During 2020, freedom around the world declined for the 15th straight year, according to Freedom House in its annual country-by-country assessment of political rights and civil liberties.
The group now says fewer than one fifth of the world lives in “fully free” countries, the lowest percentage since 1995.
“This year’s findings make it abundantly clear that we have not yet stemmed the authoritarian tide,” said Sarah Repucci, vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House. “Democratic governments will have to work in solidarity with one another, and with democracy advocates and human rights defenders in more repressive settings, if we are to reverse 15 years of accumulated declines and build a more free and peaceful world.”
The report says the coronavirus pandemic provided many regimes around the world an opportunity to “reduce transparency, promote false or misleading information, and crack down on the sharing of unfavorable data or critical views.”
“Lockdowns were sometimes excessive, politicized, or brutally enforced by security agencies. And antidemocratic leaders worldwide used the pandemic as cover to weaken the political opposition and consolidate power,” the group said.
“In fact, many of the year’s negative developments will likely have lasting effects, meaning the eventual end of the pandemic will not necessarily trigger an immediate revitalization of democracy.”
The group “downgraded the freedom scores” of 73 countries in its assessment, noting that India was moved from “free” to “partly free” because of an erosion of political and civil rights, the group said.
Freedom House said India was just one case of “authoritarians generally enjoying impunity for their abuses and seizing new opportunities to consolidate power or crush dissent. In many cases, promising democratic movements faced major setbacks as a result.”
The group was critical of China’s “malign influence,” not only for its crackdown on Hong Kong but for a” global disinformation and censorship campaign” that impeded the world’s ability to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.”
The report also accused China of “increased meddling in the domestic political discourse of foreign democracies, as well as transnational extensions of rights abuses common in mainland China.”
China’s increased clout with international organizations such as the U.N., WHO and the Human Rights Council allowed Beijing to push “a vision of so-called noninterference that allows abuses of democratic principles and human rights standards to go unpunished while the formation of autocratic alliances is promoted.”
The group also cited government crackdown on protesters questioning the recent election results in Belarus. It said Azerbaijan’s military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh “threatened recent democratic gains in Armenia.”
Freedom House said the U.S. was still considered “free” but it’s “score … dropped by 11 points over the past decade.” The group accuses former President Donald Trump of a three-point drop in 2020 alone.
Now, the group says, the U.S. ranks more with Romania and Panama rather than “leading democracies” like France and Germany.
The news was not all bad though.
Freedom House said Malawi’s 2020 rerun vote following a “marred” election in 2019 “represented a critical win for Malawi’s democratic institutions and set a positive example of judicial independence for other African states.”
The group also praised Taiwan, which it called one of the “highest-performing” democracies in Asia, for its handling of the pandemic.
“The government effectively suppressed the coronavirus without resorting to abusive methods, setting a sharp contrast with authoritarian China, where the regime has touted its draconian response as a model for the world,” Freedom House said. “Even before the virus struck, Taiwanese voters defied a multipronged, politicized disinformation campaign from China and overwhelmingly reelected a president who opposes moves toward unification with the mainland.”
“Our report concludes that democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.