Freedom House Map of Freedom for Asia in 2009. Green represents free, yellow partly free and purple not free.
Freedom House released its Freedom in the World 2009 report with a press conference at the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel in Taipei today. The event was hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. The 2009 report found a decline in global freedom for the third consecutive year. Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet states were the regions that saw the greatest decline. There was some improvement in freedom in South Asia.
Freedom House’s rankings are based on assessments of political rights and civil liberties. Scores range from one to seven with one being the most free. The average of the score for political rights and civil liberties determines whether a country is classified as free, partly free or not free. Countries such as Finland and Sweden rate the highest with scores of one for both categories. Sudan, Burma and North Korea rank the lowest with scores of seven in both categories. More details of the rankings for each country can be downloaded from Freedom House’s website. Taiwan’s score was the same as last year with a score of two for political rights and one for civil liberties for an overall rating of “free”.
I watched a live webcast of the press conference on the Wild Strawberry Movement’s channel. The conference began with an introduction by Christopher Walker, Director of Studies at Freedom House, and a summary of the key findings in the 2009 report. He also noted press freedom often provides an advance signal of declines in public freedoms. Press freedom has also been in decline.
Bridget Welsh from John Hopkins University noted Asia is very diverse in its range of freedoms. There were improvements in South Asia because of elections held, especially in the Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan. She identified the key challenges for democracy in Asia: public assembly, media freedom, ethnic and religious tolerance, rule of law and judicial independence, corruption and governance. Singapore received a downward arrow for its increasing use of defamation as a tool to suppress political opposition. She also noted corruption is endemic and charges the atmosphere in Asian countries.
Sarah Cook, Freedom House Asia researcher, began by introducing herself in Mandarin. She then spoke (in English) about China and Taiwan. She noted that China had failed to meet the pledges it made prior to the Olympics to enact significant reforms or even make more symbolic gestures. There was a crackdown before the Olympics on political dissidents. Tibetans, Uighurs, Christians and Falun Gong have all been targets of a crackdown on religious freedom. There was restriction of freedom of movement, described as a “lock down”, associated with the Olympics and the protests in Tibet. Charter 08 was an optimistic note at the end of the year.
Cook said Taiwan’s score stayed the same and Taiwan remains a vibrant democracy and one of Asia’s success stories. Taiwan was one of the countries to hold elections in Asia and its elections were notably clean and peaceful. There were less concerns in 2008 compared to the 2004 elections.
Cook also noted freedom of assembly is a concern in Taiwan, particularly in light of incidents that happened during the visit of Chen Yunlin. Questions were raised about the judiciary towards the end of 2008. In democratic countries Freedom House looks at how supervisory mechanisms kick in and this will be a focus for Freedom House looking at Taiwan in 2009.
After the presentation the media were able to ask questions to the representives of Freedom House. There were questions related to China and the financial crisis, but I will just focus on the Taiwan related questions.
Debbie Wu from AP asked if as Taiwan gets closer to China could this affect Taiwan’s freedom. Christoper Walker replied that Freedom House focuses on institutions. He doesn’t believe that Taiwan’s democracy is in any danger. But concerns should be taken seriously to ensure hard won gains are protected. Sarah Cook said the Chen Yunlin Incident is similar to things that have happened during Chinese official’s visits to other places in the world.
Max Hirsch of Kyodo News asked has Freedom House “let Taiwan off the hook”, especially in relation to the judicial process in Chen Shui-bian’s case. Christopher Walker replied the events of the last part of 2008 are part of a larger process. Freedom House needs to have a comprehensive understanding of the whole process and the trial is still unfinished. The totality of the process will define how it is evaluated so 2009 will be a critical year. Freedom House will make an informed judgment based on what happens in 2009.
Michael Cole of the Taipei Times asked about lack of global interest in what is going on in Taiwan. Christopher Walker said Freedom House’s visit to Taiwan was a way of ensuring Taiwan did get attention. However, there are so many issues in the world now so it is tough to get media coverage. Bridget Welsh said attention is focused on the rising power of China and China overshadows Taiwan. There is a trend of focussing on China and India rather than the whole region.
Chen-Hui Chou of the Wild Strawberry Movement noted that Freedom House issued statement calling for an independent commission to investigate events during the visit of Chen Yunlin. She asked if Freedom House still urge the government to establish an independent commission. Christopher Walker replied the exact mechanism is not as important as just doing it. They are watching and hope and that mechanisms currently in process will do the job.
After a break there was a panel discussion moderated by Lin Wen-cheng of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.
Bridget Walsh said China is a regional hegemon and this has particularly influenced Burma. But other countries in Southeast Asia turn a blind eye to China’s political problems in order to accept Chinese investment. There are concerns about judicial independence in the Asian region and the judiciary is being required to make important political decisions. If the judiciary is not functioning properly then this has a negative impact on political process. The financial crisis will put a strong challenge on regimes that depend on economic performance for their legitimacy. She finally noted the Wild Strawberry Movement and that young people have a great contribution to make.
Sarah Cook followed by saying that Freedom House is interested in issuing a report on internet freedoms. She said the internet can create space that other technologies don’t allow. Even though governments may restrict internet freedom people can find ways to get around it. The internet can help in getting information out about repressive regimes and she gave the example of Burma.
Dr Chu Yun-han of National Taiwan University said the decline of democracy can often be attributed to external factors. The European Union has played a positive role in Central and Eastern Europe. However, in Asia China’s power is shaping the region. Japan can no longer play the role of leading democracy and influence the region.
Dr Michael Hsiao of Academia Sinica started by saying he likes the color green on the map. (Green represents the free countries). In Northeast Asia most of the countries are free except for China. But in Southeast Asia only one country, Indonesia, is free. This poses a great challenge for ASEAN. Most of the Pacific Island nations are democracies and they are Taiwan’s friends. Island states tend to be democracies. We should attempt to understand why this is the case.
Hsiao said in Southeast Asia the Buddhist countries are less free while the Muslim countries are more free. This is a contrast to the Islamic countries in the Middle East. Muslim (Indonesia) and Confucian (Taiwan, South Korea) countries in Asia provide good examples of democracy. Electoral democracy is an important first step. However, it is not a guarantee of liberal democracy. In the case of Singapore holding elections doesn’t make it an electoral democracy.
Hsiao said Taiwan deserves to be ranked free. Freedom House’s report also indicates a trend change and these are alarming signals. The Chen Yunlin Incident marks an important trend change. He said treating Chen like an emperor was not a democratic way. With regard to China he noted China failed to take action to become more free in 2008.
Questions were then invited from the floor. A representative from the Taiwan Association for Human Rights and the Wild Strawberries asked about how Freedom House based its conclusions especially with regard to events in Taiwan and South Korea. Are different indicators needed for different countries? Jerome Keating asked if size is a factor. Size creates hegemony and does it work against democracy, especially for countries with large populations in Asia.
Christopher Walker said that Freedom House hopes to include as much valuable information as possible, but they need to balance this with keeping the report accessible. The methodology has been used over many years and needs to be consistent. Many scholars take the data from Freedom House and correlate it to other data. Bridget Welsh said India and Indonesia provide good cases to counter the argument of size. In larger countries there needs to be some devolution of power and decentralisation. She also noted the issue of islands needs to be discussed more as there are places like PNG, Fiji and Singapore that are not good democracies. Sarah Cook said as long as Taiwan has a robust democratic system then it can deal with problems. Other countries, such as in Africa, don’t have this capacity. She doesn’t think there will be a “Hong Kong-isation” of Taiwan because it has a robust civil society and media.
Li Ying-hsuan of the Wild Strawberry Movement asked about the importance of student movements. Christopher Walker said young people play a very important role by vigourously expressing their opinions. There are many examples in history of students initiating meaningful change. Bridget Welsh said young people will be a driving force for change. In the 2008 US Presidential election young people played an important role. Sarah Cook said student movements have a great responsibility and need to adhere to nonviolence. The movements that are most successful are the ones that use nonviolence. The Wild Strawberries are very important and impressive.
Michael Hsiao said the student movement in Taiwan started in the 1980s with a focus on campus freedom. It peaked in 1990 when students paid attention to outside the campus walls. In the 1990s the student movement dropped but then in the early part of this decade it came up again with attention on human rights and social concerns. Chen Yunlin’s visit made students learn that there was something wrong and they learnt about democracy. In 2008 people realised democracy could disappear. Hsiao said that he liked the Wild Strawberries but thinks they should call themselves “Wild Passion Fruit” because passion fruit are very tough on the outside and can’t be crushed like strawberries.
Hsiao also noted that East Timor and Mongolia deserve Taiwan’s special attention as they are young and new democracies. The world needs to think about how they can help these countries.
There were other questions about China, Israel and global issues. I have just reported mainly on those related to Taiwan.