Democracy in Retreat Globally: Freedom House

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For the 13th consecutive year, independent watchdog organization Freedom House reports a worldwide decline in freedom. In its annual “Freedom in the World” report released Monday, the group noted general trends driving the decline.

In nations that have in the past earned Freedom House’s designation as “Not Free,” authoritarian governments are tightening their grip on power by banning or jailing opposition, eliminating term limits and coming down hard on independent media. Among nations where democratic practices improved after the Cold War, “rampant corruption, anti-liberal populist movements, and breakdowns in the rule of law” have chipped away at those gains.

Most worryingly, Freedom House reports, is that long-standing democracies “have been shaken by populist political forces that reject basic principles like the separation of powers and target minorities for discriminatory treatment.”

The U.S. freedom score of 86 (out of 100) did not change year over year, following a three-point drop in 2017. Citing the bulk collection of metadata begun under the George W. Bush administration and the “overzealous crackdown on press leaks” during the Obama administration, a special section on U.S. freedom notes:

The great challenges facing US democracy did not commence with the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Intensifying political polarization, declining economic mobility, the outsized influence of special interests, and the diminished influence of fact-based reporting in favor of bellicose partisan media were all problems afflicting the health of American democracy well before 2017.

President Trump does not escape criticism, however:

At the midpoint of his term, however, there remains little question that President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system. No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles.

Another telling comment on U.S. democracy: “The current overall US score puts American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom.”

Of the 87 countries and territories rated as “Free,” the United States ranks 51st, sandwiched between Latvia and Croatia. The 10 countries at the top of the list of 195 are Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Denmark and Ireland. Of those, only Ireland improved its 2017 score.

Freedom House also lists the 13 countries that are the least free:

  • Syria (score of 0 out of possible 100)
  • South Sudan (2)
  • Eritrea (2)
  • Turkmenistan (2)
  • North Korea (3)
  • Equatorial Guinea (6)
  • Saudi Arabia (7)
  • Somalia (7)
  • Sudan (7)
  • Tajikistan (9)
  • Uzbekistan (9)
  • Central African Republic (9)
  • Libya (9)

Freedom House’s full report is available at the organization’s website, along with a detailed description of the study’s methodology.