The independent Freedom House rights organization says political freedom is on the decline in large parts of the world, including Russia, Egypt, Iran, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Venezuela. The democracy watchdog group, based in New York, said the results of this year's annual survey point to a disturbing deterioration of freedom worldwide, with less than half of the Earth's population living in places that can be called free. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.
Freedom House has been around for 30 years, measuring the levels of political freedom and civil liberties in the world's 193 countries. The group's director of research, Arch Puddington, says 2007 saw profound setbacks for freedom.
"If you look at the record for the past two years, it represents the first time in the past 15 years that freedom has actually declined over a two-year period," said Arch Puddington.
Freedom House says the decline in freedom was most pronounced in South Asia, but it also reached significant levels in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. The report says many of those countries with declines are large and geo-politically significant countries. Some of them, it says, like the Philippines, were once considered an inspiration for freedom movements.
Research Director Arch Puddington cites another alarming trend.
"We have also seen what is called a "pushback" against democracy," he said. "Again, this is very often something you see with big, energy-rich countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Venezuela, also China, where you have got regimes that are worried about popular movements for democracy. They are taking every sort of measure, ranging from imprisoning dissidents to using the tax police and regulations to smother the work of NGO's."
Freedom House labeled 90 countries as "free", 60 countries as "partly free", and 43 countries as "not-free." The Palestinian Authority declined from "partly free" to "not free."
The director of studies at Freedom House, Christopher Walker, is an expert on the countries of the former Soviet Union.
"As a unit, the former Soviet Union is one of the most freedom-deprived regions of all the regions we examined in the survey," said Christopher Walker. "Among the features that we have found is really a hardening core of authoritarian states."
Walker cited parliamentary elections in Russia held under unfair conditions and democracy in Georgia stained by a violent police crackdown on demonstrators and the imposition of a state of emergency. He also said many of the countries in the region have orchestrated a methodical and systematic muzzling of the media.
Research Director Puddington said there were also big disappointments in Africa.
"In Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, two of the continent's most significant countries, largest countries, and in the case of Kenya, a country that we had regarded as something like a model for democratic improvement, both suffered declines, and in the case of Kenya a major one," he said.
In Kenya, hundreds have been killed in rioting after reports of vote-rigging by the government in the country's presidential election held last December.
The report also cites a decline in freedom in a number of Asia's most important countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Freedom House's Karin Karlekar is a South Asia analyst. She says despite the negative trend, she sees reason for hope in the vibrant opposition by a number of groups, especially in Pakistan.
"Particularly and striking this past year was the case of Pakistan, where lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and students kept up a sustained protest campaign against [President] Musharraf's efforts to hold onto power," said Karin Karlekar.
Karlekar said the United States should support such efforts by dissidents and civil rights groups around the world.