy, preached nonworldly virtue and social justice, and practiced social work for the poor. The most significant political party that exemplified the movement was the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum), which was consolidated to defend Catholic rights in Protestant-dominated unified Germany after 1871. ….

Can political Islam travel the same road and be transformed into the Arab and Muslim equivalent of the Zentrum and Christian Democrats? …..

Such a development might take time and require a preliminary semiauthoritarian phase, as it did in Turkey. The apocalyptic violent streak that Islamism has developed in recent decades is a major obstacle. So also is Islamic universalism and its challenge to the Arab states. Whereas militant violence was practically absent in nineteenth century political Catholicism (though not in other, revolutionary creeds), Catholic universalism was a much stronger reality. It nonetheless receded before the European nation-states, which were far more deeply rooted than their supposed counterparts in the Middle East.

Azar Gat is currently the Ezer Weizman Professor of National Security and was twice Chair of the Department of Political Science at Tel Aviv University.


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Spring Break Vacation

Democracy Digest blog posts will be light and sporadic over the Spring Break vacation period. Normal service resumes next week.

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Nigeria- Africa’s new #1?


Nigeria has declared itself the biggest economy in Africa. Overnight, with the wave of a statistical wand, it has added 89% to its GDP, now worth $510 billion, and soared past the previous leader, South Africa, worth $370 billion. Nothing has changed in Nigeria’s real economy, except the way it is measured, The Economist writes:

But the new GDP figures also provide a useful reminder of what must change. The clearest lesson is for sluggish, complacent South Africa, which has long taken its status as the continent’s giant for granted. With Nelson Mandela dead, it looks ever less like a rainbow nation. The ruling African National Congress is tainted by corruption: President Jacob Zuma is trying to explain how the state spent $24m on his private home (see article). Without economic and political reform, it will slip further behind. But Nigeria, too, has plenty to do.

Size isn’t everything

The country may be a giant, but it is still poor: Nigeria ranks 153rd out of 187 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index, The Economist adds:

Despite the rapid growth of recent years, unemployment remains high and the number of people in poverty has actually increased. Even with the revised figures, GDP per head is only $2,700; South Africans are more than twice as rich. Whereas large parts of South Africa have a rich country’s infrastructure, Nigeria suffers from clogged traffic and chronic power cuts. Lack of development is helping to breed an insurgency in the mainly Muslim north and stokes violence elsewhere that creates no-go areas for foreigners. And the numbers also show its growth rate is slipping—to perhaps 6.5% this year. To absorb the millions of young people pouring into the labour market, Nigeria requires the sustained double-digit growth that China has shown to be possible


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