Fewer than half of Earth's population live in places that can be called free -- and the march of liberty worldwide reversed itself significantly in 2007, Freedom House reported Wednesday in its annual survey of global freedom.

Freedom declined in one-fifth of the world's countries in 2007, the New York City-based non-governmental organization said.

Liberty's reversal was "most pronounced" in South Asia, but also covered a wide swath of the Earth, including nations of the Middle East, North and sub-Saharan Africa, and the former Soviet Union.

Freedom House said the environment of human rights and liberty in countries it had previously rated as Not Free grew worse among some important powers, such as Russia, Pakistan, Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, and Venezuela.

The full report, Freedom in the World 2008 is available here.

There was little change in the actual numbers of countries designated Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. What changed, Freedom House said, was the climate of liberty inside the broad categories. "Nearly four times as many countries showed declines during the year as registered improvement," the organization said.
In Egypt and Pakistan, for instance, authoritarian regimes stepped up efforts to suppress independent media, democratic opposition, and civil society in general.

And "group of market-oriented autocracies and energy-rich dictatorships" -- Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and China -- carried out "assaults" on freedom of association during the year, Freedom House said.

"This year's results show a profoundly disturbing deterioration of freedom worldwide," Arch Puddington, Freedom House's director of research, said in a statement. "A number of countries that had previously shown progress toward democracy have regressed, while none of the most influential Not Free states showed signs of improvement. As the second consecutive year that the survey has registered a global decline in political rights and civil liberties, friends of freedom worldwide have real cause for concern."

Among the most worrying signs, Freedom House said, were reversals of freedom in nations that had been making progress. In Asia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines all saw declines in their ratings. It said "the deterioration within Nigeria and Kenya, two of Africa's most important countries, should be of great concern for those who had hoped that the incremental gains of recent years would continue."
Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor said authoritarian regimes have been using their influence to slow the advance of freedom, while "democratic governments have not worked together effectively to counter these trends."
Overall, Freedom House said, the number of countries considered Free in 2007 stood unchanged at 90, representing 46% of the global population.
The number of Partly Free countries increased to 60, or 18% of the world population, with the move of Thailand and Togo from the Not Free category.
In 2007, Freedom House said, 36% of the world's population lived in the 43 countries it deems Not Free.

North America and, "with a few exceptions," Western Europe received the highest ratings on the Freedom House index.

"However, the flawed response to an upsurge in immigration in Europe and the U.S. has revealed potentially serious imperfections in these countries' democratic systems, especially in Western Europe," the NGO said. "Furthermore, they continued to grapple with problems posed by the continued threat of Islamic terrorism."

The United States was rated 1 on a 1 to 7 scale, with one being the most free.