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'Democracy is in retreat': Civil and political rights eroding, report warns

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: report warns of a "consistent and ominous" pattern of rights being eroded around the world; some who worked in the Allied intelligence apparatus kept their vows of secrecy long after the end of the Second World War.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A boy holds the Free Syrian army flag during a protest calling for an end to military strikes at the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib governorate, Syria, on May 31. Syria received the lowest score in an annual ranking of personal freedom in 209 nations and territories. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

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  • Global freedom has suffered an overall decline for the 13th straight year, according to an annual ranking of 209 nations and territories.
  • Some who worked in the Allied intelligence apparatus kept their vows of secrecy long after the end of the Second World War.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

The world's freedom problem

Civil and political rights are being eroded all over the world, warns a new report, as populist forces undermine liberal democracies and provide cover for authoritarian regimes.

The annual ranking of 209 nations and territories, prepared by the U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House, recorded an overall decline in global freedom for the 13th straight year.

And while substantial gains of the late 20th century haven't yet been rolled back, the report warns of a "consistent and ominous" pattern. "Democracy is in retreat," it declares.

The independent organization, which grades on 25 different indicators including press freedom, fair elections and legal equality, judged 87 countries and territories to have been "free" in 2018, while 64 were "partially free" and 58 were not free at all.

Syria received the lowest score — an imperfect zero — followed by South Sudan, Eritrea and Turkmenistan at two, North Korea at three, and Saudi Arabia with seven.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju watch a performance given by the wives of officers of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in this photo released June 3. North Korea was ranked near the bottom of the report on world freedoms. (Korean Central News Agency via Reuters)

Finland, Norway and Sweden all received the maximum 100 points, with Canada close behind at 99. The single-mark deduction came for Canada's treatment of Indigenous peoples, "who remain subject to discrimination and have unequal access to education, health care, and employment," the report says.

Freedom House also notes hopeful developments in Malaysia, Ethiopia, Armenia, Ecuador  and Angola, where changes of government led to net increases in rights and liberties in 2018.  

But the focus of the report card is firmly on the "crisis of confidence" that has taken hold in many liberal democracies, where anger and anxiety over economic inequality and loss of personal status have fueled the rise of right-wing, "antiliberal populist movements." Among the 41 nations that the think tank consistently ranked as "free" from 1985 to 2005, 22 have seen their scores decline over the past five years.

For example, this year, both Hungary and Serbia moved from the "free" to "partially free" category for their governments' sustained assault on freedom of the press and anti-immigrant politics.

And the problem is being made worse by Donald Trump's "America First" focus, says the report, which has seen the United States abandon its traditional defence of democracy in favour of "transactional and mercenary relations" with friends and foes alike.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump speaks to the media as he meets with the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Mihaly Orban, at the White House in Washington on May 13. Their meeting marked the first time a U.S. president had granted Orban a formal visit in more than 20 years. (Chris Kleponis/EPA-EFE)

On the homefront, the U.S. scored 86, holding steady from 2017, but down eight points since 2009. Overall, the country now ranks behind 51 of the other 86 nations and territories judged to be "free."

America's challenges did not start with Trump's inauguration, the report says, noting how the George W. Bush administration infringed on freedoms through the bulk collection of communications metadata, and how President Obama sought to punish those who leaked government secrets to the press.

But the erosion of core values has picked up speed over the past two years.

"Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions, including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections," the authors write. "Congress, a coequal branch of government, has too frequently failed to push back."

A delegate waves a 'Make America First Again' sign during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

And there has been a knock-on effect across the globe, with scores for freedom of expression and the press continuing to fall as leaders in emerging democracies dip into the Trump toolbox, using social media to bully and smear independent media, while building their own propaganda networks.

In the end, 2018 appears to have been a depressing year for freedom, with 68 countries showing declines in their report card scores, versus 50 that showed a measure of improvement.

And the only country to move up a category — from "not free" to "partially free" — was Zimbabwe, with an overall score of 31.

While the election that made Emmerson Mnangagwa president was "deeply flawed," the report notes that he is a small improvement on longtime dictator Robert Mugabe.  

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'We Also Served'

Some who worked in the Allied intelligence apparatus kept their vows of secrecy long after the end of the Second World War, producer Michelle Gagnon writes.

Bill Powell emailed me a photo of a brick yesterday. Not a threat, nor a joke. More like proof that he'd found the brick exactly where it was supposed to be.

The brick, inscribed with his mother's name — Jean Powell née Tackaberry — is part of a commemorative wall at Bletchley Park, the U.K. government's once covert, now famous code-breaking facility where a team led by Alan Turing cracked the German Enigma code.

Bill's brother, Tom Powell, purchased the brick in 2018 to honour the secret work their mother had done there.

The brick bearing Jean Powell's name is part of a commemorative wall at the U.K.'s Bletchley Park. (Bill Powell)

Tackaberry was one of 15 members of the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service — WRCNS, more commonly known as Wrens — who traveled to Bletchley in April 1945.

Like all who served at Bletchley and its outstations during the Second World War, Tackaberry was sworn to secrecy about the details of her days there.

"Her story was she was just a file clerk," said Bill Powell. "And the real truth is she was a classifier. That's basically a person who takes data that's been decoded and then moves it on down the chain."

Tackaberry remained tight-lipped most of her life.

"You couldn't press her. She wouldn't say anything," Bill explained, not even after information about Bletchley was declassified in the 1970s.

But as the years passed and public interest in Bletchley grew, popular culture offered her sons a new way in.

"We were watching the ladies from The Bletchley Circle," Bill said about the popular 2012 British TV programme. "The ladies' cover story was 'file clerk' and I'd ask, 'Mum, are you sure you were just a file clerk?'"

Eventually, she confirmed the bits and pieces her sons uncovered about her past, but never really offered anything up.

The 15 Canadian Wrens who worked at Bletchley Park posed for this photograph in Ottawa just before leaving for the U.K. Jean Tackaberry is in the top row, third from the right. (Bill Powell)

Her sons claim that being reserved was within character, but they also see an element of caution in her continued silence.

"The last thing somebody official told her was not to say anything. And with severe consequences if you did. So if she heard something on the radio ... or saw it on TV, that's not official to her," Bill explained. "Better stick to the story and you're safe."

Official recognition came in 2009 when Bletchley Park issued commemorative medals inscribed with a redeeming We Also Served.

Tackaberry received hers in the spring of 2015. She died a month later on July 3, 2015.

- Michelle Gagnon

  • READ: 'We were sworn to secrecy': Canadian women share stories of their efforts to help win WWII
  • WATCH: Adrienne Arsenault's 'The Listeners' for more stories about the Wrens' secret work during the Second World War, tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online
  • SPECIAL COVERAGE: On Thursday, The National's Adrienne Arsenault will host D-Day coverage from the Juno Beach Centre in France. The special begins at 5 a.m. on CBC-TV, CBC News Network and You can also watch it on CBC Gem, CBC News YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Quote of the moment

"They said: 'We are going to give you live ammunition and this is the real thing.' That was the first we knew we were in action. I thought 'My God, I was never brought up to be killing people.' There were so many cases where I could have lost my life. Thinking back now, I don't know how I survived."

- Canadian veteran Bob Roberts shares his D-Day memories in a video played at today's commemoration ceremony in Portsmouth, U.K.

What The National is reading

  • Nearly half of all child deaths in Africa stem from hunger, study shows (Guardian)
  • Pfizer had clues its drug could prevent Alzheimer's - why didn't it tell the world? (Washington Post)
  • 'Bodies pulled from Nile' after Sudan crackdown (BBC)
  • After years of legal wrangling, Ottawa moves to ban shark fin imports (CBC)
  • Volkswagen to cut 4,000 jobs in modernization plan (Sky News)
  • 911 service coming to N.W.T. in November (CBC)
  • Oakland becomes second U.S. city to legalize magic mushrooms (Associated Press)
  • A retiree paradise is overtaken by a Biblical plague of flies (One Zero)

Today in history

June 5, 1969: Campaign to convince Canadians to wear seatbelts

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Canadians still weren't convinced that seatbelts were worth the trouble. In fact, most people didn't even know how to wear one properly. "The lap belt goes across the hips and pelvis, not the abdomen," explains a doctor. A GM engineer shows off a primitive infant car seat, but admits that few parents are buying them. The company is also working on a "balloon type cocoon" that will deploy in the event of a crash, but that's a long way in the future.

1969 campaign to convince Canadians to wear seatbelts

4 years ago
Duration 2:22
A look at a 1969 campaign to convince Canadians to start wearing seat belts.

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.