*Freedom House Report by Yana Gorokhovskaia, Research Director
The year 2022 may prove to be a turning point in the global struggle for democracy. On the one hand, the year was marred by external and internal attacks on democratic institutions. The Kremlin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, seeking to remove the democratically elected government in Kyiv. In Burkina Faso, two successive coups led by military officers stripped people of their political rights and greatly constrained everyday freedoms.
But it was also a year during which democracies banded together to assert the importance of human rights at international institutions, rebuking the authoritarian regimes of Myanmar, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. A year when political actors in Latin America, Africa, and Europe recommitted to holding free and fair elections. Crucially, the deterioration of rights and freedoms appeared to slow substantially: only 35 countries declined, as compared to 60 in 2021, and over 70 in 2020.
Freedom in the World assesses political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories and has been published annually since 1973. Over the years, this touchstone report provides valuable perspectives on global political trends in part because it divides countries into intuitively comprehensible categories of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free.
The 50th anniversary of the report provides an opportunity to step back and examine the biggest drivers and impediments to democracy over the last half century. In doing so, three central themes emerge.
Elections remain vital to democracy
First, a commitment to the democratic process is fundamental to ensuring and protecting freedom. That commitment includes elections but also encompasses much more. In 1973, Freedom in the World identified just 44 countries as Free, accounting for fewer than 30 percent of all the countries in the world.
In the following decades, democracy emerged and was strengthened through competitive and transparent elections in Spain, Argentina, South Korea, Chile, South Africa, Taiwan, Ghana, and beyond. In 2022, free and fair elections featured in positive changes in Colombia and Lesotho, as well as Kenya and Slovenia.
While competitive and multiparty elections do not solve all political and social issues within a country, attempts to create an uneven electoral playing field are warning signs of democratic decline. Though still regularly held, opposition parties are unlikely to win elections in Hungary and Turkey, for example, due to the application of state resources in favor of Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
As events in Brazil showed at the end of the year, attacks on the legitimacy of the democratic process by a populist incumbent diminish trust in election results and can lead to violence. Elections, bolstered by a free media, political pluralism, and protected by an independent judiciary, remain one of the most important benchmarks of democracy.
Freedom of expression is under attack
Second, freedom of expression has deteriorated significantly around the world during the last 17 years. While free expression does not guarantee democracy, its absence enables authoritarianism. Independent journalists hold the powerful to account, expose important issues, and inform society.
But criminal prosecution of journalists, extrajudicial violence, censorship, and laws that limit the independence of media are increasing all over the world. The number of countries and territories that have a score of 0 out of 4 on the media freedom indicator has ballooned from 14 to 33 since 2005.
Freedom of private expression, both online and offline, is also being broadly dismantled. Increasingly, autocrats have created an atmosphere of silence and self-censorship. In the past year, Daniel Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua held show trials for dozens of people accused of various crimes based almost solely on evidence that they made critical remarks about the government.
In Myanmar, the military junta executed Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, for speaking out against the coup. Authorities in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Belarus, and Russian-occupied Donbas checked phones and deployed networks of informants to suppress the sharing of dissenting opinions.
Calls for freedom need our support
Lastly, data from Freedom in the World shows that the desire for freedom is enduring. In China, Cuba, Iran, and Afghanistan, people have repeatedly taken to the streets to defend their rights, often at great risk to their own safety. Despite steady demand for greater freedom, the rate of democratization has noticeably slowed in recent decades. In 2002, there were 89 Free countries; 20 years later, there are 84.
To reverse this trend, international support must match people’s enthusiasm for freedom and democracy. This means that democracies cannot be silent about the authoritarian behaviors of other regimes that jeopardize human rights. Democratic states must advance a democratic agenda in their bilateral relationships.
Governments and civil society must also dramatically ramp up support for groups and individuals on the front lines of defending freedom, whether in Ukraine, Iran, El Salvador, or Thailand. Human rights defenders all over the world are agents of positive change; technical, financial, security and diplomatic assistance for them must be effective and sustainable. These efforts will help ensure that the next 50 years bring more freedoms than the last.