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Apr 21, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Driving the decline: the Freedom House problem

Freedom House released its annual Nations in Transit report this week. Shining a spotlight on democracy in central and eastern Europe, it scores each government’s performance across a range of indicators like governance, electoral process, independent media, civil society, judiciary and corruption.

For anyone who has bothered to follow what Freedom House’s Nations in Transit has been saying about Hungary over the past few years, it comes as no surprise that they found reason to downgrade our score once again. In fact, according to this year’s edition, the democracy scores for the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe are falling, and Hungary “drives the decline.”

In his comments on the report last week, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó summed it up quite well:

“We have been elected by the people of Hungary; our task and responsibility is to act in the interests of the Hungarian people and according to their security requirements. What motivates us isn’t earning words of acknowledgement from people sitting around in offices thousands of miles away.”

Where Freedom House and Nations in Transit once played an influential role on the important topic of democratic transition, a serious problem of sources and methodology has plagued their product for years. They consistently rely on the same, small circle for the selection of authors, who inevitably carry their own biases to the exercise. That’s a problem in itself, but it could be helped if there were some kind of qualified, peer review to challenge some of the author’s flimsier conclusions. There’s not. This year’s author, whether careless or lazy, has selected a highly subjective list of sources for his report, relying on a few boutique outlets. If the study had undergone any serious, critical review, they would have questioned that.

It’s a pity. Once the grande dame of U.S. human rights organizations, Freedom House has lost much of its gravitas, and it’s because of reports like these.

But it’s not just Freedom House’s reputation that has taken a hit. Ultimately, it’s the broader, democracy promotion movement that suffers. Once upon a time, U.S. advocacy of democracy and human rights mattered a lot in this part of the world. Having grown up under communism, I can tell you that the Helsinki process mattered. But when organizations like these allow themselves to grow so out of touch and become captive of such an ideologically driven, narrow concept of democracy, the whole movement declines in stature and grows slowly irrelevant.

And occasionally, it’s Freedom House that drives the decline.