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Rights watchdog says global freedom declined for 17th year

Police try to hold back protesters who gather to storm the U.S. Capitol. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Global freedoms declined for a 17th consecutive year in 2022 as the struggle for democracy approaches a turning point amid a curtailment of freedom of expression in countries such as Russia and Iran.

Human rights watchdog Freedom House said in its annual report on freedoms around the world, released on March 9, that the number of countries to score zero for freedom of expression rose on the year to 33 from 14, with media freedom coming under pressure in at least 157 countries and territories during 2022.

The report showed the Nordic countries of Sweden, Norway, and Finland were the most free in the world with scores of 100, while Tibet Syria, and South Sudan were the worst, scoring only 1 point. Turkmenistan placed next to last with a score of 2.

“The most serious setbacks for freedom and democracy were the result of war, coups, and attacks on democratic institutions by illiberal incumbents,” it said.

The report singled out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “authoritarian regime” for launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 “in a bid to scuttle that country’s hard-won democratic progress.”

“Whatever false justifications for this war of aggression have been promulgated by the Kremlin’s state-controlled media, its clear purpose is to remove the elected leadership in Kyiv and deprive Ukrainians of their fundamental right to free self-government,” the report, which ranks Russia as “not free,” said.

“In his desire to destroy democracy in Ukraine and deny Ukrainians their political rights and civil liberties, Putin has caused the deaths and injuries of thousands of Ukrainian civilians as well as soldiers on both sides, the destruction of crucial infrastructure, the displacement of millions of people from their homes, a proliferation of torture and sexual violence, and the intensification of already harsh repression within Russia,” it added.

The decline in freedoms in Russia appeared to influence its neighbors as well, the report showed, noting that three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, “authoritarianism dominates Eurasia.”

The report showed that no formerly Soviet countries were designated as “free,” aside from the three Baltic states — Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, all of which are European Union and NATO members.

“This lack of democratic governance has destabilized the region, as strongman rulers use military force to lash out at their neighbors and smother domestic dissent,” the report said.

In addition to Turkmenistan lingering at the bottom of the table, Tajikistan had a score of 7, followed by Belarus and Afghanistan (8) and Azerbaijan (9). Uzbekistan and Iran had scores of 12, while Russia scored 16 points.

“The limited space for free media in Eurasia has diminished further due to new criminal laws and legislative restrictions,” the report said.

Still, it lauded the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia for “declining to recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory” and for complying with international sanctions imposed against Russian banks.

The same, however, could not be said for Belarus, Freedom House noted.

Belarus, which authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka has closely aligned with Russia during the war against Ukraine, was tied for eighth worst in terms of freedoms, sharing the spot with Afghanistan, which saw Taliban militants seize power in 2021 after international forces withdrew from the country.

On the other end of the report, Kosovo was praised for being one of the most improved countries in terms of freedom, being given the designation as “partly free.”

Freedom House noted that while Iran, which has been roiled by unrest over a lack of freedoms and poor living conditions for almost a year, holds elections regularly, “they fall short of democratic standards” due in part to the influence of the hard-line Guardian Council, an unelected body that disqualifies all candidates “it deems insufficiently loyal to the clerical establishment.”

“Ultimate power rests in the hands of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the unelected institutions under his control. These institutions, including the security forces and the judiciary, play a major role in the suppression of dissent and other restrictions on civil liberties,” it said.