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2007: “A Notable Setback for Global Freedom”

- February 18, 2008


The new Freedom House ratings of democracy around the world, released a few weeks ago, indicate that 2007 wasn’t a good year for the advance of democracy and freedom.

In case you don’t know about the Freedom House ratings, here’s a little background. Every year since 1972, Freedom House has issued an annual report on the global status of democracy. In a nutshell, every country is categorized annually as “free,” “partially free,” or “not free,” depending on where it stands on the two dimensions of political rights and civil liberties. (These classifications are shown in the tiny map above, a larger version of which is available in the report itself. Countries shown in green are “free”; those shown in yellow are “partially free”; and those shown in purple are “not free.”) Based on these ratings, the countries’ progression toward democracy or regression away from it is also charted annually. The Freedom House ratings are a bit rough and ready, and other, more sophisticated measurement approaches are available (see, e.g., the recent piece by Shawn Treier and Simon Jackman — abstract here), but for purposes of mapping democracy over time these ratings are unrivaled.

Here’s the lead from the narrative portion of the Freedom House report:

bq. The year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom. The decline, which was reflected in reversals in one-fifth of the world’s countries, was most pronounced in South Asia, but also reached significant levels in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. It affected a substantial number of large and politically important countries—including Russia, Pakistan, Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, and Venezuela—whose declines have wider regional and global implications. Other countries experienced reversals after a period of progress toward democracy, including pivotal states in the Arab Middle East. While many more countries suffered declines than registered improvements, the degree of change reflected in some countries was modest while in others the decline was more substantial. …[The] results for 2007 marked the second consecutive year in which the survey registered a decline in freedom, representing the first two-year setback in the past 15 years. In all, nearly four times as many countries showed significant declines during the year as registered improvements.

And here are some particulars:

bq. 90 countries were judged to be “free” in 2007, representing 47% of the world’s 193 polities and 46 percent of the global population. This was unchanged from 2006. In these countries, there were “a broad scope for open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, significant independent civic life, and independent media.”

bq. 60 countries (31% of the total) were classified as “partly free.” These countries were characterized by “limited respect for political rights and civil liberties, … frequently an environment of corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic and religious strife, and often a setting in which a single political party enjoys dominance despite the façade of limited pluralism.”

bq. 43 countries (22%) were classified as “not free.” These were countries in which “basic political rights are absent, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied.”

bq. 38 countries showed evidence of declines in freedom, with only 10 showing positive shifts. None of the more important repressive states showed signs of enhanced freedom, nor did any of the countries with the lowest possible scores in the Freedom House index—the “worst of the worst.”

For a the full report, including country-by-country detail, click here.