It is not hyperbolic to suggest that democracy may not survive the 21st century. As President Biden has said, future generations “will be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy”? He has pledged to host a Global Summit for Democracy so that the US can “prove that democracy works.” And this summit must result in something more than lofty declarations. Because right now autocracy is winning.
The number of autocracies in the world today exceeds the number of democracies. Experts at the University of Gothenburg report that the world’s largest democracy, India, has turned into an electoral autocracy. And they conclude that — after a decade of backsliding — only 14% of the world’s population now live in a liberal democracy.
A key reason for democracy’s retreat is the collapse of the free press. The number of journalists being killed outside war zones is now higher than the number dying in war. We’ve recently seen journalists murdered even in the heart of Europe — in Malta and Slovakia. Today’s autocrats are bold enough to murder journalists on foreign soil or kidnap them on commercial airliners in mid-air. Journalists across the globe are behind bars for crimes they did not commit, or because the state has made journalism itself the crime. And on every continent journalists are routinely demonised, harassed, surveilled, treated like terrorists or spies and sued into bankruptcy.
So those who are determined to silence the press have a well-developed toolkit of unfair laws and repressive tactics to quash critics and lock up opponents.
It is time for leading democracies to create a toolkit in response. And it should include protecting journalists and punishing the autocrats who persecute them. This can be done in at least four ways.
First, protecting journalists means getting them out of harm’s way when they face imminent danger. So democracies should offer “emergency visas” to foreign journalists who need to flee their country because they are at risk of violence or arbitrary arrest. Getting a journalist out of the country can be the only way to keep them safe from imprisonment, kidnapping, or even death. Democratic states should commit to providing a minimum number of visas for journalists at risk and remove the myriad legal and bureaucratic obstacles that confront journalists in need of safe harbor. The UK offered safe haven to Hongkongers who needed to flee their crumbling democracy. Canada committed to providing humanitarian visas to “human rights defenders,” including journalists, starting this year. And the Netherlands has announced that it will do the same. Others should offer a similar lifeline.
Second, democratic states must commit to protecting their own journalists abroad through robust diplomatic support if they are arbitrarily arrested or face similar abuse. Consular support for journalists detained abroad should include minimum protections from embassies including prison visits, access to legal advice, the monitoring of trials and, if necessary, repatriation. But democracies have shied away from providing such guarantees to their citizens, which means that many journalists work abroad in a climate of fear. States should instead protect their journalists posted abroad and make it clear that abuse of the press is a red line in their foreign relations.
Third, those who kill and falsely imprison journalists must be identified and prosecuted. Currently, the UN and regional organisations lack a standing body to independently investigate such abuses. And the deployment of international experts to support investigations has so far been limited to a handful of cases like the murders of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan or Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. As a result, almost 9 out of 10 killings of journalists go unpunished. There should be an international task force that can investigate violence and other abuses against journalists when authorities on the ground are too slow, ill-equipped or politicized. States should collaborate to create a roster of experts who are vetted, trained and deployable at short notice to investigate attacks. Deployment should be possible at least when states may be willing but unable to investigate killings, such as in Mexico or Lebanon, or to support a UN investigation that is under-resourced, as was the case with Khashoggi. Unless evidence is collected independently and systematically, justice will never be possible, and abuses are sure to continue.
Fourth, punishment should include not only prosecutions but also targeted financial and travel sanctions against those who persecute the press. Sanctions are rarely used to punish those who imprison journalists. Yet such acts involve a network of collaborators, from police to prosecutors and judges. Democratic states should coordinate to freeze assets and deny entry to their territory to counter such attacks anywhere in the world. Following sanctions by the US, the UK and some EU states, Khashoggi’s killers can no longer buy a house using US dollars, hold a bank account in the UK or travel to the south of France on holiday. But what about the rest? Trading systems like the EU’s ‘GSP+’ system – which make financial rewards conditional on compliance with international human rights –could also be used more broadly and to greater effect. And more could be done to encourage other democracies – including Japan and Australia – to adopt this approach.
These four tools in the toolkit – if used in a consistent and persistent manner – would help to protect the press, and by doing so defend democracy. Such action would not be a western imposition on an eastern bloc, but an implementation of standards enshrined in international treaties that most autocracies have themselves signed up to. And these measures can be blueprints for protecting other vulnerable groups including protesters, opposition leaders, the LGBTQ+ community, racial minorities and victims of sexual violence.
It is time for states that claim they defend democracy to start acting like it. And no state is better placed to lead the effort than the United States, the cradle of modern democracy and the country that provides greater legal protections for speech than perhaps any other. As President Biden has observed, the world’s autocracies are betting that “democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus.” The US should use the Democracy Summit to prove them wrong. Because as the late John Lewis said: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” And it’s time to get moving.
Amal Clooney is a barrister and former Deputy Chair of an independent panel of legal experts set up by the UK and Canada to advise governments on protecting media freedom chaired by former UK Supreme Court President Lord Neuberger. Ms Clooney defends journalists in cases around the world, advocates for their rights through her Foundation’s TrialWatch program and was the 2020 recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award for “extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom.” Detailed policy papers on each of the “tools” mentioned in this oped are available at: https://www.ibanet.org/IBAHRIsecretariat#reportscroll.