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Democratic freedoms under siege: Annual report on global political rights and civil liberties

Freedom House

Marked by intensified repression in Eurasia and the Middle East, the state of freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2013, according to Freedom in the World 2014, Freedom House's annual report on global political rights and civil liberties.

Particularly notable were developments in Egypt, which endured across-the-board reversals in its democratic institutions following a military coup. There were also serious setbacks to democratic rights in other large, politically influential countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Venezuela, and Indonesia.

These setbacks came at a time of growing self-doubt among the leaders of the democratic world, especially the United States. "Without a reassertion of American leadership, we could find ourselves at some future date deploring lost opportunities instead of celebrating democratic gains," said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House, speaking of trends in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, and other Middle Eastern countries.

"Authoritarian states, including China and Russia, show no hesitation in bullying their neighbors and increasing repression at home, and the report's findings bear this out," Kramer said.

Findings of the 41st edition of Freedom in the World, the oldest, most authoritative survey of democracy and human rights, include:

  • * Fifty-four countries showed overall declines in political rights and civil liberties, compared with 40 that showed gains.
  • * For the eighth consecutive year, Freedom in the World recorded more declines in democracy worldwide than gains, the longest such period in the report's 41-year history.
  • * While democracy suffered from coups and civil wars during the year, an equally significant phenomenon was the reliance on more subtle, but ultimately more effective, techniques by those who practice "modern authoritarianism." Such leaders devote full-time attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity.
  • * Central to modern authoritarians is the capture of institutions that undergird political pluralism. They seek to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also media, the judiciary, civil society, the economy, and security forces.

"Our data show that over the past five years, the most serious declines in democracy are due to greater restrictions of press freedom, the rights of civil society, and the rule of law," said Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House. "Limits on the media and public debate are allowing people in power to win election after election by distorting the political environment in advance of actual voting."

There were some positive signs for the year:

  • * Civil liberties improved in Tunisia, the most promising of the Arab Spring countries.
  • * Pakistan also showed gains due to successful elections and an orderly rotation of power.
  • * Improvements occurred in several African countries, including Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Madagascar, Rwanda, and Togo.
  • * The number of electoral democracies increased by four to 122, with Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan achieving the designation.

Worst of the Worst: Of the 48 countries designated as Not Free, 10 have been given the survey's lowest possible rating of 7 for both political rights and civil liberties:

Central African Republic
Equatorial Guinea
North Korea
Saudi Arabia

Two territories, Tibet and Western Sahara, were also ranked among the worst of the worst.

An additional 5 countries and 2 territories received scores that were slightly better than the worst possible, with 7 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties:

Gaza Strip
South Ossetia

Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa registered the worst civil liberties scores of any region. Gains: Iraq's political rights rating improved as the result of greater political activity by opposition parties during provincial elections, and Tunisia earned an increase in its civil liberties rating. Declines: Egypt saw its status decline from Partly Free to Not Free due to the coup against the country's first competitively elected president and violent crackdowns on secular activists and Islamist political groups. The Gaza Strip received a decline in its political rights rating.

Sub-Saharan Africa

In recent years, sub-Saharan Africa has been the most politically volatile region, with major democratic breakthroughs in some countries, and coups, insurgencies, and authoritarian crackdowns in others. This trend continued in 2013. Gains: Mali moved from Not Free to Partly Free due to successful elections and an improved security situation in the north following the defeat of Islamist rebels. Côte d'Ivoire, Madagascar, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, and Zimbabwe all saw ratings improvements in 2013. Declines: Central African Republic dropped from Partly Free to Not Free because of a rebellion that ousted the president and parliament and suspended the constitution, and Sierra Leone's status declined from Free to Partly Free due to persistent problems with corruption. Ratings declines were also seen in South Sudan and Uganda.


Eurasia continues to be one of the most repressive areas in the world, and three of its countries-Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan-are among the worst-rated in Freedom in the World. Russia intensified domestic persecution of political opponents and vulnerable minority groups in 2013. Gains: The region saw no ratings improvements in 2013. Declines: Azerbaijan suffered a downgrade in its civil liberties rating due to blatant property rights violations by the government.


The region's dominant power, China, became increasingly intolerant of dissent in 2013, as officials expanded the criminalization of online speech and police arrested dozens of activists who had advocated anticorruption reforms. Gains: Ratings improvements were seen in Bhutan, Japan, Maldives, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga. Declines: Indonesia's status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a new law restricting the activities of nongovernmental organizations. South Korea registered a downgrade in its political rights rating.


The death in March 2013 of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, a significant figure in regional politics for more than a decade, brought early hopes of improvements in the country's political rights and civil liberties environment. However, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, further weakened the independent media, reduced the opposition's ability to serve as a check on government policy, and made threats to civil society groups. Gains: Nicaragua's political rights and civil liberties ratings improved due to the positive impact of consultations on proposed constitutional reforms, gradual improvements for the rights of women, and advances in efforts to combat human trafficking. Declines: The Dominican Republic and Panama suffered declines due to the stripping of citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent and the Panamanian government's corruption problems.


Most of the countries of Europe showed a high level of respect for democratic standards and civil liberties, even as many faced growing nationalist sentiment in response to an influx of immigrants. However, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan displayed increasingly authoritarian tendencies, including a crackdown on protesters in Istanbul and a campaign against critical voices in the media. Gains: Italy's political rights rating improved following free and fair national elections and improvements in the country's anticorruption environment. Declines: There were no ratings declines in 2013.

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