February 15, 2019

Freedom House report on global freedom notes “democracy in retreat”


Freedom House’s map of “Freedom in the World” in 2018.

In 2018, the “Freedom in the World” report recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned all continents and a variety of countries, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.

Overall in 2018, 68 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 50 registering gains. The share of “Not Free” countries has increased over the past 13 years, and the crisis of confidence in long-standing democracies has intensified. Democratic norms such as free and fair elections and free expression are being shattered.

Over the period since the 13-year slide began in 2006, 116 countries have seen a net decline, and only 63 have experienced a net improvement.

Key global findings

• The United States remained firmly in the “Free” category but ranked behind other major democracies such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom. U.S. rule of law declined as government policies and actions improperly restricted the legal rights of asylum seekers, discrimination became evident in the acceptance of refugees for resettlement, and immigration enforcement and detention policies were excessively harsh or haphazard. In contrast, freedom of assembly improved, with an upsurge in civic action and no repetition of the previous year’s protest-related violence.

• Ethnic cleansing is a growing trend, observed in 11 countries in 2018, compared to three countries in 2005.

• In many struggling democracies, anti-liberal leaders’ verbal attacks on the media contributed to broader declines in press freedom and growing physical threats against journalists. These attacks have emboldened authoritarian rulers elsewhere to take far more aggressive action in response to critical coverage.

• A growing number of governments – 24 in recent years – reached beyond their borders to target expatriates, exiles and diasporas with physical surveillance, kidnapping and even assassination. Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey put a spotlight on authoritarian regimes’ uninhibited cross-border pursuit of their perceived enemies.

• In a positive development, 2018 saw more countries with large improvements (more than 5 points) than in 2017. Most notably in Angola, Armenia, Ethiopia and Malaysia, politicians unexpectedly responded or were forced to respond to public demands for democratic change, serving as a reminder that people continue to strive for freedom, accountability and dignity, even in countries where the odds of success seem insurmountable.



• Venezuela suffered yet another steep decline in freedom as President Nicolás Maduro extended his authoritarian rule with a profoundly flawed presidential election, and as the country’s economic and humanitarian crises persisted. 

• Democratic improvements have continued in Ecuador since the 2017 election of President Lenín Moreno, including a more relaxed government stance toward media criticism, a ban on holding office for those convicted of corruption and a constitutional referendum that restored presidential term limits. 


• Hopes for democratic reform rose in Malaysia after an opposition alliance unexpectedly defeated incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition, which had ruled the country for decades. 

• While Pakistan’s elections were competitive, the military’s influence over the courts and the media was widely thought to have tilted the contest in favor of the new prime minister, Imran Khan.

• Bangladesh’s weak electoral system further deteriorated, as security forces cracked down on the opposition ahead of parliamentary voting, election-day irregularities were widespread and interparty violence resulted in more than a dozen deaths.


• Uzbekistan – while still governed by a highly repressive regime – experienced another year of tentative improvement, as authorities continued to release political prisoners and ease restrictions on NGOs. 

• Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev each secured new presidential terms, benefiting from strong-arm tactics that included the repression of independent media and civil society, the abuse of state resources, and the persecution of genuine political opponents – as well as outright fraud.


• Violence reached the press in Slovakia, where investigative reporter Ján Kuciak was shot to death in his home after uncovering corrupt links between government officials and organized crime.

• President Milo Đukanović of Montenegro continued to consolidate state power around himself and his clique, subverting basic standards of good governance and exceeding his assigned constitutional role.

• In Turkey, simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections took place under a two-year state of emergency that was later lifted, though authorities continued to engage in purges of state institutions and arrests of journalists, civil society members and academics.

Middle East and North Africa

• Political repression worsened in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed to have been reelected with 97 percent of the vote after security forces arbitrarily detained potential challengers. 

• In Saudi Arabia, after the government drew praise for easing its draconian ban on women driving, authorities arrested high-profile women’s rights activists and clamped down on even mild forms of dissent. Evidence also mounted that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had personally ordered the assassination of self-exiled critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, dashing any remaining hopes that the young prince might emerge as a reformer. 

• The consolidation of democracy in Tunisia continued to sputter, as freedoms of assembly and association were imperiled by legislative changes and the leadership’s failure to set up a Constitutional Court undermined judicial independence and the rule of law.

• Nationalism strained Israel’s democracy as lawmakers approved changes that effectively downgraded the constitutional status of non-Jewish citizens and allowed the interior minister to revoke the residency of Jerusalem-based Palestinians for “breach of loyalty.”

Sub-Saharan Africa

• There was a tentative opening in Angola, where new president João Lourenço took notable actions against corruption and impunity, reducing the outsized influence of his long-ruling predecessor’s family and granting the courts greater independence.

• Zimbabwe’s political system essentially returned to its pre-coup status quo, as President Emmerson Mnangagwa used deeply flawed general elections to reclaim a modicum of legitimacy following the military’s 2017 ouster of longtime President Robert Mugabe, and his ruling ZANU-PF party showed few signs that it was committed to fostering genuine political competition.

• In Uganda, long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni’s administration sought to constrain dissent by implementing new surveillance systems and instituting a regressive tax on social media use. 

• Senegal’s reputation as one of the most stable democracies in West Africa was threatened by new procedural barriers that could limit the opposition’s participation in upcoming elections. 


The story above has been abridged by The Ukrainian Weekly.

The Freedom House report also noted status changes of countries around the globe and cited countries in the spotlight. It  included recommendations for strengthening and protecting core values in established democracies; and defending and expanding democracy around the world.

To read more about the latest report on global freedom by Freedom House, go to freedomhouse.org.

Ukraine rated “Partly Free,” while Crimea is “Not Free”

The “Freedom in the World” report also encompasses separate reports on countries and territories. The aggregate freedom score is given for each country or territory with 100 being the score for the most free countries or territories. Each country or territory is assigned two ratings – one for political rights and one for civil liberties – based on its total scores for political rights and civil liberties questions. A rating of 1 represents the greatest degree of freedom and 7 the smallest. Details about how those ratings were determined may be found online at freedomhouse.org/report/countries-world-freedom-2019.

Following are excerpts from the separate reports on Ukraine and Crimea, which Freedom House notes is under Russian occupation.

Ukraine: Partly Free

Aggregate freedom score: 60/100

Political rights: 3/7

Civil liberties: 4/7

Key developments in 2018:

• Rights groups documented more than 50 attacks on activists and human rights defenders in the first nine months of the year. There were also a number of severe assaults by nationalist groups against the Romany minority. Investigations into these incidents generally took place only after significant pressure from civil society.

• Lawmakers and President Petro Poroshenko approved legislation to establish a long-awaited anticorruption court. However, domestic and international observers expressed concerns about the selection process for the 39 judges who would sit on the court.

• Intermittent fighting continued in Donbas. The United Nations reported that over 3,000 civilians have been killed since the outbreak of the conflict in 2014.

• In November, martial law was imposed in 10 Ukrainian regions for 30 days after Russian forces captured 24 Ukrainian sailors near Crimea. Provisions of the martial law decree allowed restrictions on free speech and assembly, but these were not invoked in practice.


Ukraine has enacted a number of positive reforms since the protest-driven ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. However, corruption remains endemic, and initiatives to combat it are only partially implemented. Attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and members of minority groups are frequent and often go unpunished. Russia occupies the autonomous Ukrainian region of Crimea, which it invaded in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s ouster, and its military supports armed separatists in the eastern Donbas area, where skirmishes continue to endanger civilians.

Corruption: Corruption remains a serious problem, and there is little political will to fight it despite strong pressure from civil society. Anti-corruption agencies have repeatedly been ensnared in politically fraught conflicts with other state entities and elected officials. While lawmakers and Poroshenko approved legislation in 2018 to create a long-awaited anti-corruption court, at year’s end the selection of judges was still under way.

Openness and transparency: Ukraine has made some progress in advancing transparency, for example by requiring that banks publish the identity of their owners, and by passing a 2016 law obliging politicians and bureaucrats to file electronic declarations of their assets. However, it is possible to bypass some regulations, in part because underdeveloped institutions are not fully capable of identifying and punishing violators.

A robust freedom of information law approved in 2011 is not well enforced.

Free and independent media: The Constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and expression, and libel is not a criminal offense. The media landscape features considerable pluralism and open criticism of the government. However, business magnates with varying political interests own and influence many outlets, using them as tools to advance their agendas. Poroshenko owns the television network Fifth Channel and has rebuffed press freedom groups’ demands that he honor his earlier promise to sell it.

Authorities in 2018 renewed existing measures that bar a number of Russian news outlets from Ukrainian distribution networks and prohibit their journalists from entering the country. …In September, the regional council in Lviv approved a measure banning the public use of Russian-language “culture products,” including books and films.

Journalists continue to face the threat of violence and intimidation. The independent Institute of Mass Information registered 201 media freedom violations from January to November 2018. Of these incidents, 28 involved beatings or attacks, and 27 involved threats and intimidation.…

The media environment in separatist-occupied parts of Donbas is marked by severe violations of press freedom, including censorship by the de facto authorities.

Independence of judiciary: Ukraine has long suffered from corrupt and politicized courts, and recent reform initiatives aimed at addressing the issue have stalled or fallen short of expectations. A competitive selection process for new Supreme Court judges was initiated in 2016, but it has since come under heavy criticism from civil society and other observers for a perceived lack of transparency and proper consultation, and for failing to weed out flawed candidates. The process will continue into 2019.

Poroshenko signed legislation in June 2018 to create a long-awaited anti-corruption court. Following criticism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States, the law was soon amended so that existing corruption cases would fall under its purview. Thirty-nine judges still had to be selected to serve on the new body. As with the Supreme Court appointments, concerns remain that provisions meant to ensure fair competition and screening of judges will not be followed.…

Crimea: Not Free

Aggregate Freedom Score: 8/100

Political Rights: 7/7

Civil Liberties: 6/7

Key developments in 2018:

• Throughout the year, opposition figures and activists opposed to the Russian occupation continued to face harassment, arrest, and imprisonment for their peaceful activities, and Russian authorities routinely violated due process rights in pursuing cases against dissidents.

• In May, Russian officials opened the Kerch Bridge, which connects mainland Russia to Crimea. The bridge was sharply criticized by the international community for further consolidating Russian control over the peninsula.

• In November, Russian forces attacked and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea near Crimea, further inflaming tensions; 24 Ukrainian military personnel who were detained during the attack remained in custody at the end of the year.

• In December, four Crimean Tatars received lengthy prison sentences for their alleged involvement with the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is designated as a terrorist organization in Russia but not in Ukraine.


In early 2014, Russian forces invaded the autonomous Ukrainian region of Crimea and quickly annexed it to the Russian Federation through a referendum that was widely condemned for violating international law. The occupation government severely limits political and civil rights, has silenced independent media, and employs antiterrorism and other laws against political dissidents. Many Ukrainians have been deported from or otherwise compelled to leave Crimea. Members of the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority, many of whom vocally oppose the Russian occupation, have faced particularly acute repression by the authorities.

Electoral process: …In March 2018, Crimea residents who accepted Russian citizenship voted in the Russian presidential election, which observers concluded was not genuinely competitive. Residents are not permitted to participate in some Ukrainian elections. However, they are able to participate in the presidential vote scheduled for March 2019, and the party-list portion of the October 2019 parliamentary elections, if they register ahead of time in mainland Ukraine.

… Legislative elections under the Russian-organized Crimean constitution were held in September 2014 in an environment that was neither fair nor competitive. All of the parties allowed to participate supported the annexation, pro-Ukraine parties were excluded, and the Crimean Tatar minority boycotted the voting. The ruling party in Russia, United Russia, took 70 seats, and the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) secured the remaining 5 seats.

The Russian occupation authorities have tailored the electoral system to ensure maximum control by Moscow. Legislators electing the chief executive are limited to candidates chosen by the Russian president. In the legislative elections, legitimate opposition forces are denied registration before the voting begins, leaving voters with the choice of either abstaining or endorsing pro-Russian candidates.

Political pluralism and participation: Ukrainian political parties are banned, allowing Russia’s ruling party and other Kremlin-approved factions to dominate the political system. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the local police, and pro-Russian “self-defense” units use intimidation and harassment to suppress any political mobilization against the current government or Russia’s annexation of Crimea. …

As in Russia, the authorities in the territory consistently crack down on opposition political activity. Crimean Tatars have continued to voice dissent and openly oppose the Russian occupation, but they risk harassment, arrest, and imprisonment for their actions. Other opposition figures also experience intimidation and police surveillance.…

Russia’s occupation authorities deny full political rights to all Crimea residents, but Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians are regarded with particular suspicion and face greater persecution than their ethnic Russian counterparts. …

Functioning of government:  All major policy decisions are made in Moscow and executed by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s representatives in Crimea or the local authorities, who were not freely elected and are beholden to the Kremlin.

Ethnic composition: Since the occupation began, the Russian government has taken decisive steps to solidify ethnic Russian domination of the peninsula and marginalize the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar communities. The elimination of the Ukrainian language from school curriculums and the closure of most Ukrainian Orthodox churches since 2014 are indicative of this attempt to Russify the population.

Russian and local pro-Russian officials’ policies and actions in Crimea have led to an influx of hundreds of thousands of people from Russia, including Russian troops, civilian personnel and their families. People displaced by fighting and deprivation in eastern Ukraine – home to many ethnic Russians – have also come to Crimea. Ukrainian citizens from Crimea have been drafted into compulsory military service in the Russian armed forces, in contravention of international law. As of November 2018, approximately 12,000 Crimeans had been drafted into the Russian military.

Meanwhile, political persecution has led to an outflow of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. Russia instituted a policy of mass Russian naturalization for all residents of Crimea in 2014, in violation of international law. Once the policy was enacted, Crimeans had only 18 days to opt out of Russian citizenship. Ukrainian citizens, many of them long-term residents with immediate family on the peninsula, have been deported from Crimea since the beginning of the occupation, often for opting out of Russian citizenship.

Religious freedom:  The occupation authorities forced religious organizations to reregister under new rules, sharply reducing the number of registered groups. All 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations were de-registered after the Russian Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the group had violated laws against extremism. Mosques associated with the Crimean Tatars have been denied permission to register, and Muslims have faced legal discrimination. …

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) did not re-register under Russian law after the occupation and faces pressure from occupation authorities, who have confiscated some of the church’s property. Before the occupation, the UOC-KP had 52 parishes in Crimea, but as of October 2018 only eight parishes remained. At least three UOC-KP churches have been appropriated by Russian authorities.

Independence of the judiciary: Under Moscow’s rule, Crimea is subject to the Russian judicial system, which lacks independence and is effectively dominated by the executive branch. Opponents of Crimea’s annexation argue that the judiciary is politicized and aggressively punishes dissidents in politically motivated cases. Russian laws bar dual citizenship for public officials, and Crimean judges were required to obtain Russian citizenship in order to return to their positions after the annexation. …