Freedom in the World 2008: Global Freedom in Retreat

Washington, D.C.

The year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom, Freedom House reported in a worldwide survey of freedom released today.

The decline in freedom, as reported in Freedom in the World 2008, an annual survey of political rights and civil liberties worldwide, was reflected in reversals in one-fifth of the world’s countries. Most pronounced in South Asia, it also reached significant levels in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. A substantial number of politically important countries whose declines have broad regional and global implications—including Russia, Pakistan, Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, and Venezuela—were affected.

Complete survey results reflect global events during 2007. A package of charts and graphs and an explanatory essay are available online.

“This year’s results show a profoundly disturbing deterioration of freedom worldwide,” said Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House. “A number of countries that had previously shown progress toward democracy  have regressed, while none of the most influential Not Free states showed signs of improvement. As the second consecutive year that the survey has registered a global decline in political rights and civil liberties, friends of freedom worldwide have real cause for concern.” 

While the profile of world freedom as measured by the number of countries designated in Freedom in the World as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free changed little during the past year, there were many negative changes within these broad categories. In all, nearly four times as many countries showed declines during the year as registered improvement.  

Many  of the countries that moved backward were already designated Not Free by the survey.  The past year saw the intensification of an effort by authoritarian regimes -- Egypt and Pakistan are two examples --  to consolidate power through the suppression of democratic opposition, civil society, and independent media in their own societies. Especially important in carrying out this assault on freedom of association was a group of market-oriented autocracies and energy-rich dictatorships, including Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and China.

 Not one of the countries that registered the lowest possible scores in the Freedom House index -- the “worst of the worst” -- exhibited signs of improvement. This represents a break from a trend formerly observable even in past years when world freedom stagnated or declined, in which progress was registered in some of the world’s most tightly controlled dictatorships.

Just as concerning, countries that had made progress towards freedom in recent years took significant steps backwards.  In Asia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines all saw declines in their ratings.  In the Middle East, hopes for movement forward in Palestine and Lebanon were dampened by negative trends in the last year in both countries.  The deterioration within Nigeria and Kenya, two of Africa’s most important countries, should be of great concern for those who had hoped that the incremental gains of recent years would continue. Two countries that had “color” revolutions in past years -- Kyrgyzstan and Georgia -- also saw disturbing declines.  
 
Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, urged supporters of freedom  to redouble their efforts to support freedom’s advocates and activists in other societies. “Right now, authoritarian regimes have been able to use their influence to slow freedom’s advance and, in some cases, reverse positive progress.  Democratic governments have not worked together effectively to counter these trends. Those who support freedom -- both governments as well as nongovernmental actors -- must get serious and redouble their efforts to support  the frontline defenders of democracy who are under duress,” said Ms. Windsor.

Global Findings
  • The number of countries judged by Freedom in the World as Free in 2007 stood at 90, representing 46 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries did not change from the previous year’s survey.
  • The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 60, or 18 percent of the world population. The number of Partly Free countries increased by two from the previous year, as Thailand and Togo both moved from Not Free to Partly Free.
  • Forty-three countries were judged Not Free, representing 36 percent of the global population. The number of Not Free countries declined by two from 2006. One territory, the Palestinian Authority, declined from Partly Free to Not Free.
  • The number of electoral democracies dropped by two and totals 121. One country, Mauritania, qualified to join the world’s electoral democracies in 2007. Developments in three countries—Philippines, Bangladesh and Kenya—disqualified them from the electoral democracy list.
Regional Patterns

A number of Asia’s most important countries, many on the Indian subcontinent, suffered setbacks in freedom during 2007. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka all experienced downturns due to increased restrictions on civil society and, in three of the four cases, increased military activity. Declines were also noted in the Philippines, Burma, and Malaysia. A positive development in the region was the improvement of Thailand from Not Free to Partly Free due to the holding of elections by year's end. 

In the formerly communist countries of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan—all countries with entrenched authoritarian leaderships and growing energy wealth—registered declines in 2007. Former democratic aspirants Georgia and Kyrgyzstan also moved backwards in 2007. In contrast, however, the countries of Eastern and Central Europe continued to move ahead with the process of democratic consolidation. Poland showed a modest gain, while  Latvia and Bosnia and Herzegovina registered slight declines.

The period of modest gains that had marked the political landscape of the Middle East in the post-9/11 period came to an end in 2007. Backward movement was registered in three important countries of the Arab Middle East: Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. Major declines were also noted in both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli-Occupied Territories. Tunisia, long one of the region’s most repressive states, also experienced a further decline in political rights in 2007.

While sub-Saharan Africa has made incremental if uneven progress in the last several years, 2007 saw an overall deterioration of freedom on the continent. Fifteen countries registered reversals, while six countries marked improvements. Togo moved from Not Free to Partly Free, and Mauritania was designated an electoral democracy this year. Two countries that were conflict zones, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, showed major improvements, as did Mozambique and Rwanda. However, political manipulation of ethnic tensions and intolerance by many of the region’s leaders were important factors in the declines of a number of countries, including Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria. Mali and Niger registered declines in civil liberties, while in East Africa, Somalia’s already low score declined further. Other countries that showed declines included Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Comoros, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Malawi. 

Latin America
today is largely governed by parties that have demonstrated a commitment to the electoral process, freedom of expression, and a broad range of civil liberties. However, Freedom in the World judged that freedom in Venezuela remained under duress, and Nicaragua also suffered a decline. On the positive side, Haiti showed signs of modest progress.

Both North America and, with a few exceptions, Western Europe received the highest ratings on the Freedom House index. However, the flawed response to an upsurge in immigration in Europe and the U.S. has revealed potentially serious imperfections in these countries’ democratic systems, especially in Western Europe. Furthermore, they continued to grapple with problems posed by the continued threat of Islamic terrorism.

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom around the world, has monitored political rights and civil liberties around the world since 1972. 


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