Political rights and civil liberties worldwide have declined for a 13th consecutive year, according to a new report by international watchdog Freedom House.
Titled Democracy in Retreat, Freedom in the World Report 2019 records developments around the globe over the last year.
A rollback on freedoms in post-Cold War democracies, the increasing demonisation of the press, and a disturbing rise in ethnic cleansing have all contributed to the overall decline over the last 13 years, the United States-based watchdog said.
Every region on Earth – aside from Asia Pacific – is now less free than it was in 2005, the report said. However, when countries with less than one million people – mostly Pacific Island states – are excluded, Asia also saw a decline in freedoms.
The unexpected victory of an opposition alliance in Malaysia, which ended the decades-long rule of Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coaltion, was a notable development in the region, but ongoing repression of minorities in China and the influence of the military in key elections continues to be a cause for concern, it said.
While the overall losses are small compared with the gains of the late 20th century, the report said, the apparent retreat of democracy is persistent and ominous.
Freedom House rates countries as “Free”, “Partly Free” and “Not Free” based on electoral policies, press freedom, and corruption levels, among other factors, and said the decline has affected all groups, though Not Free countries have suffered the most significant drop.
Progress in part
On a country-by-country basis, 68 suffered net declines, while 50 registered gains over the last year.
Zimbabwe was the only country whose status improved over the last year, changing from Not Free to Party Free.
Despite being deeply flawed, the country’s 2018 presidential election granted a degree of legitimacy to Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidency, the report said.
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Mnangagwa came to power following the removal of his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, in a military coup in 2017, after which the country’s status was downgraded by Freedom House.
Positive developments were also noted in several countries where power transferred successfully in the last year including Ethiopia, Iraq and Angola.
In Europe, both Hungary and Serbia declined from Free to Partly Free amid increasing state control of the media and judiciary in the former and poor election conduct and harassment of the press in the latter.
A prolonged and brutal crackdown of an anti-government protest movement in Nicaragua and government surveillance of electronic communications and a tax on social media use in Uganda saw those countries downgraded from Partly Free to Not Free.
Along with the Free, Partly Free, and Not Free descriptors, each country receives ratings on political rights and civil liberties, as well as an overall numerical score from 0 to 100, with 100 being most free.
Syria was the only country to score 0 because of the considerable damage done by its ongoing civil war, and government repression, while liberal democracies Finland, Norway and Sweden all scored 100.
The report also said the stability of the US constitutional system is under threat amid a slow decline in rights and liberties. While the country remains Free, its ranking is below other major democracies such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom.