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World: Report Says Global Freedom Grew In 2003, Despite Setbacks

Washington, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A major annual survey of freedom and democracy around the world says liberty made strides last year despite setbacks due to the global war on terrorism.

The survey by Freedom House, a U.S. human rights group, shows that 25 countries made demonstrable progress toward freedom in 2003, while 13 nations -- including Azerbaijan -- registered democratic setbacks. Countries are evaluated based on a checklist of civil liberties and political rights largely derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Freedom House spokesman Michael Goldfarb told RFE/RL that although some nations, such as Uzbekistan, saw antiterrorism measures curtail freedom, the trend elsewhere has largely been positive.

"Despite some repressive measures taken by countries to combat global terrorism, overall freedom throughout the world is gaining. This has been a continuation of what has really been a 30-year trend," Goldfarb said.

The report says 88 countries -- or 46 percent of the world -- now enjoy relative freedom, up from 38 percent 10 years ago and 32 percent in 1983 at the height of the Cold War.

The survey measures countries as either "free," "partly free," or "not free." The sole new entrant this year into the category of free nations was Argentina.

Burundi and Yemen entered the ranks of "partly free," while Azerbaijan joined the "not free" group after what were widely condemned as unfair presidential elections in the autumn. Tainted national elections also saw Georgia and Armenia fall off the report's list of electoral democracies.

The position of Russia, considered "partly free" by the survey, was unchanged in 2003. But Goldfarb said Moscow is moving backward amid a crackdown on the independent media and business community.

"You have what appears to be increasingly authoritarian moves in Russia by President [Vladimir] Putin. Just the greater restrictions on media freedoms in the country alone have dealt a setback to civil liberties in the country and helped stall the democratic process and progress," Goldfarb said.

The report also says Russia would not make the list of electoral democracies had the parliamentary elections of 7 December been counted in the survey, which covers the year from 1 January through 30 November.

North Korea, Turkmenistan, China, and Saudi Arabia topped the survey's list of the world's 13 most repressed societies. Also considered not free are Afghanistan, Burma, the Russian republic of Chechnya, Syria, Sudan, and Libya.

Gains were made largely in Eastern Europe and East Asia, but the report says the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, Middle East, and North Africa still lag behind the rest of the world.

Goldfarb says Central Asia continued to see setbacks, most notably but not limited to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

"In Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, in communicating with our staff there, the climate, as far as human rights defenders and independent journalists are concerned, has worsened somewhat. It hasn't been a particular year in that regard. There's been repression. There's been harassment of human rights defenders and journalists," Goldfarb said.

Still, the report makes a point of stressing that democracy and Islam are not incompatible, as approximately half of the world's Muslims live in at least partly democratic societies, such as Turkey and Indonesia. Goldfarb said, "The problem isn't an inherent incompatibility between Islam and democracy. The problem, rather, is political autocracy and overt repression in many Muslim majority countries, especially in its Arabic core."

Finally, the report also reveals that freedom is not restricted to wealthy countries. Many poor and developing nations boast strong records of respect for political rights and civil liberties.