Last year saw a greater decline in global freedom than any other in the past decade, according to a leading rights monitor.
The U.S.-based organization Freedom House says freedom ebbed in 72 countries around the world in 2015, while just 43 countries witnessed an increase.
A key finding of the report was that "fear of social unrest" led Russia, China, and "other authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent."
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also received special attention for joining a group of 10 other countries the authors regard as the "Worst of the Worst" as far as political rights and civil liberties are concerned.
It was the 10th straight year that Freedom House has reported an overall decline in global freedom.
"This [year's] decline was the result of several factors, including the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as other areas which are not only intensifying the humanitarian crises in these countries but also generated unprecedented numbers of refugees and fostered terrorist groups that inspired or organized attacks," Jennifer Dunham, the director of research for the report, told RFE/RL.
In its report, Freedom In The World 2016, released on January 27, Freedom House said wars and other violent conflicts "fueled xenophobic sentiment in democratic countries."
Among other important findings in the report was that Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia were deemed to have "suffered from crippling government dysfunction in 2015" that prevented democratic progress and assured those Balkan countries that joining the European Union remains "a distant prospect."
The report warns that Bosnia-Herzegovina could see even worse government paralysis if a planned referendum takes place in Republika Srpska, the majority-Serb entity within that country, on the legitimacy of Bosnia's national courts.
Dunham said there were "concerning declines in governance" in the Balkans in 2015.
She cited Macedonia's ruling party being implicated in electoral fraud and a wire-tapping scandal and nonstop battles with the opposition that required EU intervention; the fragile and still-pending approval of a "normalization" agreement between Serbia and Kosovo; a "factionalized" Bosnian government that is hampered by the Republika Srpska leadership's moves for greater autonomy; and the administration of Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's "continued harassment" of the independent media.
Freedom House also cited Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula -- which was forcibly annexed by Russia in 2014 -- as experiencing "dramatic setbacks" in freedom.
Dunham said Russian authorities in Crimea continued in 2015 to suppress dissent, including shutting down independent media and civil-society groups, particularly those representing the Tatar community.
She added that many opponents of the Russian seizure of Crimea have been arrested or driven into exile.
Dunham said that, although Ukraine "retained the democratic gains" achieved after the 2014 ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych, further progress was stymied in 2015 by fighting in the Donbas region between Ukrainian troops and Russia-backed separatists, controversy over decentralization reforms, and rivalry among the country's leading political figures and oligarchs.
Dunham said Russia's involvement in the conflict in Syria seemed to "deflect attention from what it was doing in Ukraine" but that its actions in eastern Ukraine are still a big concern for Freedom House and a major reason for its low designation for Russia.
She said the Russian government in 2015 also expanded the role of propaganda within state-controlled media and ratcheted up its domestic control by declaring some NGOs foreign agents, part of "increased [government] repression on independent activism, the media, and civil society."
Officials prepare a noose ahead of a public hanging In Iran. Freedom House said their was a significant spike in the number of executions carried out in the Persian Gulf country in 2015. (file photo)
Turning to Central Asia, Dunham said that, along with Uzbekistan coming in just ahead of North Korea at the bottom of the world rankings and Turkmenistan only two places ahead of its neighbor on the list of the world's least-free countries, Tajikistan had a "watershed year for getting worse."
She pointed to the Tajik government's banning of the last remaining opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which Dunham said was a violation of the accord that ended the Tajik civil war in 1997.
Tajikistan also clamped down further on independent media sources and any type of public criticism of the government in 2015, Dunham said.
She added that Tajikistan is "really moving toward the category of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan," which she called "very disturbing."
In Iran, Dunham said there was unfortunately a spike in executions and the shutting down of several civil-society groups as well as the arrest of journalists as government hard-liners seemed to be trying to "tamp down public expectations that there would be [democratic] openings" following the landmark nuclear deal Tehran inked with global powers that cleared the way for increased mutual trade and diplomacy.
The Freedom House report noted that Afghanistan was unable to hold scheduled parliamentary elections in 2015, but Dunham added that there was "a slight improvement" in the area of government intervention in the media under President Ashraf Ghani compared to his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
The Freedom House report said the situation in Pakistan remained largely unchanged in 2015 but cited a government clampdown on NGOs. Dunham added that there is still "some pressure from the government" on Pakistan's media.
Bad Year For Baku
In the Caucasus, Dunham said "Azerbaijan had a pretty bad year" that included parliamentary elections that "foreign observer groups didn't even bother" attending because "it was pretty clear who was going to win."
She said Azerbaijani elections were followed by "another intense round of repression" of civil society that included the detention of journalists and the barring of foreign journalists from covering the European Games, which Azerbaijan hosted in 2015.
Belarus is "improving in the eyes of the international community," Dunham said, adding that she doesn't think "anything is actually improving" inside the country. The presidential election "was more of the same" and was neither free nor fair, she said.
"Moldova suffered a pretty big decline [in its rating] this year," said Dunham, pointing to the corruption scandal involving the disappearance of more than $1 billion from several banks and the resulting mass demonstrations against the pro-European government.
Among countries in RFE/RL's broadcast regions, classifications were as follows:
Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan
Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Ukraine.
Croatia and Serbia
Among disputed territories, Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia and Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh were rated by Freedom House as Partly Free. Crimea, Kashmir, Moldova's Transdniester, and Georgia's South Ossetia were deemed in the report to be Not Free.
Despite the global setback in freedom in 2015, Freedom House reports that 74 percent of the 195 countries analyzed are still considered to be Free (86 countries) or Partly Free (59 countries).
The remaining 50 countries were determined to be Not Free.
Overall, the report concluded that, in the past 10 years, 105 countries have seen a net decline in their freedom ratings while only 61 have experienced an improvement.