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World

2 Reports Paint A Grim Picture Of Human Rights Worldwide

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two groups that monitor human rights around the world have put out two grim reports. Freedom House says one-third of the world's population lives in areas plagued by repression and rights abuses. One-third, that's billions of people. Human Rights Watch warns of the greatest threat to human rights in a generation because of the fear of terrorism and the fear of popular uprisings. NPR's Peter Kenyon is covering this story from Istanbul, which is where Human Rights Watch is releasing its report this morning. And Peter, why Istanbul?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, they say Turkey represents both the major themes in this report. It's overwhelmed with Syrian migrants, and at the same time, it's cracking down on dissent. The report talks about the migrant flow to Europe, recent terrorist attacks that have European and U.S. governments on edge. We have been tracking this, of course. But when I spoke with Ken Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, he pointed to a second trend going on at the same time and that is authoritarian leaders harshly cracking down on both their political opponents and civil society groups that are trying to make governments more accountable. Here's how he put it.

KEN ROTH: A series of authoritarian governments are increasingly afraid of their societies. And in particular, they're afraid of the possibility of civic groups using social media to mobilize significant numbers in the streets to protest against misrule or corruption by the authoritarian leaders.

INSKEEP: Wow, so a chain of cause and effect here, there's more social media, more free communication. Authoritarian governments feel more threatened, so they crack down more. Is that it?

KENYON: Yeah, exactly. We've had years of chaos and conflict in Syria. Some may have forgotten that it all started as a popular uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Roth says other authoritarian leaders haven't forgotten that at all, and it's by no means limited to Mideast countries in the Arab Spring. There's the Ukraine revolution, the occupy movement in Hong Kong. And he says these social media-fueled uprisings really have grabbed attention in other capitals. Here's how he describes it.

ROTH: Each of these started by a group of NGOs, civic groups, but they were able to magnify their voices and really rally many to the streets by using social media. And that is a combination that autocrats are terrified of. So they have taken the offensive and have tried to shut down the ability of these groups to organize.

INSKEEP: OK, they have taken the offensive. Who's they? Who's doing this?

KENYON: Well, the way he puts it is just as the activists were learning from other uprisings that some of these authoritarian leaders are watching each other and learning new techniques, finding out what works, who's doing it, Russia and China, very familiar names, are high on the list. He says they've been cracking down on dissent even more now as their economies stumble. Anti-terror laws are popular, but so is prosecution of civil society groups or academics as is happening here in Turkey, for example. And then there's the more subtle approach, and that's money. India is cutting off NGO funding. Ethiopia has a rule. You can only have 10 percent foreign funding if you're an NGO. And in a country that poor, that basically cripples civil society there. So it's a lot of countries on the list - Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam. And I'm leaving a lot out. It's a long list.

INSKEEP: I think some people might even be surprised by some of those names. When we hear India, we think world's largest democracy, but this report looks into India and finds a restricted environment.

KENYON: That's exactly right. And he mentioned that it is surprising to see that name on that list, but that's what their evidence shows.

INSKEEP: Now the Freedom House report, the other report that you are seeing today, had this number of one-third of the world's population living in repression. This is - is this actually a spread of authoritarian government around the world is getting worse than it was?

KENYON: Yeah, they've been doing this survey for 10 years, and this is a big decline. They also cited nervous authoritarian rulers and the other factors we mentioned. They did point to a few rays of hope. Elections in Myanmar, Venezuela, Nigeria all rejected incumbents. And that at least suggests that elections might still hold out hope for change at least in some places.

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks as always.

KENYON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon. He is in Istanbul, one of two places where reports are being released today, reporting on human rights and human rights abuses around the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.