Seven Things to Look for in an Authoritarian Crackdown

This week, President Trump acted to silence all public communication at the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, and the US Department of Agriculture. While the reasons for this censorship is unclear, the decision is sending ripples across the government as federal employees fear a massive crackdown on their ability to communicate their work to the public. Scientists are wondering if they can ethically continue to work for their agencies, and the administration appears to be disappearing all government information about climate change from its websites.

Yet these decisions by the Trump administration are not happening in a vacuum. We are in the midst of a global crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society advocates, part of a broad wave of anti-liberal regression that has been moving from country to country in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and now North America too.

So what does this wave look like? What are the common factors in play, that we should look for as indicators of a crackdown on civil society here in America? Below are some ideas of what we can expect when a crackdown begins. While individual countries are highlighted as examples of specific phenomena, many of those countries could be substituted for each other — most countries are engaged in a multi-pronged attack on liberalism, and it will most likely happen that way here too.

  1. Focusing on religious values

In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party, a rough analog to the GOP, has swung wildly to the right. After the extremist Jobbik party gained a huge share of seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections, prime minister Viktor Orban announced that Hungary would become an “illiberal democracy” that focused on Christian values. He has oriented Hungarian policy around attacking religious minorities, whether Muslim refugees or Jews.

  1. Denying the right to vote

In the UK, Conservative party that appointed prime minister Theresa May (currently busy attempting to fulfill the terms of the Brexit vote) is seeking to enact a restrictive voter ID law that would prevent up to 7.5% of the country for voting in the next round of elections. The people who are least able to secure new ID cards to vote tend to be very poor and minorities.

  1. Restricting the media

In Ethiopia the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has become openly hostile to the media. After several waves of anti-government protests that occasionally turned violent, the government enacted bans on social media and chatting apps as the latest round of a years-long campaign to fine, legally harass, and restrict basic media freedoms. It began softly, with concerns about “defaming the government,” but quickly built into an all-out assault on any media voice critical of the EPRDF’s policies.

  1. Limiting the right to protest

Ecuador’s president Raphael Correa rose to power as a part of a wave of left wing populists in Latin America that eventually descended into authoritarianism. Amid a range of restrictions on basic civil liberties in the country, President Correa has violently disrupted protests against his environmental and social policies, and broadly criminalized the right of association and assembly. It has become so extreme that even applauding a protest can land a person in prison.

  1. Engaging in a transparent double standard

In India, the crackdown under Narendra Modi is two-fold. India has a Cold War-era law restricting “foreign donors” from contributing to Indian organizations. Modi modified that law to normalize his party’s expatriate donors in London and elsewhere (the very definition of “foreign donors”). At the same time, the foreign donor laws for civil society organizations were enforced much more stringently and on a tighter timeline — essentially halting their operations. The organizations that were targeted the hardest were also those most focused on Modi himself.

  1. Attacking advocacy groups

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded to growing unrest about his illiberal rule with a ban on thousands of NGOs. These non-governmental organizations provided services to people and engaged in advocacy for civil liberties, religious freedoms, the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities, for due process, and for media rights. The ruling AKP party has essentially criminalized all deviation from their policies. Even without directly opposing the party, NGOs that engage in advocacy deemed inappropriate are facing censure and closure.

  1. Obsessing with state enemies

In Azerbaijan, the government ruled by Ilham Aliyev had defined even innocuous activity as being the work of state enemies. Along with criminalizing public criticism of government policy as “defaming” the government, this has led to a massive crackdown on all opponents of the regime. Even journalists have been put on trial for treason simply for opposing certain policies and political figures.

There are hints that some of these phenomena are being put into place in the U.S. right now — though few are beyond the ideas stage. But the experience of other countries, as they succumb to mass populism and authoritarianism, should nevertheless serve as a warning to us. Take the words of our leaders seriously. When they promise to engage in some form of repression, they probably mean it.

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