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Survey: Global Freedom Drops for 11th Year as Populism, Autocracy Rise


A screen shot from the 2016 report by Freedom House titled "Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy," Jan. 31, 2017.

U.S. human rights group Freedom House says global freedoms weakened in 2016 for an 11th consecutive year, a decline it blamed on growing populism and nationalism in democratic nations and greater authoritarianism in others.

The bleak assessment came in the group's annual global freedom survey published Monday with the title, “Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy.”

Of the 195 countries assessed in the Freedom House report, 45 percent were rated “free,” 30 percent were rated “partly free” and 25 percent were rated “not free.” It said 67 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, predominantly in established democracies such as Brazil, France, Germany and the United States. The report said 36 nations saw improvements in freedom, leaving the gainers outnumbered by nations with declining freedom for the 11th straight year.

Speaking to VOA via Skype from New York, Freedom House spokeswoman Sarah Repucci said the country with the biggest drop in freedom in 2016 was "partly free" Turkey.

FILE - Pro-Kurdish demonstrators protest against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the political repression that followed July's failed military coup, in Cologne, Germany, Nov. 12, 2016.
FILE - Pro-Kurdish demonstrators protest against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the political repression that followed July's failed military coup, in Cologne, Germany, Nov. 12, 2016.

"We started to see restrictions on freedom of the press [in Turkey] before the failed coup attempt that happened in July," Repucci said, citing moves by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shut down independent media outlets or take them over. "Then, Erdogan used [the failed coup] as an excuse to crack down further on journalists, NGO activists and opposition figures with massive arrests that sent some people into exile, and to pass an emergency law that has curtailed the basic freedoms of ordinary people, as well."

The report also noted that Turkey was a victim of multiple terrorist attacks in 2016. Erdogan said last year that fighting terrorism is Turkey's highest priority, outweighing democracy, freedom and the rule of law, which he said have "absolutely no value any longer."

U.S. and Russia

Freedom House said major democracies were "mired in anxiety and indecision" in 2016, after a series of destabilizing events. It said one such event was the U.S. presidential victory of Donald Trump, whom it called a "mercurial figure with unconventional views on foreign policy and other matters" — views it said "raised questions" about his country's future role in the world.

"What the U.S. chooses to do in its foreign policy under the new administration is an open question," Repucci said. "But we've seen a lot of warning signs that it may not be engaging to the extent that all previous U.S. administrations in recent years have done."

FILE - This undated handout photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry claims to show Russian Military engineers driving in their armored personnel carrier to operate in Aleppo, Syria.
FILE - This undated handout photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry claims to show Russian Military engineers driving in their armored personnel carrier to operate in Aleppo, Syria.

Repucci said Russia, which Freedom House rates as “not free,” has shown a willingness to fill any gap left by U.S. disengagement from the world, particularly in the Middle East.

"We've seen that [willingness] with Russia's intervention in Syria's conflict, which has not only propped up the [government of Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad, but also furthered the humanitarian crisis there," she said. "I think it's very likely that Russia will continue its influence in the Middle East, especially if Europe and the U.S. turn their attention elsewhere or internally."

Trump’s victory

The report said Trump's election win shows that the United States is "not immune to the kind of populist appeals that have resonated across the Atlantic in recent years." It said his campaign "featured a series of disturbing events, stemming mainly from Trump's own remarks and the actions of his supporters, and punctuated by Trump's insistence, without evidence and even after he won, that the election results were marred by massive fraud."

But Freedom House also noted positive aspects of Trump's rise to power. It said his success as an "outsider candidate who challenged the mainstream forces of both major parties demonstrated the continued openness and dynamism of the American system." It also said Trump's statements and actions during the postelection transition period "suggested that he had abandoned or softened a number of his more contentious campaign promises, including mass deportations of immigrants, lowering the legal bar for libel suits, and the prosecution of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton — something he had frequently vowed to pursue during the campaign."

WATCH: Repucci Talks to VOA about Global Freedom

‘Worst’ scores

Freedom House said civil-war-plagued Syria had the "worst" score for political rights and civil liberties in 2016. Following Syria on the list of worst-scoring nations were Eritrea, North Korea, Uzbekistan, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, Somalia, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic and Saudi Arabia.

The report said the Syrian conflict and other extremism in the Middle East has taken global attention away from what it termed "worsening domestic repression" in China and Russia.

The only country in the report with a positive trend toward being freer was Colombia, whose government secured a peace deal with FARC rebels last year, ending a decades-long conflict in the South American nation.

VOA's Persian Service contributed to this report.

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