- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2020

An annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties worldwide found a “global recession in democracy” that has left the world with the fewest percentage of free countries since 1996.

Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2020” report, which relied on 150 analysts and advisers looking at 210 countries and territories, rated 43% of countries as “free.” The report found the share of free countries declined by 3% in the last decade.

“This year’s report is deeply concerning in that it finds that we are in the 14th year of a global recession in democracy,” said Freedom House President Mike Abramowitz. “Almost twice as many countries declined in their scores this year as improved, and those declines aren’t just happening in places you’d expect like China or Russia, but also in established democracies.”

Mr. Abramowitz said during the freedom “recession,” 25 of 41 democracies that have been rated as free since 1985 experienced losses in freedom. The United States’ freedom score remained flat in the past year, but it has declined 8 points on a 100-point scale in the last 10 years.

“The single most important thing that could happen to turn around the democracy recession is for the United States to unequivocally commit to strengthening democracy in our own country and once again becoming a champion for human rights and democracy around the world,” Mr. Abramowitz said.

The 43% of countries rated as “free” is the lowest percentage since 1996, Sara Repucci, Freedom House’s vice president for research, told reporters. Ms. Repucci, lead author of the report that has been released annually since 1973, said 32% of countries scored “partly free” and 25% rated “not free.”

“Compared to 14 years ago, nearly twice as many countries are doing worse as are doing better: 116 countries have a lower score than they did 14 years ago, while only 62 have a better score,” Ms. Repucci said. “Over this time democratic states have lessened their support for the expansion of freedom on the international stage, meanwhile dictatorships have intensified their domestic repression and expanded their global influence. They’ve done this through proxy wars, election interference, and censorship beyond their borders.”

Ms. Repucci said the U.S. is categorized in a different peer group of free countries than it was 10 years ago. The U.S. score formerly appeared comparable to the United Kingdom and Switzerland, but now it is closer to Greece and Croatia.

“We continue to be concerned about democracy in the United States,” Ms. Repucci said. “While the score did not change this year, there are weaknesses in our electoral processes, corruption safeguards, and how we treat refugees and asylum-seekers. The U.S. remains free in our ratings and it is still a robust democracy, but we have seen steady declines in the score over the past 10 years, and that deterioration is showing no signs of reversing.”

The study found a narrow plurality of people live in free countries. Ms. Repucci said 39% of the global population lives in a free country, 25% lives in a partly free country, and 36% lives in a not free country. The worst “not free” country on earth is Syria, according to Freedom House, followed by Eritrea, South Sudan, Turkmenistan and North Korea.

The countries with the largest gains and declines on this year’s list are in Africa. Benin, Mozambique and Tanzania saw their scores drop because of flawed elections and state-sponsored repression of dissent, according to the report, while Ethiopia, Madagascar and Sudan made improvements.

A major theme affecting this year’s findings was what Freedom House views as an assault on equal rights and religious diversity. Ms. Repucci said one of the most concerning examples of religious discrimination is in India, where the nation declined four points on Freedom House’s 100-point scale, which was the steepest drop of the world’s 25 most populous democracies.

“India, the world’s largest democracy, is a stark example and a huge concern this year,” Ms. Repucci said. “India has seen sharp declines in freedom due to the Hindu-nationalistic policies of Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi and his party.”

For example, a new citizenship law took effect last month that protesters say discriminates against Muslims.

“Under Prime Minister Modi we have seen many of the warning signs we saw in the early days of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Viktor Orban in Hungary,” Ms. Repucci said.

Among the systemic issues facing countries are problems afflicting government functions, freedom of expression and belief, and the rule of law. Ms. Repucci pointed to problems in Spain, Australia and the United States as examples.

Ms. Repucci cited Spanish lawmakers’ inability to form a majority coalition as a problem affecting the government’s ability to address national challenges. She said the problem was becoming “increasingly common” in the world’s democracies.

Ms. Repucci also pointed to Australia’s “clear constriction of media freedom” with police raids, court orders and other restrictions hurting the press’ ability to do its job.

As the U.S. prepares for the November 2020 elections, the report makes specific recommendations for how democracies should address foreign authoritarians aiming to interfere in democratic affairs. Freedom House’s report suggests governments should require social media companies to report foreign efforts to spread disinformation and propaganda and increase the transparency requirements for foreign state-owned media companies.

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