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Democracy and Freedom declines for second year: annual report of the Freedom House

The year 2007 was not a good year overall for the advance of democracy and freedom in the world. Democracy advocates were especially singled out for harsh treatment in many countries. Authoritarian regimes are developing new ways to “push-back” against democratic opposition, civil society, and the independence of the media.

These trends are described in Freedom House’s annual report, Freedom in the World 2008: Global Freedom in Retreat, released January 16 at the National Press Club. “A number of countries that had previously shown progress toward democracy have regressed, while none of the ‘Not Free’ states showed signs of improvement,” lamented Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House. For Russia, Georgia, Pakistan, and Kenya, declining countries that made the headlines during 2007, the year was marked by either violence or extreme political suppression, and demonstrated just how perilous freedom is in some parts of the world. An example of a “substantial reversal” is Georgia, whose neighbor Russia is providing a malign influence. Georgia had been making good progress towards democracy since its 2003 Rose Revolution, but was set back by the imposition of a state of emergency, restrictions on the press, “a violent police crackdown on demonstrators,” and “a systematic campaign to marginalize the political opposition,” according to the report.

The report looks at the extent of open political competition in elections, civil liberties, and an independent media. The ‘Partly Free’ states often suffer from official corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic and religious strife and/or the monopoly of power by one political party, according to Freedom House. The role of corruption has been to erode people’s faith in democracy. The weakening of the rule of law poses a menace to the new and unconsolidated democracies. The modest political gains in the Middle East since 9/11 came to a halt in 2007. Major declines were assessed by Freedom House in the Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and in the Palestinian Authority and Israeli-Occupied Territories. The presence of radical Islamism with its violent jihad ideology tends to destabilize the region by posing a threat to the security of the ordinary people while providing a pretext for the rulers to enact emergency measures, which have as their intention the suppression of political opposition. Very troubling is the finding in the report that several politically important countries that assaulted their democratic institutions—Russia, Pakistan, Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, and Venezuela—have broad regional influence. “Russia provides diplomatic and political support to a number of brutal dictatorships, and autocratic regimes on its borders, including Belarus and states in Central Asia, and puts pressure on nearby governments, such as Estonia and Georgia, whose policies or leaders it disapproves of,” says the report.

Iran and Syria promote anti-democratic forces in the Middle East, while Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is trying to do the same—so far, not very successfully—in Latin America. Kenya and Nigeria are two important large African countries that have served as models of democracy in the region, and so their backsliding has wide implications for the continent. China played a particularly pernicious role in sustaining Burma’s brutal military dictatorship through “economic and diplomatic support,” says the report. China also provides crucial support to North Korea and to Strongman Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. China acts as an “impediment to the spread of democracy in East Asia” and in Africa, according to the report. China provides unconditional aid or loans to countries that undermine the efforts of the World Bank, the US and the European Union to attach anti-corruption and pro-democracy provisions in these sorts of agreements, said Puddington at the press conference. Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and China— “market-oriented autocracies and energy-rich dictatorships” —are particularly problematic in that their power is fortified and sustained by their wealth.

Since 1972, Freedom House, an independent private organization, has published Freedom in the World, which assesses the state of democracy and civil liberties of every country. A determination is made whether the country is “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free.” For 2007, Freedom in the World, placed 90 countries, representing 46% of the global population, in the ‘Free’ category. Some 60 countries, 18% of the world’s population, qualified as ‘Partly Free.’ And 43 countries, 36% of the world’s population, fell in the ‘Not Free’ category. China constitutes about half of the ‘Not Free’ population. This year, the annual report found almost no countries moving up or down between the three broad categories; only two countries (Togo and Mauritania) that were "Not Free’ in 2006 became ‘Partly Free’ in 2007. However, within each of the broad categories, negative reversals occurred in one-fifth of the world’s countries. 38 countries showed evidence of declines in freedom, while only 10 showed movement in a positive direction, says the report. This is the second consecutive year in the past 15 years where Freedom House has found a 2-year decline.

Worst of the Worst
“Many countries that moved backward were already designated ‘Not Free’…,” says Puddington in the report, and only got worse. This lack of any improvement in the “worst of the worst” was unusual and a break from the past when even some of the world’s most tightly controlled dictatorships showed some progress. The worst eight ‘Not Free’ countries are Cuba and North Korea (one-party Marxist-Leninist dictatorships), Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (still rooted in the Soviet period), Libya, Sudan (afflicted with radical Islamism and traditional military junta), Burma, and Somalia. Countries which were only slightly better than the worst ranked countries included Belarus, China, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Zimbabwe. China and Russia were singled out for the two worse governed territories: Tibet and Chechnya, respectively.

The Bright Spot: Latin America
There was some good news to report. Not all the countries under control by the former Soviet Union followed the Russian model. Countries of the Baltic region, Central Europe and the Balkans (with a few exceptions) “continued to move ahead with the process of democratic consolidation,” says the report. The proximity to the democracies of Western Europe may have given countries like Hungary, Poland and Romania the guidance in controlling corruption, opening the political system, and limiting discrimination against minorities. The 35 countries of the Americas, including Latin American countries, are doing pretty well compared to the rest of the world. Only one, Cuba, is ‘Not Free.’ Support for democracy is growing. Elections and the rotation of power are customary for the region, according to Jake Dizard, the Andean region analyst for Freedom House. For the most part, the media and civil society enjoy freedom of expression, he added. “The fact that democracy is almost universally upheld in a region that was only recently dominated by juntas and strongmen is an impressive achievement…” says the report. The biggest threat to the region is the extremely high violent crime rates and a strong feeling of insecurity prevailing in countries like Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and much of Central America, said Dizard. “Crime is increasingly of the organized variety,” said Dizard. A factor in not being able to control the crime is the weak judicial systems, which allow crime to go unpunished and occur with impunity. “Corruption is also an important aspect of the weak rule of law. In the form of petty corruption, it eats at the incomes of the poor every time that have to pay a bribe,” said Dizard.

In Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, the political processes are under assault. While Chavez power was checked by the loss in December of the referendum that would have given him more power, the most popular TV station’s license was not renewed, free assembly and protest are restricted, and Chavez remains in control of the judiciary, the electoral council, and the armed forces. Bolivia and Nicaragua have the potential to follow the Chavez example of intolerance towards democratic institutions. (