Every year Freedom House publishes a report on the state of Freedom in the World. The 2013 report notes that “this is the seventh consecutive year that Freedom in the World has shown more declines [in freedom] than gains worldwide. Furthermore, the … data reflected a stepped-up campaign of persecution by dictators that specifically targeted civil society organizations and independent media.” In fact, while the report shows that 90 countries are now considered Free, 27 countries “showed significant declines, compared with 16 that showed notable gains.”
On the surface, one might think that the 2012 figures are primarily driven by backsliding in post-Arab Spring countries. But in fact, the decline started much earlier than that — in 2005 — after the early 2000s saw the relatively “freest” time in documented human history.
This is bad news for those who have argued that liberal democracy has essentially won the battle of political ideologies. Proponents of this view expected that the march toward greater freedom for all would be more or less linear — particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union. But we don’t see it spreading anymore. Instead, we see the reverse.
This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last week, USAID issued an RFP for scholars to write a write paper and convene a working group to better understand why this happens.
So, PV@Glance readers, let’s help out our fellow researchers. What explains this backslide? Why are countries becoming less free? Of course, the definitions of “free,” “partly free,” and “not free” are debatable and many have found this think tank’s mission and methods controversial. For example, a key criterion for inclusion as a “free” country is the country’s status as an electoral democracy, although the Freedom House data also measure civil rights, freedom of the press, and now internet freedom. Critics have argued that these criteria wrongly privilege democracy and neoliberal economics over cultural, social, and economic rights. Ironically, scholarly studies show that if anything, Freedom House rankings tend to be higher for left-wing countries, reflecting something of a leftist ideological bias (at least in the early days). But leaving aside this debate for the moment, we can see measurable differences within Freedom House’s own rankings, and that’s the puzzle I’m focusing on in this post.