Freedom House, the U.S.-based democracy monitoring group, says global freedom is on the retreat around the world for a third consecutive year.  The group's annual survey on the state of political rights and civil liberties in 193 countries found little to celebrate in 2008.  But, there were some modest improvements.

The annual Freedom House survey assigns each country one of three grades:  "free," "partly free" or "not free".

Using this gauge, it found that the number of countries measured as "free" in 2008 stands at 89, one fewer than last year.  Setbacks for freedom were numerous and across the board.  The regions with the largest decline were sub-Saharan Africa and the non-Baltic countries of the former Soviet Union.

In Africa, 12 countries - including Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Congo and Zimbabwe - suffered setbacks amid ethnic conflicts, increasingly authoritarian presidents and military coups.

Several areas in the former Soviet Union ranked even lower - notably Russia and Georgia.

Freedom House Director of Research Arch Puddington says the former Soviet Union is the only region that has shown a steady decline during the past decade.

"Really about the time Vladimir Putin became president, we saw a steady decline in the degree of freedom in just about every one of our indicators," said Arch Puddington. "We saw elections turn into truly make believe elections.  We saw a robust free press transformed into a press that is controlled by the Kremlin.  In addition, it has sort of poisoned the well of its neighborhood by coming down hard on its neighboring democracies as well."

One area where the Freedom House survey found significant improvement was South Asia.  More freedom was recorded in Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal.

Arch Puddington says it was one of the few silver linings in a year marked by stagnation.

"This is a region that has experienced a great deal of political volatility in recent years," he said. "So we were somewhat heartened by the fact that in this past year, you saw improvements - a number of elections, successful elections, improvements in civil liberties and so forth."

Forty-two countries are designated as "not free," representing 34 percent of the world's population.   Of that figure, nearly 60 percent live in China.

Puddington says he was disappointed by China's failure to deliver on pledges to improve human rights in exchange for hosting the summer Olympic Games last year.  He cited increased repression of religious and cultural minorities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans as reasons for Beijing's backslide.

Freedom House also examined the progress of freedom over the course of President George Bush's administration, which made the promotion of democracy a focal point of U.S. foreign policy. Puddington says there are three more countries that are free today than when he took office.

"We don't say that Bush was responsible or not responsible for these changes, we're just reporting on what the record was in 2000 and what the record is today," said Puddington. "On the other hand, another thing we note is that whatever progress there was, was pretty much concentrated in Bush's first administration.  Over the last three years, we have seen a rather considerable decline in freedom.  Many more countries have shown declines than gains."

Puddington notes that while Afghanistan's status changed from "partly free" to "not free," Iraq improved due to increased security and Sunni participation in the political process.

The Freedom House report looks to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to engage in high diplomacy to support and defend freedom around the world.  It adds that the incoming Obama administration will need to develop creative strategies to deal with what it calls "increasingly assertive antagonists to democracy".