Methodology | Freedom House


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Since its inception in the 1970s, Freedom House's Freedom in the World survey has provided an annual evaluation of political rights and civil liberties throughout the world. The survey attempts to judge all countries and territories by a single standard, emphasizing the importance of democracy and freedom. At a minimum, a democracy is a political system in which the people choose their authoritative leaders freely from among competing groups and individuals who are not designated by the government. Freedom is the opportunity to act spontaneously in a variety of fields outside the control of the government and other centers of potential domination.

The survey rates countries and territories based on real-world situations caused by state and nongovernmental factors, rather than on governmental intentions or legislation alone. Freedom House does not rate governments per se, but rather the rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals in each country or territory. The survey team does not base its judgment solely on the political conditions in a country or territory (e.g., war, terrorism), but by the effect that these conditions have on freedom.

Freedom House does not maintain a culture-bound view of democracy. The survey demonstrates that there are free states with varying forms of democracy functioning among people of all races and religions. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of democracies in developing countries, and the survey reflects their growing numbers. To reach its conclusions, the survey team employs a broad range of sources of information, including foreign and domestic news reports, nongovernmental organization publications, think tank and academic analyses, and individual professional contacts.

Definitions and categories of the Survey

The survey's concept of freedom encompasses two general sets of characteristics, grouped as political rights and civil liberties. In a free society, political rights enable people to participate freely in the political process, including enjoying the right to vote and compete for public office and to elect representatives who have a decisive vote on public policies. Civil liberties include the freedom to develop views, institutions, and personal autonomy without interference from the state.

The survey assigns each country or territory under consideration two numerical ratings, one for political rights and one for civil liberties. These two ratings are then averaged to determine an overall status of "Free," "Partly Free," or "Not Free." (See the following section, Rating System for Political Rights and Civil Liberties, for a detailed description of the survey's methodology.)

Freedom House rates both independent countries and select territories. For the purposes of the survey, countries are defined as internationally recognized independent states whose governments reside within their officially claimed borders. In the case of Cyprus, two sets of ratings are provided, as there are two governments on that divided island. However, this does not imply that Freedom House endorses Cypriot division. We note only that neither the predominantly Greek Republic of Cyprus, nor the Turkish-occupied, predominantly Turkish territory of the Republic of Northern Cyprus, is the de facto government for the entire island.

Freedom House divides territories into two categories: related territories and disputed territories. Related territories consist mostly of colonies, protectorates, and island dependencies of sovereign states that are in some relation of dependency to that state and whose relationship is not currently in serious legal or political dispute. Puerto Rico and Hong Kong are examples of related territories. Disputed territories are areas within internationally recognized sovereign states whose status is in serious political or violent dispute and that often are dominated by a minority ethnic group. This group also includes territories whose incorporation into nation-states is not universally recognized. In some cases, the issue of dispute is the desire of the majority of the population of that territory to secede from the sovereign state and either form an independent country or become part of a neighboring state. Tibet, Kashmir, and Abkhazia are examples of disputed territories. Beginning with the 2000-2001 survey, only those 17 territories about which reports have been written have been assigned ratings or a status designation.

The survey assigns the designation "electoral democracy" to those countries that have met minimum standards for free and fair elections as judged by various international election observers. Among the basic criteria are that voters should have access to information about candidates and their platforms, that they should be able to vote without undue pressure from the authorities, and that candidates should be able to campaign free from intimidation. The presence of certain irregularities during the electoral process does not automatically disqualify a country from being designated an electoral democracy. All Free countries rated in the survey would qualify as electoral democracies, as would some Partly Free countries.

Rating System for Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The survey rates political rights and civil liberties separately on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free. A country or territory is assigned a particular rating on the basis of the individual survey author's responses to a series of checklist questions and the judgments of the survey team at Freedom House. The authors assign initial ratings to countries or territories by awarding from 0 to 4 raw points per checklist item, depending on the comparative rights or liberties present. (In the surveys completed from 1989-1990 through 1992-1993, the methodology allowed for a less nuanced range of 0 to 2 raw points per question.) The only exception to the addition of 0 to 4 raw points per checklist item is Additional Discretionary Question B in the Political Rights Checklist, for which 1 to 4 raw points are subtracted depending on the severity of the situation. The highest possible score for political rights is 32 points, the total of up to 4 points for each of 8 questions. The highest possible score for civil liberties is 56 points, the total of up to 4 points for each of 14 questions. After the countries and territories have been assigned political rights and civil liberties ratings based on the total number of raw points in each of the two categories, the survey team makes minor adjustments to account for factors such as extreme violence, the intensity of which may not be reflected in answers to the checklist questions.

Almost without exception, countries and territories have ratings in political rights and civil liberties that are within two ratings numbers of each other. Without a well-developed civil society, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have an atmosphere supportive of democracy. A society that does not enjoy free individual and group expression in nonpolitical matters is not likely to make an exception for political ones. Consequently, there is no country in the survey with a rating of 6 or 7 for civil liberties and, at the same time, a rating of 1 or 2 for political rights.

A change in a country's political rights or civil liberties situation since the previous survey may be indicated by a political rights or civil liberties ratings change (depending on the total raw points), and possibly a status change. Freedom House also assigns upward or downward trend arrows to countries and territories to indicate general positive or negative trends since the previous survey that are not necessarily reflected in the raw points and do not warrant a ratings change. A country cannot receive both a numerical ratings change and a trend arrow in the same year, nor can it receive trend arrows in the same direction in two successive years.

Political Rights Check List

  1. Is the head of state and/or head of government or other chief authority elected through free and fair elections?
  2. Are the legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
  3. Are there fair electoral laws, equal campaigning opportunities, fair polling, and honest tabulation of ballots?
  4. Are the voters able to endow their freely elected representatives with real power?
  5. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
  6. Is there a significant opposition vote, de facto opposition power, and a realistic possibility for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
  7. Are the people free from domination by the military, foreign powers, totalitarian parties, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group?
  8. Do cultural, ethnic, religious, and other minority groups have reasonable self-determination, self-government, autonomy, or participation through informal consensus in the decision-making process?

Political Rights

Category Number
Raw Points

Civil Liberties

Category Number
Raw Points

Additional discretionary Political Rights questions:

A. For traditional monarchies that have no parties or electoral process, does the sysem provide for consultation with the people, encourage discussion of policy, and allow the right to petition the ruler?

B. Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group?

To answer the political rights questions, Freedom House considers the extent to which the system offers voters the opportunity to choose freely from among candidates, and to what extent the candidates are chosen independently of the state. However, formal electoral procedures are not the only factors that determine the real distribution of power. In many countries, the military retains a significant political role, while in others, the king maintains considerable power over the elected politicians. The more that people suffer under such domination by unelected forces, the less chance the country has of receiving credit for self-determination in the survey.

Civil Liberties Check List

A. Freedom of Expression and Belief
1. Are there free and independent media and other forms of cultural expression? (Note: in cases where the media are state-controlled but offer pluralistic points of view, the Survey gives the system credit.)
2. Are there free religious institutions and is there free private and public religious expression?

B. Association and Organizational Rights
1. Is there freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion?
2. Is there freedom of political or quasi-political organization? (Note: this includes political parties, civic organizations, ad hoc issue groups, etc.)
3. Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?

C. Rule of Law and Human Rights
1. Is there an independent judiciary?
2. Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Is the population treated equally under the law? Are police under direct civilian control?
3. Is there protection from political terror, unjustified imprisonment, exile, or torture, whether by groups that support or oppose the system? Is there freedom from war and insurgencies? (Note: freedom from war and insurgencies enhances the liberties in a free society, but the absence of wars and insurgencies does not in and of itself make a not free society free.)
4. Is there freedom from extreme government indifference and corruption?

D. Personal Autonomy and Economic Rights
1. Is there open and free private discussion?
2. Is there personal autonomy? Does the state control travel, choice of residence, or choice of employment? Is there freedom from indoctrination and excessive dependency on the state?
3. Are property rights secure? Do citizens have the right to establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, or organized crime?
4. Are there personal social freedoms, including gender equality, choice of marriage partners, and size of family?
5. Is there equality of opportunity, including freedom from exploitation by or dependency on landlords, employers, union leaders, bureaucrats, or other types of obstacles to a share of legitimate economic gains?

When analyzing the civil liberties checklist, Freedom House does not mistake constitutional guarantees of human rights for those rights in practice. For states and territories with small populations, particularly tiny island nations, the absence of trade unions and other forms of association is not necessarily viewed as a negative situation unless the government or other centers of domination are deliberately blocking their establishment or operation. In some cases, the small size of these countries and territories may result in a lack of sufficient institutional complexity to allow for full comparison with larger countries. Question D5, on equality of opportunity, implies a free choice of employment and education. Extreme inequality of opportunity prevents disadvantaged individuals from enjoying full exercise of civil liberties. Typically, very poor countries and territories lack both opportunities for economic advancement and other liberties included on this checklist. Question C4, on extreme government indifference and corruption, highlights the fact that the human rights of a country's residents suffer when governments ignore the social and economic welfare of large sectors of the population. Government corruption can pervert the political process and hamper the development of a free economy.

Explanation of Political Rights and Civil Liberties Ratings

Political Rights
Countries and territories that receive a rating of 1 for political rights come closest to the ideals suggested by the checklist questions, beginning with free and fair elections. Those who are elected rule, there are competitive parties or other political groupings, and the opposition plays an important role and has actual power. Citizens enjoy self-determination or an extremely high degree of autonomy (in the case of territories), and minority groups have reasonable self-government or can participate in the government through informal consensus. With the exception of such entities as tiny island states, these countries and territories have decentralized political power and free subnational elections.

Countries and territories rated 2 in political rights are less free than those rated 1. Such factors as gross political corruption, violence, political discrimination against minorities, and foreign or military influence on politics may be present and weaken the quality of democracy.

The same conditions that undermine freedom in countries and territories with a rating of 2 may also weaken political rights in those with a rating of 3, 4, or 5. Other damaging elements can include civil war, heavy military involvement in politics, lingering royal power, unfair elections, or one-party dominance. However, states and territories in these categories may still enjoy some elements of political rights, including the freedom to organize quasi-political groups, reasonably free referenda, or other significant means of popular influence on government.

Countries and territories with political rights rated 6 have systems ruled by military juntas, one-party dictatorships, religious hierarchies, or autocrats. These regimes may allow only a minimal manifestation of political rights, such as competitive local elections or some degree of representation or autonomy for minorities. Some countries and territories rated 6 are in the early or aborted stages of democratic transition. A few states are traditional monarchies that mitigate their relative lack of political rights through the use of consultation with their subjects, toleration of political discussion, and acceptance of public petitions.

For countries and territories with a rating of 7, political rights are absent or virtually nonexistent as a result of the extremely oppressive nature of the regime or severe oppression in combination with civil war. States and territories in this group may also be marked by extreme violence or warlord rule that dominates political power in the absence of an authoritative, functioning central government.

Civil Liberties
Countries and territories that receive a rating of 1 come closest to the ideals expressed in the civil liberties checklist, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. They are distinguished by an established and generally equitable system of rule of law and are comparatively free of extreme government indifference or corruption. Countries and territories with this rating enjoy free economic activity and tend to strive for equality of opportunity.

States and territories with a rating of 2 have deficiencies in three or four aspects of civil liberties, but are still relatively free.

Countries and territories that have received a rating of 3, 4, or 5 range from those that are in at least partial compliance with virtually all checklist standards to those with a combination of high or medium scores for some questions and low or very low scores on other questions. The level of oppression increases at each successive rating level, particularly in the areas of censorship, political terror, and the prevention of free association. There are also many cases in which groups opposed to the state engage in political terror that undermines other freedoms. Therefore, a poor rating for a country is not necessarily a comment on the intentions of the government, but may reflect real restrictions on liberty caused by nongovernmental terror.

Countries and territories rated 6 are characterized by a few partial rights, such as some religious and social freedoms, some highly restricted private business activity, and relatively free private discussion. In general, people in these states and territories experience severely restricted rights of expression and association, and there are almost always political prisoners and other manifestations of political terror.

States and territories with a rating of 7 have virtually no freedom. An overwhelming and justified fear of repression characterizes these societies.

Explanation of Free, Partly Free, Not Free

The survey assigns each country and territory the status of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free by averaging their political rights and civil liberties ratings. Those whose ratings average 1 to 2.5 are considered Free, 3 to 5.5 Partly Free, and 5.5 to 7 Not Free. The dividing line between Partly Free and Not Free falls at 5.5. For example, countries that receive a rating of 6 for political rights and 5 for civil liberties, or a 5 for political rights and a 6 for civil liberties, could be either Partly Free or Not Free. The total number of raw points is the definitive factor that determines the final status. Countries and territories with combined raw scores of 0 to 30 points are Not Free, 31 to 59 points are Partly Free, and 60 to 88 are Free.

The designations of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free each cover a broad third of the available raw points. Therefore, countries and territories within any one category, especially those at either end of the category, can have quite different human rights situations. In order to see the distinctions within each category, one should examine a country or territory's political rights and civil liberties ratings.

The differences in raw points between countries in the three broad categories represent distinctions in the real world. There are obstacles that Partly Free countries must overcome before they can be considered Free, just as there are impediments that prevent Not Free countries from being considered Partly Free. Countries at the lowest rung of the Free category (2 in political rights and 3 in civil liberties, or 3 in political rights and 2 in civil liberties) differ from those at the upper end of the Partly Free group (e.g., 3 for both political rights and civil liberties). Typically, there is more violence and/or military influence on politics at 3, 3 than at 2, 3.

The distinction between the least repressive Not Free countries and the worst Partly Free may be less obvious than the gap between Partly Free and Free, but at Partly Free, there is at least one additional factor that keeps a country from being assigned to the Not Free category. For example, Lebanon, which was rated 6, 5 Partly Free in 1994, was rated 6, 5, but Not Free, in 1995 after its legislature unilaterally extended the incumbent president's term indefinitely. Though this was not sufficient to drop the country's political rights rating to 7, there was enough of a drop in raw points to change its category.

Freedom House does not view democracy as a static concept, and the survey recognizes that not every democratic country necessarily belongs in our category of Free states. A democracy can lose freedom and become merely Partly Free. Sri Lanka and Colombia are recent examples of such Partly Free democracies. In other cases, countries that replaced military regimes with elected governments can have less than complete transitions to liberal democracy. Guatemala fits the description of this kind of Partly Free democracy. Some scholars use the term "semi-democracy" or "formal democracy," instead of Partly Free democracy, to refer to countries that are democratic in form but less than free in substance.

The designation Free does not mean that a country enjoys perfect freedom or lacks serious problems. As an institution that advocates human rights, Freedom House remains concerned about a variety of social problems and civil liberties questions in the United States and other countries that the survey places in the Free category. An improvement in a country's rating does not mean that human rights campaigns should cease. On the contrary, the findings of the survey should be regarded as a means of encouraging improvements in the political rights and civil liberties conditions in all countries.