A new report from the United States-based Freedom House group has said that despite overall global freedoms declining for a 17th straight year in 2022, a brighter outlook may be around the corner.
The annual Freedom in the World report continued a grim assessment of global political rights and civil liberties, with 35 countries showing a backslide in the group’s freedom index, fuelled by “war, coups, and attacks on democratic institutions by illiberal incumbents”.
Leading catalysers for declining freedoms in 2022 included Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, successive coups in Burkina Faso, and efforts to consolidate power in Tunisia.
Still, the report’s authors noted that there may be reason for optimism. The 35 countries with declining freedoms in 2022 represented the lowest number in the category in 17 years of decline.
Meanwhile, with 34 countries showing marked improvement in freedoms, the gap between improving countries and declining countries is “the narrowest it has ever been through 17 consecutive years of deterioration”, the report said.
“There were signs during the past year that the world’s long freedom recession may be bottoming out,” the reports authors wrote, “which would set the stage for a future recovery.”
All told, Freedom House currently rates 84 of 195 countries in the world as “free”, up from 44 when its first survey was published in 1973.
The remainder are rated as “not free” or “partly free”.
Signs of progress
The improvement in freedoms documented by Freedom House was driven by elections and transfers of power in Latin America and Africa, as well as a rollback in COVID-19 restrictions that affected freedoms of assembly and movement in eight countries, according to the report.
Colombia showed the greatest improvement, gaining six points in the freedom index following the election victory of Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist president.
Slovenia made significant gains after a 20-year high voter turnout saw the right-wing government replaced. Meanwhile, Lesotho advanced after Sam Matekane’s Revolution for Prosperity party successfully replaced the incumbent government following elections in October.
The report authors also noted improvements were driven by “fresh evidence of the limits of authoritarian power”, citing Russia’s equipment shortages and battlefield shortcomings amid its invasion of Ukraine.
The invasion has been accompanied by a dearth of explicit endorsements from allies, including China, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The authors also cited condemnation of Myanmar’s military government by the UN Security Council “after years of being shielded by diplomats from Russia and China”, as well as Venezuela being denied a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in October.
Meanwhile, the report highlighted China’s about-face on its zero-COVID pandemic restriction policy “triggered in part by nationwide protests that followed a deadly residential fire in Urumqi in late November”.
Still, the report offered a grave assessment of global freedoms in 2022.
Burkina Faso led the backslide, declining a whopping 23 points after army officers overthrew President Roch Marc Christian Kabore in January 2022.
The military-installed leader, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, was later overthrown in September in another coup, with military captain Ibrahim Traore assuming leadership.
Both coups were fuelled by unrest over the government’s handling of armed groups who control large swathes of the country, but have been condemned by various regional organisations for derailing a return to the country’s constitutional government.
In Peru, the government’s deadly crackdown on protests following President Pedro Castillo’s ousting and arrest after he attempted to suspend Congress in December also prompted a backslide on the Freedom House index.
Meanwhile, Ukraine declined the second most of any country in the index, backsliding 11 points following Russia’s invasion.
The report said Russian President Vladimir Putin “has caused the deaths and injuries of thousands of Ukrainian civilians as well as soldiers on both sides, the destruction of crucial infrastructure, the displacement of millions of people from their homes, a proliferation of torture and sexual violence, and the intensification of already harsh repression within Russia”.
Freedom of press and expression
For its part, Russia was among 33 countries that scored 0 out of 4 on Freedom’s media freedom indicator, a number that has grown from 14 in the last 17 years, as “freedom for independent journalism has plummeted” across the globe, the report said.
The authors added that media freedom had come under pressure in at least 157 countries and territories assessed in 2022.
Following the invasion of Ukraine, “a multi-year media crackdown went into overdrive”, with Moscow seeking to “eliminate domestic opposition”, the report said.
That included an expansion of laws targeting false information that allowed Russian authorities to more aggressively block access to independent media outlets and block some foreign journalists.
Meanwhile, personal expression has also been in decline, with the number of countries scoring 0 out of 4 on Freedom House’s indicator increasing from six to 15 between 2005 and 2022.
One recent addition has been Nicaragua in the wake of crackdowns on dissent by President Daniel Ortega.
Afghanistan, Belarus, Eritrea, China, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar all rank among countries that signal “nearly complete lack of freedom to voice anti-government opinions”, the report said.