Freedom takes a hit worldwide

A new report by Washington watchdog group Freedom House says a clampdown on political rights made 43 countries 'not free' in 2007.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Movement: Supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change rally in Harare, Zimbabwe Jan. 12.
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Monks in Burma (Myanmar), lawyers in Pakistan, bloggers in China, and students in Venezuela and Bangladesh: these forces pushing back against restrictive moves by increasingly antidemocratic regimes are among the bright spots that a new report finds in a global trend toward less political freedom in the last year.

"There aren't too many really unifying factors among these activists, no obvious common issues linking the different groups," says Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House, the Washington group that issued its annual Freedom in the World report Wednesday. "What they do have in common is that they are rising up against the challenges to freedom in their countries, and they themselves are under considerable pressure."

Silver linings in the form of saffron-robed monks and bloggers aside, those mounting pressures are the central conclusion of the Freedom House findings.

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A second consecutive year of freedom's decline – particularly in South Asia, but also in the region of the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa – is the main conclusion for 2007 of the annual survey by Freedom House, which monitors trends in political freedoms and advocates their expansion. This is the first time in 15 years the group has seen two consecutive years of decline.

One explanation the report finds for the continuing decline is the influence of larger or more powerful countries on their weaker or impressionable neighbors. Freedom House finds that important regional players such as China, Russia, and Venezuela are being followed by their smaller neighbors. Russia's own retreat from freedoms is emulated in Belarus and some states of central Asia, for example, while other governments not drawn to the Russian example – like those in Estonia or Georgia – are still challenged by Russia's regional weight.

China's growing economic clout with regimes well beyond its borders – particularly in Africa – is also playing a role.

"Take China and its support for Zimbabwe," a country where freedoms retreated in 2007, Mr. Puddington says. "China is telling African countries, 'Hey, you don't need to make a deal with the World Bank that will require an anti corruption element, we'll give you aid with no such strings attached.' In that way," he adds, "China is undermining the efforts of the US, Europe, and multilateral institutions to introduce good-governance and democracy criteria as part of their dealings with these countries."

China is also coming under pressure from human rights activists over its close economic relations with the government of Sudan. Saying those ties enable the Sudanese government to ignore international pressure over Darfur, activists are trying to use China's hosting of the Olympic Summer Games as leverage.

The report finds that the number of countries it judged as "free" remained the same as last year at 90 – the reigning high-water mark for the category. It also concludes that two countries – Thailand and Togo – improved from "not free" to "partly free."

But it finds particularly troubling trends in the Philippines and Kenya, once widely considered to be models for their regions. Add to that the continuing "pushback" from regimes already found to be resisting democratic advances in the previous report, and the picture for the world's least-free populations is not bright. "What we're seeing is a core group of unfree countries," Puddington says, "where it's proving particularly difficult to move things forward in terms of freedoms."

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