Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that monitors democracy and political rights world wide, says global freedom declined last year for the fourth consecutive year. Although the group says there were some improvements, last year's slump represents the longest continuous decline in the nearly 40-year history of the report.
Freedom House says that whether it was the brutal repression of demonstrators in Iran, the sweeping detention of activists in China or the murder of journalists and human rights advocates in Russia, 2009 was a year that was marked by intensified repression of human rights defenders and civic activists.
Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House, says that last year 40 countries saw some degree of decline while 16 improved.
"The declines were notable in almost every part of the world, but particularly in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union," Puddington said.
Freedom House ranks each country in its annual survey by using one of three rankings for freedom: "free," "partly free" or "not free." It also tracks the number of electoral democracies.
According to its ranking system, of 194 countries and 14 territories Freedom House examined, the number of "free" countries and territories remained steady at 89, but the number of those "not free" rose to 47, an increase of five from the previous year.
Freedom House ranked nine of its "not free" countries and one territory as its "Worst of the Worst." The list includes Burma, North Korea, Tibet, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, among others.
Arch Puddington says that part of the reason for the overall decline was that a small collection of big influential, geostrategically self-confident countries such as Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran stood as models and protected smaller, authoritarian countries.
He says a push-back by countries to control an increasing number of assertive civil rights groups and non-governmental organizations was another reason for the decline in freedom.
"You have in many many countries, most countries in the world, an upsurge in civil society organizations," Puddington said. "You have NGOs, you have womens' organizations, environmental organizations, you have unions. And they are all challenging the status quo."
Puddington says that the decline in freedom as group's become increasingly assertive, might lead to more freedom in the long-term.
Freedom House says that while Asia saw the most significant improvements in freedom last year, the Middle East remained the most repressive region in the world.
Africa, it says, saw the most significant declines.
Puddington says setbacks for freedom in Africa came across the board - from the continents wealthiest, reform-oriented nations to Africa's most repressive countries.
"It's very hard to detect a real pattern here," Puddington said. "You've had it [i.e., declines] in different regions of Africa and different clumps of countries - reformers as opposed to authoritarians."
According to the survey, the number of electoral democracies shrunk by three and stood at 116. Developments in Honduras, Madagascar, Mozambique and Niger disqualified them from that list. But conditions in the Maldives improved enough for it to be added to the roster.
Freedom House says 2009 was also marked by growing pressures on journalists and new media, restrictions on freedom of association, and repression that was aimed at civic activists engaged in promoting political reform and respect for human rights.
The group says U.S. President Barack Obama faced a major challenge last year as he tried to balance security concerns with his promised rollback of some of the Bush administration's antiterrorism policies.
In Western Europe, where countries are struggling to deal with an influx of immigrants from countries with large Muslim populations, Puddington says anti-immigration policies led to a decline in the rating for Switzerland and Malta.