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Global freedom continues to decline but promise of democracy endures

Freedom House in Washington D.C. recently published its 2019 report on Freedom in the World, finding that in the previous year overall global freedom declined for the 13th consecutive time. While the report states that “overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century”, the ongoing trend is a concerning one.

Of the 195 countries assessed, 86 (44 percent) were rated “free”, 59 (30 percent) “partly free”, and 50 (26 percent) “not free”. 68 countries across all world regions suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties during 2018, with 50 registering gains. Furthermore, Freedom House found that a total of 114 could be classified as “electoral democracies”, countries that have met certain minimum standards for political rights. This is a slight decline from last year’s 116.

Map of country ratings 2019. Source: Freedom House

Freedom House identified two main types of nations that have seen their freedoms shrink. The first group are countries that democratised since 1988 and are now facing authoritarianism as a back-lash to perceived policy failures in dealing with huge socio-political changes since 2005. The other group are long-existing democracies that, due to the changing nature of the global economy, are seeing a new demographic of disenchanted middle and working class voters who are seeing stagnating personal prospects, and now are supporting populist movements in search of change.

Highlighted trends in 2018

Some of the trends in the last year highlighted by Freedom House include:

Erosion of laws enforcing term limits on leaders. Since 2005, 31 leaders have tried and succeeded in revising their constitutional term limits to extend their terms in office past their original limits.

Repressing freedom of expression. In 2018, “press freedom scores fell in four out of six regions in the world”, whilst governments have been cracking down on politically dissenting discourse among the general population, particularly in online spheres.

Rising digital authoritarianism. Pioneered by China, this trend of “comprehensive internet censorship and surveillance” is now being exported to regimes across the world.

Erosion of the rights of migrants and refugees. Increasingly, these vulnerable minorities are being scapegoated to build support for populist regimes.

Extraterritorial targeting of expatriates, exiles, and diasporas. Conducted by many nations, this includes “harassment, extradition requests, kidnapping, and even assassination” of suspected opposition figures living overseas.

Ethnic cleansing. Perhaps worst of all, this is now a growing trend. In 2005, Freedom House only found evidence of three nations attempting such policies, yet in 2018 eleven countries were found to be doing so.

Decline of democracy is slowing

There are however positive trends to be found in this year’s report, which are often defined by reactionary trends to the declining freedoms. The number of 50 countries registering an improvement in 2018 was the highest since 2006.

Countries with net declines have outnumbered those with gains for the past 13 years. Source: Freedom House 2019 report, p. 5

Indeed, overall, though the global decline of democracy continues, it has slowed, and the reaction has grown. In 2018, more countries experienced large improvements and fewer large declines compared to 2017.

In 2018, more countries experienced large improvements than large declines. Source. Freedom House

Positive trends were noted in nations such as Angola, Armenia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, and Malaysia, all of which saw their governments compelled to enact change by popular pressure and public demands for democratic change. In all these nations, democratic change was not expected, showing that even entrenched regimes are still vulnerable to the will of the people.

Whilst freedoms may have been falling gradually for the past 13 years, only 26% of the world’s population are currently counted as “not free”; this is dwarfed by the 74% counted as free or partly free. This is worth comparing to 1988, when almost 38% of the world’s population was counted as “not free”, and only 36% was considered “free”.

Top image: From the cover of the 2019 report of Freedom House

Charles Marsh
Charles has a Masters Degree in Global Politics. He worked as the UNPA Campaign's intern in New York in 2018. In 2021, he became a founding Director of Democracy Without Borders-UK.