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Freedom in the world 2013 - Democratic breakthroughs in the balance

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Jan 16 2013

Middle East Gains Provoke Intensified Repression

Washington - Calls for U.S. Leadership as Democracy Declines for Seventh Year

The emergence of popular movements for reform were the driving force behind major gains in the Middle East last year, according to Freedom in the World 2013, Freedom House’s annual report on the state of global freedom. However, a number of regions experienced setbacks due to a hardened and increasingly shrewd authoritarian response to these movements.

“Our findings point to the growing sophistication of modern authoritarians,” said Arch Puddington, Freedom House vice president for research. “They are flexible; they distort and abuse the legal framework; they are adept at the techniques of modern propaganda,” he added. “But especially since the Arab Spring, they are nervous, which accounts for their intensified persecution of popular movements for change.”

While the number of countries ranked as Free for 2012 was 90, a gain of 3 over the previous year, 27 countries showed significant declines, compared with 16 that showed notable gains. This is the seventh consecutive year that Freedom in the World has shown more declines than gains worldwide. Furthermore, the report data reflected a stepped-up campaign of persecution by dictators that specifically targeted civil society organizations and independent media.

Among the most striking gains for freedom was that of Libya, which advanced from Not Free to Partly Free and registered one of the most substantial one-year numerical improvements in the report’s nearly 40-year history. Burma and a number of African countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Lesotho, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, also saw major advances. Noteworthy declines were recorded for Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

The Middle East showed ambiguous results for the year. In addition to major gains for Libya, and Tunisia’s retention of sharp improvements from 2011, Egypt experienced relatively modest progress. The country held a flawed but competitive presidential election and direct military rule came to an end, yet the elected parliament was dissolved and President Morsi pushed through a new constitution under deeply problematic circumstances.

Moreover, the gains for the Arab Spring countries triggered a reaction, sometimes violent, by authoritarian leaders elsewhere in the Middle East, with resulting setbacks for freedom in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.

The report’s findings were especially grim for Eurasian countries. Russia took a decided turn for the worse after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. Having already marginalized the formal political opposition, he enacted a series of laws meant to squelch a burgeoning societal opposition. The measures imposed severe new penalties on unauthorized demonstrations, restricted the ability of civic groups to raise funds and conduct their work, and placed new controls on the internet.

Citing an accentuation of repression in a number of critical countries, the report urges the United States and other democracies to demonstrate leadership in the struggle for freedom. It criticizes both the Obama administration and the Republican opposition for a reluctance to provide that leadership.

“Right now there are societies where freedom is in the balance, yet the democracies have beaten a retreat,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. “What we’ve learned over the years is that gains for freedom usually take place with the active participation of democracies like the United States and those in Europe. And where they have opted out of the struggle, the result is usually a defeat for freedom.”

Key global findings:

The number of electoral democracies stood at 117, the same as for 2011. Two countries, Georgia and Libya, achieved electoral democracy status, while two were dropped from the category, Mali and the Maldives.

Four countries moved from Partly Free to Free: Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Tonga. Three countries rose from Not Free to Partly Free: Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, and Libya. Mali fell two tiers, from Free to Not Free, and Guinea-Bissau dropped from Partly Free to Not Free.

Some notable trends highlighted in the report include increased Muslim-on-Muslim violence, which reaching horrifying levels in Pakistan and remained a serious problem in Iraq and elsewhere; a serious decline in civil liberties in Turkey; and among the Persian Gulf states, a steady and disturbing decline in democratic institutions and an increase in repressive policies.

Worst of the Worst: Of the 47 countries designated as Not Free, nine have been given the survey’s lowest possible rating of 7 for both political rights and civil liberties: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Two territories, Tibet and Western Sahara, were also ranked among the worst of the worst.

An additional 5 countries and 1 territory received scores that were slightly above those of the worst-ranked countries, with ratings of 6,7 or 7,6 for political rights and civil liberties: Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, and South Ossetia.

Key regional findings:

Middle East and North Africa

In a region notable for sectarian polarization, civil strife, and repressive autocracies, freedom scored some grudging but nonetheless impressive gains in 2012. Gains: Tunisia maintained dramatic improvements from the previous year, and Libya and Egypt both moved from Not Free to Partly Free. Declines: Syria suffered by far the worst repercussions from the Arab Spring. Declines were also seen in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

Sub-Saharan Africa

In recent years, sub-Saharan Africa has ranked as the world’s most politically volatile region, with major democratic breakthroughs in some countries, and coups, civil strife, and authoritarian crackdowns in others. While the region saw several significant gains, especially in West Africa, civil conflicts and the emergence of violent Islamist groups prevented an overall upgrade for political freedom. Gains: Three countries moved from Partly Free to Free: Lesotho, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. Côte d’Ivoire moved from Not Free to Partly Free. Guinea and Malawi also showed gains. Declines: Mali suffered one of the greatest single-year declines in the history of Freedom in the World, dropping precipitously from Free to Not Free, and Guinea-Bissau’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free. Declines were also seen in the Central African Republic, The Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, Madagascar, South Africa, and Uganda.

Central and Eastern Europe/Eurasia

The return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency ushered in a new period of accelerated repression. With Russia setting the tone, Eurasia (consisting of the countries of the former Soviet Union minus the Baltic states) now rivals the Middle East as one of the most repressive areas on the globe. Indeed, Eurasia is in many respects the world’s least free subregion, given the entrenchment of autocrats in most of its 12 countries. Gains: Improvements were seen in Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia, as well as in the disputed territories of Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the latter of which moved from Not Free to Partly Free. Declines: Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine all had notable declines.


For years ranked among the world’s most repressive regimes, Burma continued to push ahead with a process of democratic reform that was launched in 2010. While it remains a Not Free country, it registered improvements that brought it ahead of China in both its political rights and civil liberties ratings. Gains: Improvements were seen in Burma, Bhutan, Indian Kashmir, Mongolia, and Tonga. Declines: The most serious declines in the Asia-Pacific region for 2012 took place in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.


As the year ended, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez was in a Cuban hospital attempting to recover from surgery for an undisclosed form of cancer. For over a decade, Chávez has been a significant figure in regional politics and has aspired, with less success, to a leading role on the global stage. His reelection in 2012 was ensured by the massive abuse of state resources. Gains: The region of the Americas saw no substantial improvements. Declines: Ecuador, Paraguay, and Suriname suffered notable declines.

Western Europe and North America

Although Western Europe and North America continue to grapple with the impact of the financial crisis and, in Europe, an increase in nationalist sentiment in response to an influx of immigrants, they have managed to weather these challenges without a serious weakening of their traditionally high level of respect for democratic standards and civil liberties. There were no major gains or declines in this region.

To view the complete findings, click here.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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