What I Learned From Freedom House…

My latest for the US-Russia Experts Panel and VoR.

In this latest Panel, Vlad Sobell asks us supposed Russia “experts” whether Freedom House’s “alarmist stance” towards Russia is justified. Well, what do YOU think? I don’t think you need to be an expert to answer this; it’s an elementary issue of common sense and face validity. Consider the following:

Freedom House gives Russia a 5.5/7 on its “freedom” score, in which 7 is totalitarianism (e.g. North Korea) and 1 is complete freedom (e.g. the post-NDAA US).

This would make Putin’s Russia about as “unfree” as the following polities, as we learn from Freedom House:

  • The United Arab Emirates, a “federation of seven absolute dynastic monarchs whose appointees make all legislative and executive decisions”… where there are “no political parties” and court rulings are “subject to review by the political leadership” (quoting Daniel Treisman and Freedom House itself);
  • Bahrain, which recently shot up a ton of Shia demonstrators, and indefinitely arrested doctors for having the temerity to follow the Hippocratic oath and treat wounded protesters;
  • Any of the 1980’s “death-squad democracies” of Central America, in which tens of thousands of Communist sympathizers or just democracy supporters were forcibly disappeared;
  • The Argentinian junta, which “disappeared” tens of thousands of undesirables, some of whom were dropped from planes over the Atlantic Ocean;
  • Yemen, which lives under a strict interpretation of sharia law and where the sole candidate to the Presidency was elected with 100% of the vote in 2012 (which Hillary Clinton described as “another important step forward in their democratic transition process”).

Putin’s Russia is also, we are to believe, a lot more repressive than these polities:

  • South Korea in the 1980’s, a military dictatorship which carried out a massacre in Gwangju on the same scale as that of Tiananmen Square, for which China would be endlessly condemned;
  • Turkey, which bans YouTube from time to time, and today carries the dubious distinction of hosting more imprisoned journalists – 49 of them, according to the CPJ – than any other country, including Syria, Iran, and China. (Russia imprisons none).
  • Mexico under the PRI, which falsified elections throughout the years of its dominance to at least the same extent as United Russia.
  • Singapore, whose parliament makes the Duma look like a vibrant multiparty democracy and uses libel law to sue political opponents into bankruptcy. (In the meantime, Nemtsov is free to continue writing his screeds about Putin’s yachts and Swiss bank accounts).
  • Kuwait, where women only got the vote in 2005.

I’d say it’s pretty obvious that Freedom House has a definite bias which looks something like this: +1 points for being friendly with the West, -1 if not, and -2 if you also happen to have oil, and are thus in special urgent need of a color revolution. Then again, some call me a Kremlin troll, so you might be wiser to trust an organization that was until recently chaired by a former director of the CIA, an avowed neocon given to ranting about Russia’s backsliding into “fascism” among other things. If that’s the case you’re probably also the type who believes Iraq was 45 minutes away from launching WMD’s and that Islamist terrorists “hate us for our freedom.”

PS. If you want a reasonably accurate and well-researched political freedoms rating, check out the Polity IV series. Unfortunately, while it’s a thousand times better than Freedom House, it’s also about a thousand times less well-known.

My Article For Komsomolskaya Pravda On Press Freedoms In Russia And The West

Here it is in Russian: Вверх-вниз по рейтингу свободы. This translation here is of a longer version at my Russian language blog.

A version of it also appears on Voice of Russia: Press freedom – on both sides of the Information Curtain.

press-freedom-voice-of-russia

Thanks to Alexei Pankin (who is a regular at Komsomolskaya) for making it happen – and for the title!, and to Alexander Mercouris for proving a couple of ideas and nice turns of phrase.

Up and down the freedom index

Recently the French human rights organization Reporters Without Borders unveiled new press freedom ratings, which showed Russia sinking to 148th place globally. This finding is consistent with the yearly ratings of the American organization Freedom House, which deems the Russian media to be “not free.” In contrast, Western countries, as we might expect, are the world’s freest and most democratic and ahead of everyone else.

Does this correlate to reality? As a regular reader of the mass media from both sides of the Information Curtain, I have long been under the strong impression that the Western public intelligentsia – including the creators of all these ratings – often consider that the only “free” and “independent” media outlets in Russia are those which support their own ideas and prejudices. At the same time, those Russian media outlets that take a pro-Kremlin or even neutral position are inevitably painted as Kremlin stooges – disregarding that the majority of the Russian mass media audience approve of Putin.

(By the way, those approval ratings are created by polling ordinary Russians, whereas the ratings of organizations such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders are compiled using opaque methodologies by anonymous “experts.”)

As evidence of their position, their argue that Russia apparently has no freedom of speech, and that the “bloody regime” crushes the voices of “democratic journalists.” Yes, these things sometimes happen. For instance, after the Presidential elections, Kommersant Vlast printed a photograph of a election ballot saying, “Putin, go fuck yourself.” The paper’s editors cheekily captioned it thus: “Correctly filled out ballot, ruled spoiled.”  The paper’s owner Alisher Usmanov quickly fired them.

Harsh? Maybe, but there is a wealth of similar examples in the West. For insulting Romney, accidentally caught on open mic, the journalist David Chalian was fired from Yahoo News. One can compile an entire list of journalists who were fired for criticizing the state of Israel: Sunni Khalid, Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, etc. Likewise there is another substantial list of journalists fired for attending Occupy Wall Street protests. The most famous journalist-whistleblower in the world, Julian Assange, today lives in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to avoid arrest the moment he walks out onto the street.

Regardless of all this, “professors of democracy” continue to harangue us with the idea that the Russian media are controlled and toe the Kremlin line. These claims would seem absurd to any Russian who cares to leaf through the pages of Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, or an array of other publications. If you wish to find a glaring example of mass media parroting a single narrative, one need look no further than Western coverage of the 2008 war in South Ossetia. In that fairytale, evil Russian orcs cravenly attacked flourishing, democratic Georgia, ushering in all kinds of savagery and destruction in their wake. At the same time, the American news channel FOX interrupted its interview with an Ossetian-American schoolgirl, at the time resident in Tskhinvali, when it became clear that her account did not square with Washington’s party line. The Polish journalist Wiktor Bater was fired after he started saying “politically incorrect” facts about the Georgian bombing of Tskhinvali and Saakashvili’s lies. Needless to say, these episodes did not in the slightest impact the press freedom ratings of either the US or Poland.

This is not to idealize the state of Russian press freedoms, which has a huge number of its own problems. For instance, writing about Putin’s private life (but not his policies!) is something of a taboo in Russia, just as is criticism of Israel in the US. And the situation as regards unsolved murders of journalists is far worse than in the West, albeit in statistical terms it is comparable to or even better than in many widely acknowledged democracies such as Brazil, Mexico, India, Colombia, and Turkey.

That said, there are some things Russia can be “proud” of. American “dissidents” such as Hearst Newspapers journalist Helen Thomas and former professor Normal Finkelstein are not only fired, but also put on blacklists which complicate their chances of finding another job and getting access to high-ranking officials. Meanwhile, in stupid and naive Russia, the American journalist Masha Gessen can publish a book about Putin titled “The Man Without a Face” and get a personal interview with the Russian President as a reward. She is then free to repay his consideration by practically calling him an idiot in an account of their meeting in the journal Bolshoi Gorod – and to then go on to head the Russian service of Radio Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, headquartered minutes away from the walls of the Kremlin.

So in some sense Russia still has many, many steps still to climb up the stairs of the press freedom ratings…

Translation: Up And Down The Freedom Rating

In a comment for popular Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Anatoly Karlin compares media freedoms – or the lack thereof – in Russia and the “free” West. There is a longer version of this article at Da Russophile.

Recently the French human rights organization Reporters Without Borders unveiled new press freedom ratings, which showed Russia sinking to 148th place out of 179 globally.

This finding is consistent with the yearly ratings of the American organization Freedom House, which deems the Russian media to be “not free.” In contrast, the Western countries are, of course, at the top of this list. But personally, as a regular reader of the mass media from both sides of the Information Curtain, I have long been under the strong impression that the Western intelligentsia – including the creators of all these ratings – often consider that the only “free” and “independent” media outlets in Russia are those which support their own ideas and prejudices, and that when compiling their ratings they lean exclusively on the opinions of their like-minded colleagues.

Yes, there really are cases in which the voices of “democratic journalists” in Russia are suppressed. For instance, to take a recent incident, after the recent elections Kommersant Vlast published a photo of an election ballot with an obscene scrawling about Putin. The newspaper’s owner quickly fired those responsible.

Harsh? Maybe, but there is a wealth of similar examples in the West. For insulting the recent US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, accidentally caught on open mic, the journalist David Chalian was fired from Yahoo News. One can compile an entire list of journalists who were fired for criticizing the state of Israel: Sunni Khalid, Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, etc. Likewise there is another substantial list of journalists fired for attending Occupy Wall Street protests.

I do not want to idealize the state of the Russian press, which has a huge number of its own problems. For instance, writing about Putin’s private life is just about as big of a taboo, as is criticizing Israel in the US. And the situation as regards unsolved murders of journalists is far worse than in the West. Although, that said, it is far better than in quite a number of widely acknowledged democracies such as Brazil, Mexico, India, and Turkey – all of which have substantially higher freedom ratings than Russia.

But the Americans too have some things to be “proud” of. American “dissidents” such as Hearst Newspapers journalist Helen Thomas and former professor Norman Finkelstein are not only fired, but also put on blacklists, which not only complicates getting access to high-ranking officials but even of finding another job. Meanwhile, in “baleful Russia”, the American journalist Masha Gessen can publish a book about Putin titled “The Man Without a Face” and get a personal interview with the President regardless. She is then free to practically demonize him in an account of their meeting in the journal Bolshoi Gorod – and to then go on to head the Russian service of Radio Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is headquartered minutes away from the walls of the Kremlin.

So in some sense Russia still has many, many steps still to climb up the stairs of the press freedom ratings…

The original publicationВверх-вниз по рейтингу свободы (Анатолий Карлин, Комсомольская Правда). 1 February, 2013.

Karlin Freedom Index 2012

This is the Karlin Freedom Index for 2012, a political classification system I formulated more than a year ago in response to systemic bias on the part of traditional “freedom indices” such as Freedom House and The Economist Democracy Index (hint: they give massive bonus points for neoliberalism and pro-Western foreign policy orientations).

The explanation: Reconciling democracy with liberalism is really hard: since people are illiberal by nature, there is usually a trade-off between the two. The more frequent result is Semi-Liberal Democracy (describes most “Western” countries), which in turn can degenerate into a full-blown Illiberal Democracy (as did Russia around 1993, or the US and Hungary around 2011). Oligarchy is meant in the sense of rule by a few. It should be noted that some legislation ostensibly enacted to protect the public interest, such as libel laws, surveillance laws and anti-terrorist laws – in practice serve more to undermine liberalism. When they go too far, there appear Semi-Authoritarian states of permanent emergency. In the lower rung, Authoritarianism consolidates all political power unto the state (Semi-Authoritarianism tries to, but isn’t as successful). Totalitarianism extends the political realm over all spheres of life, bringing us into the realm of (Viereck’s) Metapolitics.

Liberal Democracy

  • Iceland – In the wake of its post-financial crisis constitutional reforms, this small country may claim to have the most direct democracy on Earth.
  • Netherlands
  • California (state government)
  • Germany
  • Finland
  • Sweden – Not as high as it might have been due to the politically-motivated prosecution of Assange.
  • Spain
  • Czech Republic

[Read more…]

National Comparisons: Freedom And Security

In the first part of my series comparing Russia, Britain and the US, I am going to look at their levels of social freedoms. While political scientists go on about to what extent a country has “democracy” or “rule of law”, this ignores that these arcane concepts have practically zero relevance to the everyday lives of ordinary people. They are, however, much more concerned about issues such as their right to get a fair wage, travel to different countries, and smoke weed in peace. Who gets what ratings from Freedom House is a matter of indifference.

Employment & Social Welfare

Real wages for the majority of both American and British workers have stagnated since the 1970’s, while inequality has soared. The American Dream, with its promise of social mobility, has largely faded. In recent years, academic studies have shown that social mobility – as measured by your children’s chances of switching socio-economic classes – is now lower in the US than in practically all developed countries except Britain. This is a very worrying development, since social mobility has traditionally been an antidote to America’s high levels of inequality; without it, it begins to resemble the socially stratified and politically unstable Latin American countries.

That said, I believe the US remains by far the best deal for two kinds of people: the rich, and the entrepreneurial. Income taxes are low by UK (and European) standards, and property is far more secure than in Russia. Furthermore, as a rich, technologically advanced country covering half a continent with more than 300 million souls, the US offers unparalleled opportunities for all kinds of leisure activities and hobbies: flying planes; sailing; skiing; rock climbing; surfing; horse riding; gourmet dining; white water rafting; etc. Unskilled workers have less rights and more insecurity than in most of Europe, but for the upper middle class America is truly an oyster.

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Measuring Democracy I: Introducing the Karlin Freedom Index (KFI)

I’ve been meaning to make an in-depth study of the 3 major “freedom indices” – Polity IV (the most objective one), the Economist Democracy Index (fairly arbitrary) & Freedom in the World (a purely ideological project) – for more than 2 years now, but have yet to come round to it. Though it remains on my long-term agenda, for now I’ll content myself with something that’s a lot more fun and easier to compile: my own “freedom index”. I mean since so many others are in on the game, why don’t I have a go?

In practice, truly reconciling democracy with liberalism is really hard: since people are illiberal by nature, there is usually a trade-off between the two*. The more frequent result is Semi-Liberal Democracy (describes most “Western” countries), which in turn can degenerate into a full-blown Illiberal Democracy (as did Russia around 1993). Oligarchy is meant in the sense of rule by a few. It should be noted that some legislation ostensibly enacted to protect the public interest, such as libel laws, surveillance laws and anti-terrorist laws – in practice serve more to undermine liberalism. When they go too far, there appear Semi-Authoritarian states of permanent emergency. In the lower rung, Authoritarianism consolidates all political power unto the state (Semi-Authoritarianism tries to, but isn’t as successful); the Totalitarian extends the political realm over all spheres of human activity, bringing us into the realm of (Viereck’s) Metapolitics.

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Philosophical Musings #2

4. Freedom from fear, the only real freedom.

Political scientists try to rank countries based on their levels of “freedom”, frequently arbitrarily defined and applied (Freedom House, Economist Democracy Index, Polity IV, etc). Yet despite the inconsistencies and difficulties with quantifying something as abstract and intangible as freedom across cultural and civilization borders, for all but the most committed postmodernists, it nonetheless seems safe to say that North Korea, say, is less “free” than the US – for example, in that in the former there is no prospect of me publicizing this text.

That said, this does not mean that the US is necessarily free either, or more specifically, that the majority of its citizens are free. Yes, it has many blowhard radio “pundits” and angry blogger people, but they mostly vent their feelings in favor of the status quo, the System (and those who don’t usually post anonymously anyway).

But there are plenty of examples of people who are too afraid of giving their 2 cents. Some people I know were paranoid about me even replying to a Facebook contact from the Bay Area National Anarchists* on the theory the FBI might be watching them. American journalists too afraid to report anything contrary to the bipartisan party line (though the culture war certainly gives a good illusion of diversity, albeit on ultimately inconsequential matters). Employees, especially unconnected foreigners, who are too afraid of the sack or consequences for their career to stand up to managerial tyranny, corruption, and incompetence – I know plenty of such cases.

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