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NEW REPORT: Global Freedom Declines for 17th Consecutive Year, but May Be Approaching a Turning Point

March 9th, 2023  •  Author:   Freedom House  •  7 minute read
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The 50th edition of Freedom in the World also finds that attacks on freedom of expression have been a key driver of democratic erosion.

Global freedom declined for a 17th consecutive year in 2022 as 35 countries suffered deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties, according to a new report released today by Freedom House. A total of 34 countries made improvements during the year, however, meaning the gap between the numbers of countries that improved and declined was the narrowest it has ever been since the negative pattern began. The report suggests that the struggle for democracy may be approaching a turning point, and offers recommendations on how democratic governments and societies should work together to roll back authoritarian gains.

The new report—Freedom in the World 2023: Marking 50 Years in the Struggle for Democracyis the 50th edition of Freedom House’s annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties. Moscow’s war of aggression in Ukraine, as well as coups and other attacks on democratic institutions in Brazil, Burkina Faso, Peru, and Tunisia, contributed to the overall decline in 2022. Positive developments included competitive elections in Latin America and Africa and the reversal of COVID-19-related restrictions in eight countries that had disproportionately infringed on the freedoms of assembly and movement. As of today, 39 percent of the world’s people live in countries rated Not Free, while only 20 percent live in Free countries.

“The struggle for freedom endures across generations,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “For 50 years, Freedom in the World has tracked the health of political rights and civil liberties around the globe. This latest edition documents a continuation of troubling trends, but it also gives some reason to hope that the freedom recession of the past 17 years may be turning a corner. There is nothing inevitable about authoritarian expansion. While authoritarian regimes remain extremely dangerous, they are not unbeatable. The year’s events showed that missteps by autocrats provide openings for democratic forces. And over the course of five decades, people from every region of the world have repeatedly challenged oppression and demanded freedom, even in the face of daunting odds and at great personal risk.”

The report finds that one of the biggest drivers of democratic decline over the last 17 years has been a trend of attacks on freedom of expression. The number of countries and territories that receive a score of 0 out of 4 on the report’s media freedom indicator has increased from 14 to 33 since 2005. Media freedom came under pressure in at least 157 countries and territories during 2022. Beyond the news media, individuals’ right to personal expression has also come under assault. Fifteen countries and territories now have a score of 0 out of 4 on that indicator, up from six in 2005. People in such environments have virtually no freedom to voice antigovernment opinions, even in private, without fear of reprisal.

“Freedom of expression is under attack around the globe,” said Yana Gorokhovskaia, the report’s coauthor and Freedom House’s research director for strategy and design. “Denying press freedom and the freedom of personal expression cuts citizens off from accurate information and from one another, strengthening authoritarian control. Democracies must fiercely guard these rights at home and vigorously work to defend them abroad, in part by supporting public-interest media and journalists who have been forced into exile. They should also strictly regulate the use of surveillance tools and protect robust encryption technology, which is vital for the safety of activists, journalists, and ordinary users everywhere.”

Key report findings

  • Global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year. Moscow’s war of aggression led to devastating human rights atrocities in Ukraine. New coups and other attempts to undermine representative government destabilized Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Peru, and Brazil. Previous years’ coups and ongoing repression continued to diminish basic liberties in Guinea and constrain those in Turkey, Myanmar, and Thailand, among others.
  • The struggle for democracy may be approaching a turning pointThe 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 through 17 years of global deterioration. Thirty-four countries made improvements, and the tally of countries with declines, at 35, was the smallest recorded since the negative pattern began. 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.
  • Burkina Faso, with two coups in 2022, earned the largest score decline. The country lost a total of 23 points on the report’s 100-point scale, followed by Ukraine, which lost 11 points as a result of Moscow’s destructive invasion. The year’s other major declines occurred in Tunisia (−8), Nicaragua (−4), Guinea (−4), El Salvador (−3), Hungary (−3), Mali (−3), Russia (−3), and Solomon Islands (−3). 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.
  • Colombia received the year’s largest score improvement, followed by Slovenia and Kosovo. The top improvements of 2022 took place in Colombia (+6), Slovenia (+5), Kosovo (+4), Kenya (+4), San Marino (+4), Lesotho (+3), Malaysia (+3), Philippines (+3), and Zambia (+3). Two countries, Colombia and Lesotho, received upgrades in their overall freedom status, moving from Partly Free to Free.
  • The fight for freedom persists across decades. When Freedom House issued the first edition of its global survey in 1973, 44 of 148 countries—30 percent—were rated Free. Today, 84 of 195 countries—43 percent—are 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. Although democratization has slowed and encountered setbacks in recent decades, ordinary people around the world, including in oppressive settings like Iran, China, and Cuba, continue to defend their rights against authoritarian encroachment.

Freedom in the World includes scores and narrative assessments on political rights and civil liberties for 195 countries and 15 territories around the globe. This report, the 50th annual edition, covers developments in 2022 and provides a brief analysis of long-term trends. The report’s methodology is derived in large measure from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948.

The report identifies a number of steps that democratic governments can take to protect and expand political rights and civil liberties. The recommendations include:

  • Help Ukraine win. Democratic governments must maintain unwavering support for Ukraine and its people, whose cause is crucial to the future of freedom. This should include providing the weapons and technical and security assistance necessary to help ensure Ukrainian success on the battlefield.
  • Stop enabling authoritarians. Democracies must address corruption and kleptocracy head on by closing the many financial loopholes that allow authoritarian rulers to hide or launder stolen assets in democratic settings.
  • Be clear and unapologetic about the virtues of democracy and tireless in efforts to uphold and defend it. Democratic states should make the protection of freedom and democracy a fundamental component of all international policy efforts—including in foreign, security, and economic affairs—and every diplomatic engagement. Human rights concerns should be raised in meetings with foreign counterparts at all levels.
  • Dramatically ramp up support for human rights defenders and for countries and regions at critical junctures. Democratic governments should help human rights defenders and civil society groups remain active in their home countries whenever possible, and provide technical assistance and training. When democracy advocates come under threat, their foreign partners should provide medical, legal, and psychosocial support as needed.

View the report’s complete recommendations here. Click here to read additional report press releases: AfricaAmericasAsia-PacificEurasiaEuropeMiddle East.

Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.

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