The XpA metric for 2018 shows that 66 countries – with a combined population of more than 5.5 billion people – saw a decline in their overall freedom of expression environment last decade. Seventy-four per cent of the global population experienced a decline in their freedom of expression environment during one of our key time periods (2017-2018, 2015-2018, 2013-2018, or 2008-2018).
The global average score remains at a ten-low year, with no strong movement overall.
Table 1: Freedom of expression scores for each region, 2008–18
|Average Country Score||0.53||0.53||0.53||0.53||0.53||0.52||0.52||0.51||0.51||0.50||0.50|
Notes: a = Asia and the Pacific; b = Europe and Central Asia; c = Middle East and North Africa.
Note: Figure 1 shows average scores per region over ten years.
Attacks on expression are multi-faceted. Increasingly sophisticated digital authoritarianism – taking control of internet infrastructure and controlling content shared on it, as well as employing it for surveillance purposes – underpins limits on traditional media and public demonstration.
Populations across the world are meeting this coercion and violence with non-violent protest. During 2018, mobilisation demonstrated its power; in two of the year’s top-five XpA Advancers – Armenia and Ethiopia – protests brought about democratic opening, demanding new leaders and reformist agendas. Time will tell whether these moments of hope can be turned into sustainable change.
In the other three Advancers between 2017 and 2018 – Malaysia, The Gambia, Ecuador – a change of leadership was brought about by transfers of power at the ballot box, all three peaceful (though not necessarily smooth, in the case of The Gambia).
Expression in context: from democracy to autocracy
V-Dem’s full data set, which measures democracy more broadly, reports that almost one-third of the world’s population now lives in countries undergoing autocratisation – an erosion of democracy and movement towards autocratic modes of government. In 2016, this amounted to 415 million people; by 2018, it had reached 2.3 billion.
V-Dem data shows that, while democracy still prevails, liberal democracy is under threat. Both established and newer democracies have seen huge backslides away from progressive democratic rule, with principles like the separation of powers eroded and ignored. For the first time, free and fair elections are declining in more countries than they are advancing. The data also shows that, when countries autocratise, it is not multiparty elections or their quality that are the primary targets, but rather the features that make them meaningful: freedom of expression, public deliberation, rule of law, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) freedom of association.
Autocratisation – often in the form of rising populist strongmen – is particularly visible in the Americas, South East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe. The crushing of freedom of expression is both a means and an end for these rulers, who suppress dissent and scrutiny of their regimes, which corruption and cronyism often undergird.
These are the countries with the world’s top-ten and bottom-ten scores. [Note: the full lists of scores, for freedom of expression and by theme are available from ARTICLE 19 and will be made available online shortly.]
Table 2: Top 10 scores for freedom of expression, 2018
Table 3: Bottom 10 scores for freedom of expression, 2018
Advancers and Decliners
As well as tracking changes in scores, the XpA picks out countries that are seeing meaningful and holistic change – the Advancers and Decliners . These are measured over four timeframes: one year, three years, five years, and ten years.
Table 4: Top 5 XpA Advancers
|1||The Gambia||The Gambia||The Gambia||Tunisia|
|2||Ecuador||Sri Lanka||Sri Lanka||The Gambia|
Table 5: Top 5 XpA Decliners
Zooming Out: Popular Movements and the Arab Spring
2018 was a year of extraordinary protests at both the national and global levels, and demonstrated the openings that can be created for expression and democracy (see Country in Focus: Armenia. The XpA data also shows that protest can lead to massive crackdowns on dissent (see Country in Focus: Nicaragua.
In light of this trend, the XpA has taken a ‘zoomed out’ look at a protest movement from recent history, and its consequences for the different countries involved.
In December 2010, anti-government protests emerged in Tunisia. Within months, they had mushroomed into a movement of protests, unrest, and uprising – known as the ‘Arab Spring’ – across Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa and the Middle East. These protests toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
Tunisia and Libya’s overall freedom of expression scores are higher than in 2010, but Egypt and Yemen are significantly lower – their expression environments are worse than they were before the uprising.
As the data shows, even when a protest movement achieves a total regime change, the progress must be consolidated by constitutional guarantees for human rights and steady institution-building, which has been seen in Tunisia since the popular uprising.
 VDem Institute, Democracy Facing Global Challenges: V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2018, available at https://www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/99/de/99dedd73-f8bc-484c-8b91-44ba601b6e6b/v-dem_democracy_report_2019.pdf