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Democracy worldwide in decline, warns watchdog

Democracy worldwide declined further in 2012, according to the latest annual assessment by the Washington-based watchdog group Freedom House. It says "modern authoritarians" have become sophisticated in abusing rights.

A nation-by-nation ranking of how widely democracy is practiced shows that 2.3 billion people live in 47 countries designated as "not free" by the Washington-based organization Freedom House (FH).

Its report says autocrats - prompted by Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011 - clamped down on stirrings of dissent. It singles out Russia under re-elected President Vladimir Putin and Iran for placing new restrictions on rights of assembly, expression and media.

"Putin has moved in a calculated way to stifle independent political and civic activity, pushing through a series of laws meant to restrict public protest, limit the work of NGOs, and inhibit free expression on the Internet," said the report.

Russia and some former Soviet Union states under Russian influence now rival the Middle East as "one of the most repressive areas on the globe," it added.

Venezuela and its ailing re-elected president, Hugo Chavez, was also cited for having a "badly skewed" electoral playing field.

China 'sophisticated'

China's communist leaders continue to operate what Freedom House calls the "world's most complex and sophisticated apparatus for political control."

Among the worst of the worst listed by Freedom House were Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus two territories, Tibet and Western Sahara.

Freedom House's vice president for researchm, Arch Puddington, said modern autocrats had become flexible.

"They distort and abuse the legal framework; they are adept at the techniques of modern propaganda. Especially since the Arab Spring, they are nervous, which accounts for their intensified persecution of popular movements for change," he said.

Mali, where France has intervened militarily to challenge rebels, suffered "one of the greatest single-year declines in the history of freedom in the world," said the report.

Some success stories

Freedom House said its assessment, which has been drawn up annually since 1972, showed more declines than gains worldwide last year, a negative trend that began seven years ago. It ranked 90 countries, or 42 percent of the global population, as "free" for 2012.

There were some successes for democracy, with the most dramatic improvements since 2008 seen in Libya, Tunisia and Myanmar.

The report highlighted increased Muslim-on-Muslim violence, saying it reached "horrifying levels" in Pakistan and remained a "serious problem" in Iraq while citing a "serious decline" in civil liberties in Turkey.

ipj/rc (AP, AFP)
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