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World freedom declining but democracy resilient – report

30 March 20230 comments

Global freedom has declined for the 17th year in a row with a spate of human rights atrocities across the globe but the struggle for democracy may experiencing change for the better.  

These are key findings of ‘Freedom in the World 2023’, the 50th annual report on freedom and democracy across the world by the NGO Freedom House.

The report says Moscow’s war of aggression led to devastating human rights atrocities in Ukraine and new coups and other attempts to undermine representative government destabilised Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Peru, and Brazil.

It says previous coups and ongoing repression continued to diminish basic liberties in Guinea and constrain those in Turkey, Myanmar, and Thailand, among others.

Two countries suffered downgrades in their overall freedom status: Peru moved from Free to Partly Free, and Burkina Faso moved from Partly Free to Not Free.

But the report says the struggle for democracy may be approaching a turning point.

The gap between the number of countries that registered overall improvements in political rights and civil liberties and those that registered overall declines for 2022 was the narrowest it has ever been.

“Thirty-four countries made improvements, and the tally of countries with declines, at 35, was the smallest recorded since the negative pattern began,” the report said.

“The gains were driven by more competitive elections as well as a rollback of pandemic-related restrictions that had disproportionately affected freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.”

The reported postulated that while authoritarian regimes remain dangerous, they are not unbeatable.

“The year’s events showed that autocrats are far from infallible, and their errors provide openings for democratic forces. The effects of corruption and a focus on political control at the expense of competence exposed the limits of the authoritarian models offered by Beijing, Moscow, Caracas, or Tehran,’ the report said.

“Meanwhile, democratic alliances demonstrated solidarity and vigour.”

The report said that increasingly, restrictions on freedom of expression was a driver of democratic decline.

“Over the last 17 years, the number of countries and territories that receive a score of 0 out of 4 on the report’s media freedom indicator has ballooned from 14 to 33, as journalists face persistent attacks from autocrats and their supporters while receiving inadequate protection from intimidation and violence even in some democracies,” the report said.

“The past year brought more of the same, with media freedom coming under pressure in at least 157 countries and territories during 2022.

“Scores for a related indicator pertaining to freedom of personal expression have also declined over the years amid greater invasions of privacy, harassment and intimidation, and incentives to self-censor both online and offline,” the report said.

Freedom House’s first edition of its global survey in 1973 found 44 of 148 countries were rated ‘Free’. The latest survey found 84 of 195 countries were ‘Free’.

“Over the past 50 years, consolidated democracies have not only emerged from deeply repressive environments but also proven to be remarkably resilient in the face of new challenges,” the report said.

“Although democratization has slowed and encountered setbacks, ordinary people around the world, including in Iran, China, and Cuba, continue to defend their rights against authoritarian encroachment.”

The report said that dramatic declines in political rights and civil liberties during 2022 were driven by direct assaults on democratic institutions, whether by foreign military forces or incumbent officials in positions of trust.

War, coups d’état, and power grabs repeatedly posed an existential threat to elected governments around the world, it said.

“In February, Ukrainians were violently thrust into the heart of the global struggle to defend democracy against authoritarianism,” the report said.

“President Vladimir Putin of Russia, having already overseen the illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory in Crimea and eastern Donbas since 2014, launched a full-scale invasion of the country.

“Whatever false justifications for this war of aggression have been promulgated by the Kremlin’s state-controlled media, its clear purpose is to remove the elected leadership in Kyiv and deprive Ukrainians of their fundamental right to free self-government.

“The war has been, as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy put it, a disaster with a high price.

“In his desire to destroy democracy in Ukraine and deny Ukrainians their political rights and civil liberties, Putin has caused the deaths and injuries of thousands of Ukrainian civilians as well as soldiers on both sides, the destruction of crucial infrastructure, the displacement of millions of people from their homes, a proliferation of torture and sexual violence, and the intensification of already harsh repression within Russia,” the report said.

The report concluded that democratic institutions had suffered from abuses by powerful incumbent political leaders in 2022.

“After assuming office through elections, these leaders rejected the established democratic process and sought to rewrite the rules of the game to maintain their grip on power,’ it said.

“Tunisia experienced the third-largest score decline of any country as a direct result of the actions of the elected president. Kaïs Saïed, who had unilaterally dismissed the prime minister and suspended the parliament in 2021, continued to consolidate power by formally dissolving the parliament in March.

“He then rolled out a new constitution that gave more authority to the presidency and dismantled legislative and judicial checks on the executive branch, securing approval for the document through a flawed referendum.

“In El Salvador, the parliamentary supermajority gained by President Nayib Bukele’s allies in 2021 elections continued to help him undermine democratic controls.

“In March 2022, the legislature approved his request for a state of exception intended to address gang violence, which has led to the indefinite detention of tens of thousands of people, with little regard for their due process rights.

“The victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary’s April 2022 elections was facilitated by his government’s campaign since 2010 to systematically undermine the independence of the judiciary, opposition groups, the media, and nongovernmental organizations.

“Among other advantages, Fidesz benefited from legislative changes it had pushed through two years earlier, which raised the vote threshold that parties must reach to enter the parliament,” the report said.

Read the full report: Marking 50 Years in the Struggle for Democracy | Freedom House