Freedom in the World 2021 marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.
2021 Country & Territory Scores
Freedom in the World rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 195 countries and 15 territories, providing both numerical ratings and supporting descriptive texts.
Freedom in the World 2021
Status Change Explanations
- India: India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.
- Jordan: Jordan’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to harsh new restrictions on freedom of assembly, a crackdown on the teachers’ union following a series of strikes and protests, and factors including a lack of adequate preparations that harmed the quality of parliamentary elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Kyrgyzstan: Kyrgyzstan’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free because the aftermath of deeply flawed parliamentary elections featured significant political violence and intimidation that culminated in the irregular seizure of power by a nationalist leader and convicted felon who had been freed from prison by supporters.
- Mali: Mali’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to legislative elections that were marred by political violence and a subsequent military coup that removed the country’s elected civilian leadership.
- Peru: Peru’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to extended political clashes between the presidency and Congress since 2017 that have heavily disrupted governance and anticorruption efforts, strained the country’s constitutional order, and resulted in an irregular succession of four presidents within three years.
- Seychelles: The Seychelles’ status improved from Partly Free to Free because a strengthened electoral framework contributed to a more open and competitive presidential election, resulting in the country’s first transfer of power to an opposition party.
- Thailand: Thailand’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the dissolution of a popular opposition party that had performed well in the 2019 elections, and the military-dominated government’s crackdown on youth-led protests calling for democratic reforms.
- Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the authorities’ intensifying persecution of opposition figures and civic activists.
Countries in the Spotlight
The following countries—and one territory—featured important developments in 2020 that affected their democratic trajectory, and deserve special scrutiny in 2021.
- Armenia: Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s reformist government is in political jeopardy as the country grapples with the fallout from the war with Azerbaijan.
- Côte d’Ivoire: President Alassane Ouattara defied constitutional term limits and secured election to a third term in a process marred by candidate disqualifications, an opposition boycott, and widespread political violence.
- El Salvador: President Nayib Bukele has used security forces to strongarm the parliament and enforce brutal pandemic-related restrictions on movement.
- Ethiopia: The initially reformist government responded to political and ethnic unrest with mass arrests and a military offensive in the Tigray Region, leading to widespread and egregious human rights violations.
- Hong Kong: Beijing’s imposition of a draconian National Security Law in 2020 has resulted in arrests of prodemocracy activists, increased self-censorship, and a weakening of due process safeguards.
- Jordan: Authorities disbanded a major teachers’ union and enforced excessive restrictions on assembly during the pandemic, suppressing dissent and harming the quality of parliamentary elections.
- Malawi: A flawed 2019 election was annulled by the Constitutional Court, the rerun election was better managed, and the resulting government made progress in fighting corruption.
- North Macedonia: The recently reelected government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has reversed years of democratic backsliding, but the country continues to be denied a chance to join the European Union.
- Peru: The dubious impeachment of one president was quickly followed by the resignation of his replacement, highlighting deep political dysfunction that has disrupted anticorruption efforts.
- Sri Lanka: A pandemic-related delay in elections allowed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to rule without a legislature for five months, and once elected, the new parliament approved constitutional amendments to expand the president’s authority.
From Blogger to Civil Society Leader
The road to an open democratic society is long and winding. In a recent conversation with Freedom House, Ethiopia's Befekadu Hailu outlined what he believes are the three biggest threats to Ethiopia’s burgeoning democracy: foundering institutions, coordinated disinformation, and a weak culture of civic engagement.
Lockdown violence, free speech restrictions, and legislative tumult
People in a number of countries in the Americas faced violence and other abuses in the enforcement of harsh COVID-19 lockdowns. Police and military units in El Salvador and Venezuela reportedly engaged in arbitrary detentions and torture, while paramilitary groups policed civilian movement in Venezuela and Colombia. Even in Argentina, where democratic institutions are stronger, reports emerged of police firing rubber bullets at alleged quarantine breakers. Separately, the president of Mexico downplayed the harms of the coronavirus, leaving citizens with less access to life-saving information and resources.
Freedom of expression suffered elsewhere in the region. Cuban authorities unleashed a wave of intimidation, arbitrary detentions, and illegal house arrests against independent journalists and a group of dissident artists with whom the government had at one point promised an open dialogue. A harsh new cybercrimes law in Nicaragua mandated prison sentences for spreading “false information” online.
Flawed voting and political dysfunction prompted concern in some settings. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele shocked the country by ordering troops into the parliament in an attempt to secure extra funding for security forces. Guyana’s legislative elections were marred by media bias and interference with the tabulation that favored the incumbent government, though a recount ordered by the Supreme Court eventually confirmed an opposition victory. Peru was rocked by the Congress’s impeachment of one president on dubious grounds, followed a week later by the resignation of his replacement under intense public pressure. The chaotic events, which were seen as a blow to anticorruption efforts, resulted in a status decline from Free to Partly Free for Peru.
In a more positive development, Suriname emerged from the domineering rule of President Dési Bouterse after he was ousted in May elections, and the new government operated with greater transparency. Similarly, the presidential election in Bolivia was administered impartially, and the results were recognized by all competing parties, capping a period of serious political turmoil. And in Chile, following 2019 protests against inequality that featured property destruction and police violence, an overwhelming majority of voters approved the creation of a constitutional convention tasked with replacing the existing charter, which had originally been drafted under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Growing threats to expression and assembly
Cambodia’s one-party legislature adopted a new emergency law that effectively empowered the government to surveil and arrest anyone who expresses dissent. Students and academics in Indonesia were arrested and beaten by authorities seeking to discourage public criticism of the government on a variety of issues. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government shuttered a major broadcaster, arrested social media users for critical posts during the pandemic, and adopted a vaguely worded new antiterrorism law that allowed people to be arbitrarily labeled as terrorists and detained without a warrant or charges, including for speech-related offenses.
Authorities in several countries restricted public assembly. Even before the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, students and activists there experienced an uptick in detentions for their involvement in public protests during 2020, while an extended internet shutdown in Rakhine State made it difficult for people to organize online and gather in public. Increasing arrests and prosecutions in Singapore have left residents less able to protest without a permit, and demonstrations by migrant workers in the Maldives led to arrests and deportations. Protests in Thailand calling for democratic reforms were met with arrests and use of water cannons against demonstrators. The Thai military’s violent crackdown on dissent and the abolition of a popular opposition party reversed previous democratic progress, and as a result Thailand’s status changed from Partly Free to Not Free.
Power grabs, stalled reforms, and armed conflict
Blatantly fraudulent parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan touched off protests that were quickly co-opted by criminal elements, and Sadyr Japarov—a nationalist politician serving time on a kidnapping conviction—seized power as both prime minister and president. At year’s end, Japarov had advanced a new draft constitution that could reshape Kyrgyzstan’s political system in the mold of its authoritarian neighbors. The country earned an 11-point score decline—the largest in Freedom in the World 2021—and its status declined to Not Free.
The second-largest decline in this year’s report occurred in Belarus, which lost eight points as security forces attempted to crush antigovernment demonstrations triggered by the fraudulent reelection of Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The crackdown left a handful of protesters dead and hundreds at risk of torture in the country’s jails.
Other problematic elections took place across the region. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin was handed the right to stay in power through 2036 in a rigged referendum, with official results showing 78 percent approval. Comparatively free but flawed parliamentary elections in Georgia deepened that country’s political crisis, as the second round of voting was boycotted by the opposition.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s reform campaign faltered in the face of the pandemic and political corruption, culminating in a constitutional crisis. Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan made some headway in his reform drive, but the consensus behind his government was shattered by defeat in the autumn war with Azerbaijan.
That war brought death and despair to Nagorno-Karabakh, just months after the unrecognized territory held historically competitive elections. These gains evaporated amid the fighting, which claimed scores of civilian lives and led to an exodus of much of the ethnic Armenian population.
COVID-19 inflicted suffering everywhere, although the notoriously opaque government of Turkmenistan remained in denial, claiming implausibly that the country was free of the virus. Among the pandemic’s other effects on human rights across the region, separatist authorities closed down humanitarian corridors into the breakaway regions of Eastern Donbas in Ukraine and South Ossetia in Georgia.
Democracies wilt under the pandemic
COVID-19 placed the democracies of Europe, the top-performing region in Freedom in the World 2021, under severe strain. Leaders confronted hard choices, postponing elections and locking down cities, and their decisions were implemented imperfectly: enforcement of restrictions on movement, for example, often discriminated against marginalized groups, including immigrants in France and Roma in Bulgaria. As they failed to contain the virus, many governments, including those of the United Kingdom and Spain, sought to limit public scrutiny of their decision-making processes, while inadequate labor protections in the Netherlands and elsewhere compounded the risk of illness for low-wage workers.
In countries where democratic institutions were already under attack, right-wing populists actively exploited the pandemic. Hungary’s parliament handed expansive emergency powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, ostensibly so the government could better respond to COVID-19. In Poland, the ruling party cited the health crisis as justification for an illegal, last-minute attempt to bypass the electoral commission and unilaterally arrange postal voting for the presidential election. Though this failed and the election was held at a later date, it was marred by the misuse of state resources and criminal charges against LGBT+ activists.
The Western Balkans saw both setbacks and progress. Flawed parliamentary elections dealt a grievous blow to Serbia’s multiparty system. In Kosovo, the political old guard ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s short-lived government and formed a new one, unconstitutionally. Conversely, Montenegro bucked a six-year string of score declines, as elections resulted in the first transfer of power to the opposition in the country’s independent history. North Macedonia’s reformist government was reelected, and its institutions have largely recovered from damage inflicted by the fugitive former prime minister, Nikola Gruevski.
To the southeast, Turkey’s government continued to clamp down on domestic dissent and intervened in the presidential vote of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Along the Turkish-Greek border, migrants and refugees endured violent “pushbacks,” a phenomenon also seen on the Croatian-Bosnian border.
Middle East and North Africa
COVID-19 crackdowns and unaccountable regimes
A number of governments in the Middle East and North Africa took advantage of the pandemic to tamp down protests. In Jordan, emergency laws enacted in response to the pandemic were among those used to detain thousands of teachers who participated in massive strikes and protests led by the Teachers’ Syndicate, which was ultimately dissolved. In light of its blanket ban on protests and the closure of the union, as well as an electoral framework that gave significant advantages to progovernment forces during the year’s elections, Jordan’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free.
The Iranian regime was especially opaque in its response to COVID-19, using censorship and prosecutions to suppress independent reporting on the true extent of one of the region’s largest early outbreaks. Similar tactics were employed to contain information about the previous year’s bloody crackdown on antigovernment protests and the security forces’ accidental destruction of a civilian airliner in January.
Lack of state accountability was also linked to the loss of human life in Lebanon, where a series of government failures led to a tremendous chemical explosion in Beirut’s port complex that killed scores of people, injured thousands, and inflicted massive structural damage across the city. An investigation into the blast encountered considerable resistance from incumbent political forces.
The steady collapse of freedom in Egypt continued for the eighth straight year, as the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stage-managed parliamentary elections and worked to silence the country’s remaining independent journalists and civil society activists, including by harassing the Egypt-based families of dissidents living abroad.
Isolated gains amid broader democratic backsliding
Important democratic progress was reported in Malawi, which held its successful rerun of the flawed 2019 elections, and Sudan, whose ongoing reforms improved academic freedom, banned female genital mutilation, and repealed a law restricting women’s travel abroad. Nevertheless, a larger number of countries registered declines due to new limits on freedom of movement as well as violent, fraudulent elections that extended incumbent presidents’ already lengthy tenures.
Elections in Tanzania and the Central African Republic, for example, were characterized by government repression and violence. The presidential election in Togo was marred by accusations of fraud, with only a small pool of observers allowed to monitor the flawed process that handed President Faure Gnassingbé his fourth term in office. Accusations of fraud and the use of COVID-19 restrictions to hinder voter registration cast doubt on the presidential election in Guinea, where the incumbent secured a third term after engineering a referendum to lift term limits. In Côte d’Ivoire, where President Alassane Ouattara also claimed a constitutionally dubious third term after a favorable court ruling on the matter, some citizens were excluded from the election through the closure of polling stations, while others faced intimidation from the police, military, and ruling-party allies. Mali’s democratically elected leaders were overthrown in a military coup, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free as a result.
Forced displacement and restrictions on freedom of movement contributed to score declines in five countries, including Ethiopia, where the conflict in the Tigray Region forced tens of thousands of people from their homes. In Cameroon, conflict between the government and separatist groups also pushed people out of their communities, with the separatists enforcing their own movement restrictions and targeting students and teachers in Anglophone regions. Violence and forced displacement expanded in Mozambique, whose Cabo Delgado Province has been the site of a growing insurgency. Burkina Faso was also under attack by Islamist insurgents, and its population had to contend with abusive progovernment paramilitaries and disproportionate COVID-19 restrictions as well. Rwanda’s public health rules were aggressively implemented, with scores of people arrested and abused in custody.