Conflict & Justice

The world's been getting less free for the last eight years


Protesters calling for elections and democracy hold candles during a pro-election campaign on January 19, 2014, in Bangkok, Thailand. Explosions and gunshot incidents have been happening as the protesters have stepped up their activity with daily marches in the on-going attempt to oust the government of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.


Paula Bronstein

The state of freedom around the world declined for the eighth year in a row in 2013, according to Freedom House’s annual global report on political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World 2014.

The report, which was released Thursday, took a tone unlike those of years before, opening with a mention of the death of Nelson Mandela—“a true giant of the freedom struggle.”

The significance of the 2013 event, the introduction said, was manifest not exactly in the praise bestowed upon Mandela at his memorial service, but in the troubled state of freedom that the glance back at his life revealed.

“For it was apparent to many that the defining convictions of Mandela’s career—commitment to the rule of law and democratic choice, rejection of score settling and vengeance seeking, recognition that regarding politics as a zero-sum game was an invitation to authoritarianism and civil strife—are in decidedly short supply among today’s roster of political leaders.”

Indeed, a total of 54 countries restricted political freedoms or civil liberties, with only 40 countries taking strides toward improving the rights of their populations. The appearances of certain countries listed as in decline should not come as a surprise to those who followed the news in 2013 and bore witness to the year’s coups and civil wars, although the report also served to expose some stories and countries that were truly underreported.

The results, the study said, do not necessarily signal severe regression, but there were “a worrying number” of “disturbing setbacks” in several “strategically or economically significant states whose political trajectories influence developments well beyond their borders”—a reference to the systematic reversal of democratic process in Egypt, ongoing unrest in Turkey and Ukraine, new legislation which essentially pulverizes LGBT rights and community safety in Russia, press freedom in Azerbaijan, and similar developments in Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Thailand and Venezuela.

Of the 195 countries examined, 88 were deemed “free,” 59 “not free” and 48 “partly free.”

Special distinction was given to those who have created the biggest improvements—Tunisia, Libya, Guinea, Burma and several others—as well as those who experienced the biggest losses—Central African Republic, Mali, The Gambia, Ukraine and more.

A separate list was also compiled, highlighting the “Worst of the Worst”—the 12 countries that received the worst possible ratings within those considered not free. Those countries are: Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tibet and Western Sahara.

And where does the United States stand in all of this?

Despite last year's revelations on government surveillance, prosecution of whistleblowers and persistently high levels of incarceration, America is still listed among the freest, decorated with the best possible rating in political rights and civil liberties. Still, it did not escape the study so neatly.

The US “in 2013 endured a level of government gridlock not seen in over a century,” the section titled “Dysfunction in the United States” began. The summary went on to stress the number of important issues that went unresolved in the last year, beginning with debate over immigration laws and unfulfilled promises to close down the military prison facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where terrorism suspects have been held, controversially and without trial, since 2001. While a few of the facility’s detainees were released in 2013, 150 remained by the end of the year.

It was also noted that President Obama’s administration was criticized for the abuse of civil liberties, when NSA employee turned whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the intelligence agency’s “sprawling activities, including its collection of communications metadata on American citizens and its intrusive monitoring of close foreign allies.”

A subsequent investigation into the practices, conducted by a special presidential commission, found no violations of Americans’ constitutional rights.

The countries most vulnerable to decline, the report states, are those in which “central to modern authoritarians” are more subtle—able to maintain a “veneer of order, legitimacy and prosperity,” while “crippling the opposition without annihilating it.”

“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,” Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House, said in a press release. “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.”