3.7: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
Much like our discussion of political culture, we are going to focus on civil liberties and civil rights and the degree to which each is protected in our course countries, as well as how protections differ between authoritarian and democratic regimes. The first key concept of the topic asks you to be able to describe how the protection of civil liberties differs across the six course countries. Once more, we need to review the term civil liberties or individual rights protected by law from unjust governmental interference. All six of our course countries, whether an authoritarian or democratic regime, have a written constitution or laws that protect civil liberties in writing.
Protection of Assembly and Speech
To examine this key concept, we are only going to focus on the civil liberties of the protection of assembly and speech. These rights appear in writing in our 5 constitutional countries (China, Russia, Iran, Mexico, and Nigeria) and in our common law country, the UK. The difference is that, in the more authoritarian regimes (China, Russia, and Iran), political beliefs are grounded in rule by law, in which the state uses the law to reinforce the authority of the state.
So although written, the government does not afford protection to those who assemble and speak in a critical manner against the government. Russia is a perfect example in that the government allows some groups to protest, but since 2012, the government has passed laws to criminalize the organization of protests that are not approved by the government. China and Iran have violently put down protests and have eliminated the ability to use the internet to criticize the government, but more on that later.
In more democratic regimes, political beliefs are grounded in rule of law, in which the state is limited to the same rules as its citizens and citizens have more direct input into policy-making. In Nigeria, which is becoming more democratic, we see that the legislature refused to pass legislation that would have severely limited NGOs in 2018. However, Nigeria still has authoritarian tendencies, and there have been times in which Nigerian security forces have used violence to end protests, which is more indicative of authoritarian regimes.
Mexico is much like Nigeria, as an authoritarian nation moving towards democracy in the modern era. We have discussed previously that protests have had a great impact on policymaking, but protests have also been put down violently. The UK, which does not have a constitution, does have common law and tradition that allows for far more freedom on the part of its citizens to assemble and speech as long as there is no violence on the part of the people.
The next key concept in this topic asks you to focus on the media (remember this is a linkage institution or a structure within society that connects the people to the government or central authority) and the constraints that both authoritarian and democratic regimes place on this institution.
In general, democratic regimes tolerate a high degree of media freedom to encourage citizen control of the political agenda and check political power and corruption. This is evidenced by our three most democratic course countries (UK, Nigeria, and Mexico) that all have Freedom of Information Acts that create greater transparency and access on the part of the media and citizens to information that previously only government officials possessed. However, Nigeria and Mexico often see government officials refuse to comply with the laws, as there are few ramifications because these two nations have only recently become more democratic.
In regards to media and social media, our democratic course countries (Mexico, Nigeria, and the UK) have a mix between government-owned and privately-owned media. There are some restrictions, but there is the ability to criticize the government via both forms of media.
Authoritarian regimes (China, Iran, Russia) do not have any guarantees of information about governmental policy or performance which helps to prevent criticism. Remember that authoritarian regimes monitor and restrict citizens’ media access to a greater degree to maintain political control. Let's look at an example from each of our authoritarian course countries:
China uses the great firewall to limit criticism on social media. For example, you cannot find any information on the events of the Tienanmen Square events of 1989. China also monitors individual use of social media.
The Iranian courts have revoked media licenses if the content shared by the media outlet is deemed to be anti-religious. During a recent 2019-20 statewide protest, Iran shut down social media and the internet for 6 days.
The Russian media has been nationalized, meaning the government owns it and controls what is shared. The number of journalists who have mysteriously died in Russia is quite high.
Topic 3.7 is focused on the extent to which civil liberties and civil rights are affected by regime type, which as a reminder means authoritarian or democratic regimes. What is evident is that there are fewer protections and freedoms in regards to individual rights in authoritarian regimes, but even in democratic regimes there can be inconsistencies in protections.
What makes our discussions so difficult in regards to authoritarian and democratic regimes is that there is little agreement on how our course countries should be classified. In essence, our course countries lie on a spectrum, with one end at democracy and the other at authoritarianism. But, our course countries are constantly moving along that spectrum. So, let's look at our course countries one last time before moving on, and introduce another term you should know: hybrid regime.
Spectrum of Democracy and Authoritarianism
UK—Established or Substantive Democracy. This does not mean the democracy is perfect, but rather that it has a long established history of implementing the 7 characteristics of democracy (see Unit 1 Study Guide).
Mexico—Illiberal or Procedural or Emerging Democracy. This is a country that has democratic procedures in place but may have significant restrictions on those procedures. Remember this is because Mexico is moving away from its authoritarian past and democratizing.
Nigeria—Illiberal or Procedural or Emerging Democracy. This is a country that has democratic procedures in place but may have significant restrictions on those procedures. Remember this is because Nigeria is moving away from its authoritarian past and democratizing.
Russia—Hybrid Regime or Competitive Authoritarian Regime. A hybrid regime is one in which contested elections are held, but with limited degrees of competitiveness providing minimal civil liberty protections and governmental transparency. Russia has sometimes been referred to as an illiberal democracy as well, but in recent years under Putin, it is moving back towards authoritarianism.
China—Authoritarian Regime. Power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual, small group of individuals, or a party who have no rule of law to govern them.
Iran—Authoritarian Regime. Power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual, small group of individuals, or a party who have no rule of law to govern them.