Freedom House says the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and conflicts across the world contributed to the decline of global freedom in 2020.
In its annual report released on March 3, the Washington-based human rights watchdog said that the number of countries designated "not free" was at its highest level in 15 years.
The country-by-country review said Kyrgyzstan and Belarus were ranked among nations recording the biggest losses in scores for political rights and civil liberties. Meanwhile, North Macedonia ranked among nations recording the biggest gains.
The report downgraded the freedom scores of 73 countries, including not just authoritarian nations like China, Belarus, and Venezuela but also "troubled democracies" like the United States and India.
The report said that in 2020 "democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny."
"Incumbent leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, sometimes in the name of public health, while beleaguered activists -- lacking effective international support -- faced heavy jail sentences, torture, or murder in many settings," it said.
'Blatantly Fraudulent' Elections
In Kyrgyzstan, the report said, "blatantly fraudulent" parliamentary elections in October led to protests that triggered the toppling of the government and the resignation of then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.
Sadyr Japarov, serving a 10-year prison sentence for hostage taking, was among several prominent politicians freed from prison by protesters during the unrest. He was elected president in January after a landslide victory.
The report said Japarov has "advanced a new draft constitution that could reshape Kyrgyzstan's political system in the mold of its authoritarian neighbors."
Kyrgyzstan's freedom score declined by 11 points, the largest of any country, and its status was changed from "partially free" to "not free."
Belarus suffered the second-largest decline following violent government crackdowns against demonstrators demanding the resignation of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka after a disputed presidential election in August.
The United Nations says authorities have detained more than 30,000 protesters. There have also been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment, and several people have died.
"The crackdown left a handful of protesters dead and hundreds at risk of torture in the country’s jails," the report said.
Freedom House also cited "problematic elections" in the region, including in Russia where a “rigged referendum” could potentially see President Vladimir Putin stay in power until 2036.
The report also mentioned the "comparatively free but flawed parliamentary elections in Georgia" that deepened the country’s political crisis. The second round of voting was boycotted by opposition parties.
In Ukraine, the report said, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s reform agenda "faltered in the face of the pandemic and political corruption, culminating in a constitutional crisis."
Meanwhile, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian made "some headway in his reform drive," although the report said the "consensus behind his government was shattered by defeat" in the six-week war with Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh last year.
In Europe, the report said the government of right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban "misused" emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic to "withdraw financial assistance from municipalities led by opposition parties."
In the Western Balkans, Freedom House reported both setbacks and progress.
It said that "flawed parliamentary elections dealt a grievous blow to Serbia’s multiparty system," while in Kosovo "the political old guard ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti's short-lived government and formed a new one, unconstitutionally."
Freedom House said Montenegro "bucked a six-year string of score declines" as elections ushered in the first transfer of power in three decades.
North Macedonia's reformist government was reelected, and its "institutions have largely recovered from damage inflicted by the fugitive former Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski," the report said.
In the Middle East, the report highlighted the Iranian government’s use of censorship and prosecutions to "suppress independent reporting" on the true extent of the country's coronavirus outbreak.
Authorities, the report said, used similar tactics to suppress information about the deadly government crackdown on anti-government protesters in November 2019 that killed hundreds of people and Iran's accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane that killed 176 people.
The Freedom House report also said political rights and civil liberties in India have declined since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government came to power in 2014, with "increased pressure on human rights organizations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims."
Meanwhile, the report said China "ramped up its global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days."
The report also cited Beijing’s "brutal crackdown" on “massive prodemocracy protests” in the territory of Hong Kong.
Freedom House also mentioned that former U.S. President Donald Trump "openly strove to illegally overturn his loss" in the November presidential election, "culminating in his incitement of an armed mob to disrupt Congress's certification of the results."
The report accused Trump, during his four years in power, of "condoning and indeed pardoning official malfeasance, ducking accountability for his own transgressions, and encouraging racist and right-wing extremists."
"Only a serious and sustained reform effort can repair the damage done during the Trump era to the perception and reality of basic rights and freedoms in the United States," the report said.