It was the fifth consecutive year the Freedom House has reported a decline in political rights and civil liberties worldwide. "Our adversaries are not just engaging in widespread repression, they are doing so with unprecedented aggressiveness and self-confidence," said David J. Kramer, executive director of the group. "And the democratic community is not rising to the challenge."
The report's survey of 194 countries and 14 territories around the world found that China, Egypt, Iran, Russia and Venezuela continued to increase repressive measures with little significant resistance from democracies.
The number of electoral democracies dropped to 115, the lowest level since 1995, after reaching a high of 123 in 2005.
"The world's most powerful authoritarian regimes acted with increased brazenness in 2010," the report said. Among the examples cited were China pressuring foreign governments to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony honoring jailed democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo and Russia's "blatant disregard" for judicial independence in sentencing former oil magnate Mikhail Khordokovsky after a trial widely considered fraudulent.
Protesters on New Year's Eve demanded Prime Minister Vladimir Putin step down and called for the release of Khordokovsky, whose prosecution was seen as punishment for challenging Putin's power. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, while taking a public stand for human rights, has pursued better relations with economic powerhouse China and Russia, one of the world's largest producers of oil, gas and minerals.
"Authoritarian regimes will have a much freer hand to silence their domestic critics if there is no resistance from the outside world," said Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House in a statement accompanying the annual report on the levels of freedom in countries.
Eleven countries were credited with making gains last year, but 25 others were cited as showing significant declines.
In addition, the report said, the Middle East and North Africa remained the regions with the lowest level of freedom while Ukraine and Mexico fell from the "free" to the "partly free" category.
Among those countries Freedom House said had improved last year were Kyrgyzstan and Guinea, both of which moved from "not free" to "partly free" after holding comparatively free and fair elections.
The 25 countries listed as declining in their levels of freedom were Afghanistan, Bahrain, Burundi, Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Fiji, France, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Hungary, Iran, Kuwait, Latvia, Madagascar, Mexico, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Thailand, Ukraine, Venezuela and Zambia.