Freedom House has an illustrious past. Founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, the organization became a bipartisan rallying center for the free world in the great ideological struggles of the 20th-century first against Nazism, and then against totalitarian Communism.
In a prescient article in National Review (April 2, 2007), John J. Miller examined how Freedom House had changed for the worse since the end of the Cold War. The recent release of the 2018 World Report (and reports from the last several years) makes it clear that the once bipartisan Freedom House has taken a strong partisan turn to the left in examining nations that it recognizes as free societies. Specifically, this essay looks at Freedom House reports in five free nations: the United States, Great Britain, Israel, Denmark, and Poland.
United States. On a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, Arch Puddington, Freedom House’s director of research, stated that for several reasons freedom had eroded in the U.S. for more than the past several years (therefore, before the current administration). Specifically, he mentioned “voter-suppression laws” (repeating a Democratic-party talking point that Republicans seek to suppress minority and immigrant voting), gerrymandering (again, implicitly by Republicans), and what he labeled a “shabby” debate on immigration that “starts with the president and the attorney general,” Jeff Sessions.
This pattern of blaming Republicans and conservatives for the erosion of “political rights and civil liberties” is evident throughout the 2018 written report. For example, on the issue of employer–labor union relations, the report is decidedly biased against Republicans and employers. It declares “decisions by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during Republican presidencies have been regarded as impediments to [union] organizing efforts.” The report attacks “right to work” laws that have been adopted democratically by 28 American states and complains that “the strength of organized labor has declined.”
A pattern of blaming Republicans and conservatives for the erosion of ‘political rights and civil liberties’ in the United States is evident throughout Freedom House’s 2018 report.
We are told that in America today too many police involved in fatal shootings are acquitted; that private political contributions should be reduced; that women’s pay is only 80 percent of men’s; that, while abortion is legal, “new state laws have reduced women’s access to abortion”; that a 2013 Supreme Court decision invalidating portions of the Voting Rights Act has resulted in new state voter-identification legislation “that could disproportionately harm minority voters”; that “stringent new refugee policies” have resulted in a “smaller proportion of Muslim refugees”; and that “too many people are incarcerated for minor drug offenses.”
The final statement is highly inaccurate. The Justice Department reported on January 9, 2018, that “nearly half” of federal prisoners were convicted of drug offenses and that “more than 99% of those drug offenses were for trafficking,” not minor violations. The other findings listed above are tendentious or misleading at best. What Freedom House presents us with are the advocacy positions of the Democratic party and the left, not objective, neutral, or bipartisan analysis.
Many of the findings of the report are not remotely related to universal human rights but reflect routine policy choices within a democratic society, including, for example, the number of immigrants and refugees that a nation chooses to admit, how best to finance political campaigns, and what type of labor legislation should democratic governments choose to enact.
Great Britain. The report misconstrues the Brexit debate, painting the Leave campaign in highly negative colors: “The Brexit campaign and the vote’s results . . . brought about widespread concerns of rising anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, with the Council of Europe expressing concerns about hate speech among politicians and in popular tabloid newspapers.” Is Freedom House implying that political speech should be restricted?
According to Freedom House, the “Leave side blamed immigrants for economic woes,” whereas the Remainers “emphasized . . . the UK’s commitment to liberal democratic values the EU embodied.” Freedom House’s distorted language ignored the core issue of the Brexit debate: democratic self-government. One of the co-leaders of the Brexit campaign, Justice Minister Michael Gove, clearly stated the primary reason to vote to leave the European Union: “The laws we must all obey . . . should be decided by people we choose, and who we can throw out. . . . But our membership in the European Union prevents us . . . from being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives.”
Freedom House complains that a new immigration bill in 2015 “would require landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants” and “oblige banks to perform background checks” to make sure they are dealing with people who are in the country legally. Apparently these measures, in Freedom House’s view, undermine political freedom.
Freedom House also concludes that “while women receive equal treatment under the law, they remain underrepresented in top positions,” noting that they represent 29 percent of the House of Commons, with 191 members. Implicit in this phraseology is the endorsement of the controversial concept of “equality of outcomes,” the cultural Marxist idea that all gender and ethnic groups should be represented in all sectors of society (law, police, medicine, universities, sales, engineering, elected legislatures, etc.) in equal proportion to their percentage of the population. Is “equality of outcomes” rather than individual rights Freedom House’s standard on gender issues? More than three decades ago Duke professor Donald L. Horowitz wrote that as a practical matter “equality of outcomes” could not be achieved without a degree of coercion incompatible with a free society.
Israel. Freedom House reported that “Israel’s civil liberties rating declined from 2 to 3 due to new legislation aimed at tightening restrictions on critical nongovernmental organizations and denying them access to international support.” The report is referring to the NGO Transparency Law, which passed the Knesset in July 2016. The law requires that non-profit organizations that receive more than half of their funding from foreign governments disclose that information on their websites and in publications and in correspondence with elected officials and civil servants. About 27 such NGOs are funded primarily by European governments and the EU. Freedom House declared that the law “reinforced a recent trend of intolerance for dissent.”
In answering critics of the law, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that “the purpose of the law is to prevent the absurd situation in which foreign countries intervene in Israel’s internal affairs without the Israeli public even being aware of it. . . . The law will increase transparency.” The justice minister, who sponsored the bill, declared in a speech: “Imagine that Israel were to fund extra-parliamentary organizations in Britain that supported Brexit, . . . that we were interfering in the domestic affairs of Britain.” In defense of the law, Northwestern University law professor Eugene Kontorovich noted that the U.S. House of Representative required anyone testifying before it to disclose all funding from foreign governments.
Whether one believes that this Israeli law constitutes “intolerance of dissent” (as Freedom House and the Israeli Left does) or greater “transparency” (the thinking of Likud and right-of-center Israelis), Freedom House is once again taking a partisan position on a policy issue within an established democracy by siding with the progressive Left and against mainstream conservatives.
Denmark. In last year’s Freedom House world report, Denmark was put on a list of countries that “deserve special scrutiny” because “the parliament is considering a series of bills that, if adopted, would further restrict immigrant and refugee rights and damage Denmark’s reputation for liberal values.” The Danish government has reduced cash welfare benefits for refugees. It has also insisted that more-affluent migrants, if they have the means, pay for their own support rather than use government welfare funds. To that end, the government has enacted legislation permitting the confiscation of assets from wealthier refugees, if necessary.
A ruling-party spokesman told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that “all Danish citizens and refugees . . . receive universal health care, . . . education from preschool to university, . . . elderly care, . . . language training, . . . [all] free of charge, paid for by the government.” The only “demand” Denmark makes, the spokesman said, is that “if you have the means to pay for your housing and for your food, regardless of whether you are a Dane or a refugee, then you should.” Similar laws exist in Switzerland and in some German states.
There are contributions to freedom and democracy in the world that the Danes and others are making that are not measured by Freedom House
The immigration policy of the center-right government in Denmark is supported by the broad public and a great majority in parliament, including elements of the moderate Left. While Freedom House sees “setbacks” for freedom in Denmark, journalist Jamie Kirkchick notes that these same Danes have “sustained the highest number of casualties per capita of any NATO member” in Afghanistan. Defense News reported that Danish ground and air forces were involved in the war against ISIS in Iraq and specifically that Danish F-16 jets were used in offensive attacks.
In other words, there are contributions to freedom and democracy in the world that the Danes and others are making that are not measured by Freedom House, which, once again, takes a partisan stance on a controversial policy issue (here, immigration) that separates the center-right from some on the democratic Left.
Poland. In October 2015, Poland elected a conservative government headed by the Law and Justice party (PiS). Freedom House described the Polish conservatives in loaded language, as “those purporting to defend national interests and ‘traditional’ Polish Catholic values.” Why use the phrase “purporting to defend” and put “traditional” in sneer quotes, except for the purpose of stacking the rhetorical deck against the conservatives?
As promised, the government has implemented conservative policies, just as previous leftist (post-Communist) and centrist governments implemented left and center policies. These conservative policies do include taking a traditional Catholic stance on social issues such as abortion. Does Freedom House consider that a violation of human rights? In December 2015, the former president of Freedom House, Adrian Karatnycky, described PiS as “fundamentally a mainstream conservative party” that includes “market-oriented pragmatists” as well as “cultural conservatives” and nationalists (not unlike, one might add, the Republican party in the U.S. or Likud in Israel).
A major focus of Freedom House’s attack on PiS are complaints — echoing the European Commission, the Brussels bureaucracy — that the government raises concerns about the “rule of law” by “moves to curb the powers of the Constitutional Tribunal (TK) [a type of supreme court] and alter its composition.” Since 1989, candidates for judgeships in Poland have been nominated not by elected officials (as in the U.S., Germany, and most other democracies) but by the National Council of the Judiciary, whose membership consists mostly of sitting judges. That has perpetuated corruption, favoritism, and cronyism within the judiciary.
PiS moved to reform and democratize the nomination process by changing the composition of the National Council so that a majority of it consists of elected members of parliament. In American terms, judges would now be nominated by the White House and Senator Mitch McConnell rather than by the American Bar Association and the sitting judges of the West Coast Ninth Circuit. Put simply, a democratic rule of law would replace the oligarchical rule of lawyers.
Addendum. After the release of the Freedom House report (and while we were writing this article), the Polish government proposed legislation to criminalize speech that asserted the involvement of the Polish nation in the Holocaust. To be clear: We oppose any criminalization of political speech, including the restrictions by the PiS government, as well as the myriad “hate speech” political-censorship laws that currently exist in Germany, France, and — as encouraged by the European Union, and as Paul Marshall and Nina Shea note in Silenced — in almost all European countries.
Conclusion: Freedom House’s consistent pattern of bias and partisanship favoring left-of-center democrats over right-of-center democrats in country after country cannot be denied. In no sense is the organization objective or neutral. There is no reason why conservatives in America and throughout the West should consider Freedom House reports any different from the propaganda emanating from left-wing NGOs such Amnesty International (which wanted George W. Bush arrested for war crimes), Human Rights Watch (which wanted Obama to investigate Bush for war crimes), or George Soros’s multiple front groups.
— John Fonte is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.