Contribution: How the Lack of Freedom of Expression Undermines Democracy

Written by Aída Araceli Patiño Álvarez

What distinguishes a democratic regime from one that is not is the absolute respect for the human rights of its inhabitants. Liberal democracy, established in Western countries and widely extended – after the fall of the Berlin Wall – in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, has among its ideals respect for civil liberties.

The expansion of liberal democracy did not achieve its objective at all. The countries that began their democratization process after the fall of the Berlin Wall have fallen into the grey zone, an intermediate place between democracy and authoritarianism. These regimes, better described as hybrids, share attributes of democratic political life with democratic deficits.

There are different types of hybrid regimes[1], in this article I will refer to the competitive authoritarian regimes (hereafter CAR). CAR ‘are civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the State apparatus places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents. Such regimes are competitive in that opposition parties use democratic institutions to contest seriously for power, but they are not democratic because the playing field is heavily skewed in favour of incumbents. Competition is thus real but unfair ‘.[2]

These types of regimes are characterized by the abusive exercise of the means and resources of the State for the benefit of the elite that holds power and with the intention of hindering the possibility that the opposition can use the electoral process to reach the same power. Thus, CAR carry out practices tending to weaken in a systematic way three pillars of democracy: free and fair elections, broad protection of civil liberties and a reasonable level playing field[3].

As in most democracies, CAR establish the protection of civil liberties within their legal system, however, these regimes are very prone to restrict -openly or subtly- freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association. Levitsky and Way point out that in CAR opposition politicians, independent judges, journalists, human rights activists, and other government critics may be subject to harassment, arrest, and -in some cases- violent attack. According to them, independent media are frequently threatened, attacked, and in some cases, suspended or closed. There may be overt repression, including the arrest of opposition leaders, the killing of opposition activists, and the violent repression of protest is widespread, pushing regimes to the brink of full authoritarianism. Sometimes, the attack on these liberties is carried by discretional use of legal mechanisms. The ‘legal repression’ is carried out through tax, libel, or defamation laws- to punish opponents. Although such repression may involve the technically correct application of the law, its use is selective and partisan rather than universal.

Using the conceptual framework of CAR developed by Levitsky and Way, this article analyses the current situation of civil liberties in Mexico.

The Institutional and Systematic Attack on Freedom of Expression in Mexico

In a previous article, I hold that Mexico is a hybrid regime, specifically it can be characterized as a CAR. Mexico was ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI for its acronym in Spanish, which held power uninterrupted from 1921 until 2000. In 2000, in a fair and free elections, the National Action Party, PAN for its acronym in Spanish, assumed the presidency of the Republic. The PAN governed from 2000 to 2012. In 2012 the PRI resumed power.

The alternation in power did not produce the desired transition to democracy, on the contrary, it was only a transfer of power between the political elites of the PRI and the PAN. Therefore, since 2000 Mexico is stuck in the grey zone. The democratic stagnation has come with an unprecedented spiral of violence since 2006 that former President Felipe Calderon declared the war against drugs. This panorama has been devastating for the exercise of freedoms, especially for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The Mexican State has been systematically weakening democratic institutions. It is enough to observe the current state of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press in this country to show that the Mexican State acts as a CAR. As in most democracies, freedom of expression is a right protected by the Mexican constitution. There is also an institutional and legal structure to guarantee the right of Mexicans to access public information. However, as a hybrid regime, these democratic institutions coexist with practices and forms typical of an authoritarian regime.

From 2000 to 2017, more than 100 journalists have been killed, not to mention the fact that 23 journalists disappeared from 2003 to 2015[4]. The international organization Article 19 has documented that attacks against the press have increased by 163% from 2010 to 2016. Six journalists have been killed so far this year[5]. In addition, the electoral process that will take place in July this year[6] has increased attacks and threats against journalists, activists, government critics, politicians and candidates for elected positions.

In 2017, the pre-electoral year, 12 murders of journalists and attacks on the physical integrity of 83 journalists were documented[7]. Furthermore, in 2017 Front Line Defenders ranks Mexico as the third-deadliest place for human rights defenders[8]. From September 2017 (beginning of the electoral period) to May 2018, there have been 305 direct and indirect attacks against political and even again members of their families. These aggressions resulted in at least 93 murders of elected officials and candidates for or aspirants to electoral office[9]. What is behind these murders, who has perpetrated them and why, are some questions which remain unanswered. The Mexican State has shown not only incapacity but also lack of will to investigate who are the perpetrators and the masterminds of these crimes and to punish them. These crimes reveal an unbroken pattern of 99% impunity rate[10].

There are other means to undermine the exercise of freedom of expression. The Mexican State has resorted to ‘legal repression’ to limit freedom of the press through legal harassment of journalists and editorialists through civil lawsuits. Additionally, in 2017 was unveiled government digital surveillance against journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders (in some cases even against their relatives) through Pegasus, a military-use malware to infiltrate the communications of criminals and terrorists[11].

Furthermore, as is also the case around the world, the recent developments in information, misinformation and disinformation practices frequently labelled ‘fake news’ threaten the freedom of expression as well and the freedom of press in Mexico.

If we contrast the concepts developed by Levitsky & Way with the above analysis of the current state of freedom of expression and freedom of press in Mexico, it can be clearly observed that the Mexican State has incurred practices -and omissions- that are characteristic of competitive authoritarian regimes to systematically weaken the exercise of civil liberties and with it, democracy itself.

As citizens we have the right to have a State that guarantees our right to receive impartial, accurate and timely information because only in this way we will have the opportunity to form a critical opinion and to express our views in a free and plural space which is essential to participate in the discussions and the decision-making process in a democratic society.

The situation of the hybrid regimes is worrisome because a false step could generate a democratizing counter wave. Therefore, we need to make sure CAR do not deny the existence of human rights violations. We must discuss these issues in different forums and remind the international community that we have a commitment to respect human rights. The Mexican case is an example of a hybrid regime whose actions-and omissions- increasingly distance it from democracy.

Notes

[1] Types of hybrid regimes: (1) constitutional oligarchies or exclusive republics; (2) tutelary regimes; (3) restricted or semi-competitive democracies, and (4) competitive authoritarian regimes. See Levitsky, S., & Way, L. A. (2010). Competitive Authoritarianism. Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 14.

[2] Ibidem, p. 5.

[3] Ibidem, p. 7.

[4] See Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos. (2018). Informe de actividades del 1 de enero al 31 de diciembre de 2017. Mexico City, p. 128 available (only in Spanish) at http://informe.cndh.org.mx/images/uploads/menus/30110/content/files/Informe_cndh_2017.pdf . See also Periodistas asesinados en México (Journalists killed in Mexico) available at https://articulo19.org/periodistasasesinados/ and Articulo19. (2016). La desaparición y desaparición forzada de quienes ejercen la libertad de expresión en México available at https://www.article19.org/data/files/medialibrary/38261/Mexico—Informe-Especial-sobre-Periodistas-Desaparecidos-[Feb-2016].pdf

[5] See Seis periodistas asesinados en México en lo que va de 2018. (31 May 2018). Exelsior. Available at https://www.excelsior.com.mx/nacional/seis-periodistas-asesinados-en-mexico-en-lo-que-va-de-2018/1241948

[6] On July 1st., 2018 Mexico will hold elections to choose the President of the Republic, 128 senators and 500 federal deputies, as well as local authorities.

[7] See Democracia Simulada, Nada Que Aplaudir, ARTICLE 19 Oficina para México y Centroamérica, Ciudad de México, 2018, p. 32. Available only in Spanish at https://articulo19.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/INFORME-A19-2017_v04.pdf

[8] Colombia heads the list of countries with 91 murdered human rights defenders, followed by the Philippines with 60 and Mexico with 31. See the Annual Report on Human Rights Defenders at Risk In 2017 elaborated by International Front Line Defenders. Available at https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/annual_report_digital.pdf

[9] See Cuarto Informe de Violencia Política en México 2018, Etellekt Consultores. Available only in Spanish at http://www.etellekt.com/reporte/cuarto-informe-de-violencia-politica-en-mexico.html#

[10] See Democracia Simulada, Nada Que Aplaudir, ARTICLE 19 Oficina para México y Centroamérica, Ciudad de México, 2018, p. 35. Available only in Spanish at https://articulo19.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/INFORME-A19-2017_v04.pdf

[11] Ibidem, p. 16.

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