Africa may be rising, but these countries, including many darlings of the West, show why it is not free

Freedom House finds the region had a mixed freedom record in 2014, with some of the biggest gains and the largest declines over the past five years.

IT has been a week of mixed emotions for Al-Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed. Released from an Egyptian prison on Friday, their ordeal is far from over.

They are out on bail, and face a retrial next week on the same charges that, along with colleague Peter Greste, led to their being sentenced to at least seven years in prison last year— of spreading false news and aiding the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Fahmy, who held dual Egyptian-Canadian citizenship, was early this month told to renounce his Egyptian citizenship and be sent back to Canada, much like the deportation of Greste to his native Australia.

He did so, but the Egyptian authorities were angered, Fahmy says, when the Canadian foreign affairs minister John Baird said that Fahmy would not have to serve out the rest of his sentence in Canada, a condition for deportation.

Baher Mohammed, on the other hand, is Egyptian, so has no foreign citizenship card to play.

In any case, renunciation of citizenship is a rather outdated form of “punishment”, like excommunication or exile to a remote desert island.

Some decades ago, chasing a troublemaker away from their country would keep a lid on their trouble-making activities. But in a globalised world of Internet and social media connections, it’s jarring that a modern-day nation-state would attempt to do the same.

It is a case that brings the deterioration of freedom conditions around the world into sharp focus, corroborating new findings by rights organisation Freedom House in the recently released report Freedom in the World 2015.

The report finds Africa has experienced a mixed record in freedom, with some of the biggest gains, and the largest declines, over the past five years.

More aggressive tactics by authoritarian regimes and an upsurge in terrorist attacks contributed to a disturbing decline in freedom both in Africa and globally in 2014, though there were some bright lights. Tunisia, for example, became the only country in North Africa and the Middle East categorised as “Free” after holding democratic elections under a new constitution.

The index measures political rights and civil liberties on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being the most free and 6 being the least free, and categorises countries as either “Free”, “Partly Free” or “Not Free”.

Freedom trends Africa | Create infographics

Guinea-Bissau’s political rights rating also improved from 6 to 5, and its status shifted from Not Free to Partly Free, because the 2014 elections—the first since a 2012 coup—were deemed free and fair by international and national observers, and the opposition was able to compete and increase its participation in government.

Madagascar’s political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 due to a peaceful transition after recovery from an earlier coup and the seating of a new parliament that included significant opposition representation.

But it was gloomy news from most of the other countries on the rankings.

Egypt, a close ally of the US,  was on a downward trend in 2014 due to the “complete marginalisation of the opposition, state surveillance of electronic communications, public exhortations to report critics of the government to the authorities,” Freedom House said. 

Last month, a court upheld death sentences of 183 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, thousands of Brotherhood supporters have been arrested and put on mass trials in a campaign which human rights groups say shows the government is systematically repressing opponents.

One step up, two back
In October, it seemed Burkina Faso was taking a turn for the better when popular protests forced the resignation of President Blaise Compaoré over his attempt to run for re-election in 2015, after ruling for 27 years, in a move backed by France, his erstwhile key ally. 

But with the military taking over, it has now taken the country steps back – the country’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 as a result of the dissolution of the government and parliament by the military.

Burundi’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free, due to a coordinated government crackdown on opposition party members and critics, with dozens of arrests and harsh sentences imposed on political activists and human rights defenders. 

Over the weekend, a spokesman of President Pierre Nkurunziza said he would run for a third term in June. Rights groups say the move is unconstitutional, but the government has issued a warning that it would not tolerate street protests against the president.

The Gambia was on a downward trend arrow due to an amendment to the criminal code that increased the penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” to life in prison, leading to new arrests of suspected LGBT people and an intensified climate of fear, Freedom House says.

Lesotho’s downward trend was due to a failed military coup in August, which shook the country’s political institutions and left lasting tensions.

Libya’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 6, its civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the country’s descent into a civil war, which contributed to a humanitarian crisis as citizens fled embattled cities, and led to pressure on civil society and media outlets amid the increased political polarisation.

On Monday, Egypt began air strikes targeting Islamic State militants in Libya, after a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by the militants was released on the Internet.

Nigeria’s civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5 due a sharp deterioration in conditions for residents of areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, including mass displacement and a dramatic increase in violence perpetrated by both the militants and security forces.

Narrowed space
Rwanda’s civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 due to the narrowing space for expression and discussion of views that are critical of the government, particularly on the Internet, amid increased speculations of government surveillance of private communications.

In South Sudan, which owes much of its polity to the US, political rights rating declined from 6 to 7 due to the intensification of the civil war, which derailed the electoral timetable and featured serious human rights abuses by the combatants, including deliberate attacks on rival ethnic groups for political reasons.

Swaziland was on a downward trend due to an intensified crackdown on freedom of expression, including the jailing of a journalist and a lawyer for criticising the country’s chief justice.

Key American ally Uganda saw civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free, due to increased violations of individual rights and the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, particularly for opposition supporters, civil society groups and the LGBT community.

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