Experts discuss freedom and democracy worldwide at the Freedom in the World 2015 launch. (Tara Longardner/MNS)

Experts discuss freedom and democracy worldwide at the Freedom in the World 2015 launch. (Tara Longardner/MNS)

WASHINGTON– For the ninth consecutive year, more freedom has been lost than found in countries worldwide, an advocacy group said Wednesday.

Washington-based Freedom House is an independent, nonpolitical watchdog organization that’s led by former senior government officials, scholars, business and labor professionals and researchers. It advocates for democratic governance worldwide.

At a news briefing, the organization released its 2015 Freedom in the World Report on Wednesday, showing nearly twice as many countries experienced declines in freedom as did gains last year.

The report, “Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist,” pointed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, China’s further centralization of authority, and Egypt and Turkey’s limits on rights as lows.

The group evaluated 195 countries and 15 territories using the same criteria. Freedom House considers more than 25 indicators to rank places– from one (most free) to seven (least free)– for political rights and civil liberties.

Terrorism plays the largest role in damaging a country’s democracy, research found.

“Terrorism is finding a fertile environment where democracy isn’t working,” Tamara Wittes, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. “But I would broaden this finding [from terrorism] to conflict more generally.”

This ‘conflict’ especially includes societal violence, such as violent crime and urban riots. Violence is a difficult area for Freedom House researchers when deciding rankings. El Salvador and Brazil, though two of the world’s most violent countries in 2014, were both labeled as ‘Free.’

When violence is extreme, Wittes said, people are willing to surrender their freedoms for a time so the government can control violent activity. But this should come with limitations.

“Demand exists in every society for a voice and [government] accountability,” Wittes said.

A number of large countries, such as Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Hungary and Nigeria, saw significant reversals this year in freedom of expression, civil society and the rule of law.

Syria, in the midst of a civil war, received the lowest Freedom in the World score among countries in more than 10 years. Tunisia was the first Arab country to achieve ‘free’ status since Lebanon’s civil war 40 years ago.

State surveillance, restricted Internet, and limits on personal autonomy have led citizens in the non-‘Free’ countries to seek help outside of their own governments’ frameworks. Freedom of association is a prominent element in international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, for instance, isn’t worried about rival political parties “as any kind of threat to his rule,” Arch Puddington, vice president of Freedom House research, said.

This is true of most oppressive regimes: it’s the human rights organizations, international societies and NGOs, rather than official government leaders that pose the biggest threats to authoritarian rule. Still, change can only happen from the inside.

Foreign governments and NGOs alike should provide oppressed citizens with tools and information to succeed, rather than trying to affect change themselves, according to James Mann, author-resident at Johns Hopkins University and a foreign policy expert.

“This isn’t about perfection, and it’s not about America,” he said. “It’s about democracy.”