Regional Trends | Freedom House

Regional Trends

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The negative pattern in 2014 held true across geographical regions, with more declines than gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and an even split in Asia-Pacific. 

Middle East and North Africa:

Tunisia a bright spot in troubled region

Although Tunisia became the Arab world’s only Free country after holding democratic elections under a new constitution, the rest of the Middle East and North Africa was racked by negative and often tragic events. The Syrian civil war ground on, the Islamic State and other extremist militant factions dramatically extended their reach, and Libya’s tentative improvements following the downfall of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi rapidly disintegrated as the country fell into a new internal conflict. Rival armed groups also overran a fragile political process in Yemen, and the effects of the Syrian war paralyzed elected institutions in Lebanon. Egypt continued its rollback of post- Mubarak reforms and solidified its return to autocracy with sham elections and a crackdown on all forms of dissent.

Following high-profile killings of Israeli and Palestinian civilians and a campaign of rocket attacks on Israel by Gaza-based militants, the Israel Defense Forces launched a 50-day air and ground offensive in Gaza over the summer. More than 2,200 people died, mostly Gazan civilians, and tens of thousands of homes in Gaza were damaged or destroyed. Israel was criticized for responding to attacks by Hamas militants in a disproportionate way, while Hamas was criticized for entrenching rocket launchers and fighters in civilian neighborhoods.

Notable gains or declines:

Bahrain’s political rights rating declined from 6 to 7 due to grave flaws in the 2014 legislative elections and the government’s unwillingness to address long-standing grievances among the majority Shiite community about the drawing of electoral districts and the possibility of fair representation.

Egypt received a downward trend arrow due to the complete marginalization of the opposition, state surveillance of electronic communications, public exhortations to report critics of the government to the authorities, and the mass trials and unjustified imprisonment of members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Iraq’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 due to the Islamic State’s attempts to destroy Christian, Shiite, Yazidi, and other communities under its control, as well as attacks on Sunnis by state-sponsored Shiite militias.

Lebanon received a downward trend arrow due to the parliament’s repeated failure to elect a president and its postponement of overdue legislative elections for another two and a half years, which left the country with a presidential void and a National Assembly whose mandate expired in 2013.

Libya’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 6, its civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the country’s descent into a civil war, which contributed to a humanitarian crisis as citizens fled embattled cities, and led to pressure on civil society and media outlets amid the increased political polarization.

Syria received a downward trend arrow due to worsening religious persecution, weakening of civil society groups and rule of law, and the large-scale starvation and torture of civilians and detainees.

Tunisia’s political rights rating improved from 3 to 1 and its status improved from Partly Free to Free due to the adoption of a progressive constitution, governance improvements under a consensus-based caretaker administration, and the holding of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, all with a high degree of transparency.

Yemen received a downward trend arrow due to the Houthi militant group’s seizure and occupation of the capital city, its forced reconfiguration of the cabinet, and its other demands on the president, which paralyzed Yemen’s formal political process. 


Ukraine in turmoil, conditions worsen in Central Asia

Events in Eurasia in 2014 were dominated by the upheaval in Ukraine. Gains related to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych through the Euromaidan protests in February, which led to the election of a new president and parliament later in the year, were offset by Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March and ongoing battles with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Crimea, evaluated separately for the first time for Freedom in the World 2015, emerged with a dismal freedom rating of 6.5 on a 7-point scale and a Not Free status, reflecting repressive conditions in which residents—especially Tatars and others who opposed the forced annexation—were deprived of their political rights and civil liberties.

The Russian government coupled its rejection of international pressure over Ukraine with intensified domestic controls on dissent, tightening its grip on the media sector and nongovernmental organizations.

Central Asia also took a turn for the worse in 2014. Kyrgyzstan, typically rated better than its neighbors, suffered from increased government restrictions on freedom of assembly and civil society groups. In Tajikistan, a sustained offensive against political pluralism continued with the persecution of opposition parties and the designation of one opposition movement, Group 24, as an extremist organization.

The government of Azerbaijan similarly renewed its assault on dissent in 2014, targeting traditional media and civil society organizations for legal harassment, arbitrary detention, and physical abuse.

Ratings for the region as a whole are the second worst in the world after the Middle East, and Crimea joins three other Eurasian states—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—on Freedom House’s list of the world’s most repressive countries and territories for 2014.

Notable gains or declines:

Azerbaijan received a downward trend arrow due to an intensified crackdown on dissent, including the imprisonment and abuse of human rights advocates and journalists.

Kyrgyzstan received a downward trend arrow due to a government crackdown on freedom of assembly and the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate.

Russia’s civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 due to expanded media controls, a dramatically increased level of propaganda on state-controlled television, and new restrictions on the ability of some citizens to travel abroad.

Tajikistan received a downward trend arrow due to constant abuse of opposition parties at the local level in the run-up to parliamentary elections, the designation of the political reform and opposition movement Group 24 as an extremist entity in October, and the arrest and temporary detention of academic researcher Alexander Sodiqov on treason charges.

Ukraine’s political rights rating rose from 4 to 3 due to improvements in political pluralism, parliamentary elections, and government transparency following the departure of President Viktor Yanukovych. 


Fair elections, a coup, and stalled reforms

Citizens of three major Asian states—India, Japan, and Indonesia—went to the polls in 2014, handing their leaders strong mandates through what were largely open and fair electoral processes. These positive achievements contrasted sharply with the coup d’état in Thailand, in which the military ousted an elected government, suspended the constitution, and implemented martial law restrictions that drastically rolled back political rights and civil liberties.

Myanmar, which has only partly abandoned military rule, began to veer from the path to democracy. Journalists and demonstrators faced greater restrictions, the Rohingya minority continued to suffer from violence and official discrimination, and proposed laws that would ban religious conversions and interfaith marriages threatened to legitimize anti- Muslim extremism.

Notable gains or declines:

Afghanistan received a downward trend arrow due to increased violence against journalists and civilians amid the withdrawal of international combat troops.

Bangladesh’s political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to national elections that were marred by an opposition boycott, as well as widespread violence and intimidation by a range of political parties.

East Timor’s civil liberties rating improved from 4 to 3 due to a decrease in restrictions on peaceful assembly and an overall improvement in the internal security situation over the past several years.

Fiji’s political rights rating improved from 6 to 3 due to September general elections—the first since a 2006 coup—that were deemed free and fair.

Hong Kong received a downward trend arrow due to restrictions on press freedom and freedom of assembly surrounding protests against a Chinese government decision to limit candidate nominations for future executive elections.

Malaysia received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s use of the Sedition Act to intimidate political opponents, an increase in arrests and harassment of Shiite Muslims and transgender Malaysians, and more extensive use of defamation laws to silence independent or critical voices.

Myanmar’s civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 due to restrictions on media freedom, including the arrest and imprisonment of a number of journalists.

Nauru’s civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2 due to government attempts to limit freedom of expression among foreign journalists and opposition figures, as well as the dismissal of judicial officials who refused the government’s push to try asylum seekers charged with rioting at a detention center in 2013.

Nepal’s political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to the functioning of a stable government for the first time in over five years following 2013 elections, and significant progress by the main political parties toward the completion of a draft constitution.

The Solomon Islands’ political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 as a result of relatively successful October elections, which featured biometric registration and were accepted as legitimate by both the opposition and voters.

South Korea received a downward trend arrow due to the increased intimidation of political opponents of President Park Geun-hye and crackdowns on public criticism of her performance following the Sewol ferry accident.

Sri Lanka’s civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5 due to increased pressure on freedom of expression and association, including curbs on traditional media and internet-based news and opinion, and surveillance and harassment of civil society activists.

Thailand’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 6, its civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the May military coup, whose leaders abolished the 2007 constitution and imposed severe restrictions on speech and assembly.


Democratic setbacks in Hungary, Turkey

In Hungary, parliamentary and local elections revealed the extent to which recent legislative and other changes have tilted the playing field in favor
of the ruling party, Fidesz. Observers noted slanted media coverage, the misuse of state resources, gerrymandering, and campaign spending problems. With its renewed parliamentary supermajority, Fidesz continued to transform the country’s institutions, facing few obstacles from the divided and enfeebled opposition.

Turkey drifted much further from democratic norms, with longtime prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rising to the presidency and overseeing government attempts to quash corruption cases against his allies and associates. The media and judiciary both faced greater interference by the executive and legislative branches, including a series of raids and arrests targeting media outlets affiliated with Erdoğan’s political enemies.

Notable gains or declines:

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 because the government largely ignored a significant civic movement protesting corruption and calling for reforms in early 2014, and proved generally unresponsive to the population’s concerns.

Hungary’s political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to an election campaign that demonstrated the diminished space for fair competition given legislative and other advantages accrued by the ruling party.

Kosovo’s political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 due to the comparatively successful conduct of June elections and a subsequent agreement by rival parties to form a coalition government.

Macedonia’s political rights rating declined from 3 to 4 due to serious shortcomings in the April general elections and a related legislative boycott by the opposition.

Turkey received a downward trend arrow due to more pronounced political interference in anticorruption mechanisms and judicial processes, and greater tensions between majority Sunni Muslims and minority Alevis.

Sub-Saharan Africa:

Fragile states face challenges from Ebola, Islamist militants

Sub-Saharan Africa again experienced extreme volatility in 2014. News from the continent was dominated by the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and a sharp rise in violence by Islamist militants from Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Kenya. However, several other countries, particularly in East Africa, suffered democratic declines during the year, as repressive governments further limited the space for critical views.

In Uganda, a series of recent laws that targeted the opposition, civil society, the LGBT community, and women led to serious rights abuses and increased suppression of dissent. Burundi’s government cracked down further on the already-restricted opposition in advance of 2015 elections, and critics of the authorities in Rwanda faced increased surveillance and harassment online.

Civil conflicts sparked by poor governance continued to rage in South Sudan and Central African Republic in 2014. In South Sudan, the war fueled widespread ethnic violence and displacement, and the rival factions failed to agree on a peace deal that would allow the country to hold elections on schedule in 2015. Although Central African Republic formed a transitional government in January in the wake of a March 2013 coup, attacks by Muslim and Christian militias led to a rise in intercommunal clashes and thousands of civilian deaths, and forced more than 800,000 people to flee their homes.

In Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaoré was forced to resign amid popular protests over his attempt to change the constitution and extend his 27-year rule in 2015. This led to the dissolution of the government and parliament by the military, which took charge of the country.

Improvements were seen in Madagascar and Guinea- Bissau, which held their first elections during late 2013 and 2014 following coups in previous years. It remained uncertain whether these gains would be consolidated.

Notable gains or declines:

Burkina Faso’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 as a result of the dissolution of the government and parliament by the military, which took charge of the country after President Blaise Compaoré was forced to resign amid popular protests over his attempt to run for reelection in 2015.

Burundi’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free, due to a coordinated government crackdown on opposition party members and critics, with dozens of arrests and harsh sentences imposed on political activists and human rights defenders.

The Gambia received a downward trend arrow due to an amendment to the criminal code that increased the penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” to life in prison, leading to new arrests of suspected LGBT people and an intensified climate of fear.

Guinea-Bissau’s political rights rating improved from 6 to 5, and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free, because the 2014 elections—the first since a 2012 coup—were deemed free and fair by international and national observers, and the opposition was able to compete and increase its participation in government.

Lesotho received a downward trend arrow due to a failed military coup in August, which shook the country’s political institutions and left lasting tensions.

Liberia received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s imposition of ill-advised quarantines that restricted freedom of movement and employment in some of the country’s most destitute areas, as well as several new or revived restrictions on freedoms of the press and assembly.

Madagascar’s political rights rating improved from 5 to 4 due to a peaceful transition after recovery from an earlier coup and the seating of a new parliament that included significant opposition representation.

Nigeria’s civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5 due a sharp deterioration in conditions for residents of areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, including mass displacement and a dramatic increase in violence perpetrated by both the militants and security forces.

Rwanda’s civil liberties rating declined from 5 to 6 due to the narrowing space for expression and discussion of views that are critical of the government, particularly on the internet, amid increased suspicions of government surveillance of private communications.

South Sudan’s political rights rating declined from 6 to 7 due to the intensification of the civil war, which derailed the electoral timetable and featured serious human rights abuses by the combatants, including deliberate attacks on rival ethnic groups for political reasons.

Swaziland received a downward trend arrow due to an intensified crackdown on freedom of expression, including the jailing of a journalist and a lawyer for criticizing the country’s chief justice.

Uganda’s civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free, due to increased violations of individual rights and the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, particularly for opposition supporters, civil society groups, women, and the LGBT community. 


Insecurity in Mexico, opportunity in Cuba

In Mexico, public outrage at the authorities’ failure to stem criminal violence and corruption reached a boiling point after the disappearance of 43 politically active students in Guerrero. Protests initially led by the families of the students, who were killed by a criminal gang linked to local officials, grew into mass demonstrations across the country that challenged the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Organized crime and gang violence also continued to rise in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, leading thousands of citizens to flee to the United States during the year.

A major development in the region was the announcement that the United States and Cuba had agreed to the normalization of relations after a rupture of more than 50 years. Although Cuba is the Americas’ worst-rated country in Freedom in the World, it has shown modest progress over the past several years, with Cubans gaining more rights to establish private businesses and travel abroad. In 2014, Cuba registered improvement for a growth in independent media, most notably the new digital newspaper 14ymedio. While it remains illegal to print and distribute such media, independent journalists have found ways to share their stories online and via data packets that circulate in the black market. As part of the normalization agreement, Cuba released a number of political prisoners, including U.S. contractor Alan Gross. However, the accord included no other human rights stipulations.

The United States experienced a wave of protests over separate police killings of unarmed black males in Missouri, New York, and elsewhere, and the repeated failure of prosecutors to secure indictments of the officers responsible. The protests led to a variety of proposals for reforming police tactics, including the introduction of video cameras to record officers’ interactions with civilians. Separately, in December the Senate released a lengthy report on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s torture and mistreatment of terrorism suspects in the years immediately after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the country. The report detailed the frequency and severity of CIA interrogation techniques, as well as the lack of oversight by the White House and Congress. Human rights groups and others reiterated calls for the prosecution of those responsible for the abuses, but critics said the report was biased, and there were no immediate signs of a new criminal investigation.

The governments of Venezuela and Ecuador continued their pattern of cracking down on the political opposition and other critical voices. Venezuelan authorities responded to opposition-led demonstrations in the spring with particularly repressive measures, including mass arrests, excessive force, and alleged physical abuse of detained protesters.

Notable gains or declines:

Ecuador received a downward trend arrow due to increased limits on freedom of expression, including the monitoring of online content and harassment of bloggers and social-media users.

Haiti’s political rights rating declined from 4 to 5 due to its failure to hold constitutionally mandated parliamentary and municipal elections for three years, use of the judicial system to persecute political opponents and human rights defenders, and tolerance of violence against media that are critical of the government.

Mexico received a downward trend arrow due to the forced disappearance of 43 students who were engaging in political activities that reportedly angered local authorities in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, an atrocity that highlighted the extent of corruption among local authorities and the environment of impunity in the country.

Venezuela received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s repressive response to antigovernment demonstrations, including violence by security forces, the politicized arrests of opposition supporters, and the legal system’s failure to protect basic due process rights for all detained Venezuelans.