Saddam Hussein seems to spend a lot of time watching CNN, trying to figure out which way the political winds are blowing, but I wish he could see a little map that contains some of the most significant information of our times.

It is the Map of Freedom, an exhaustive annual survey that tells whether countries around the world are becoming less free, or more free.As we ring in 1991, the Map of Freedom shows extraordinary gains for people who love, and are fighting for, freedom.

It is very bad news for dictators and merchants of repression like Saddam Hussein, for it shows without a trace of doubt that the tide of history is running strongly against them.

It may seem ironic to be celebrating freedom's onward march at a time when Iraq's brutal occupation of Kuwait has brought the world to the brink of war. But with the perspective of time, it is clear that in the long run mankind's drive for freedom is perhaps the most powerful social force at work in our world.

In the past year alone it has transformed Eastern Europe, relegated communism to the ash-heap of history, and is shaking the Soviet Union to its very foundations. This upheaval has sent shock waves through the third world, particularly in those countries once enamored of Marxist ideology and economics.

The Map of Freedom is published by Freedom House, the New York-based organization that for 50 years has been working to strengthen free societies. Each year the organization issues an annual tally of how countries around the world are doing; whether a country has held fair elections, whether individual and group freedoms are guaranteed, and whether there is freedom of the press.

This year, for the first time, more of the world's people are living in free societies than in countries that are not free. Out of a world population of 5.3 billion, 2 billion, or 39 per cent, live in freedom. Some 1.4 billion, or 27 per cent, still live in countries that are not free. The remaining 1.4 billion live in countries that are partly free. This category includes countries like Indonesia, where life is fairly benign, and El Salvador, still driven by violence.

Five countries took major steps this past year toward democratic transition.

Chile inaugurated a freely elected government.

Czechoslovakia is transforming its "velvet revolution" into a democracy under President Vaclav Havel. Hungary held its first free national elections in more than 40 years. And in Poland Lech Walesa, who led Solidarity for 10 years, was elected president.

Meanwhile, although the Soviet Union is not yet a democracy it did make Freedom House's "partly free" list for the first time. As you look at the Map of Freedom, the bleakest areas for democracy are Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Freedom House rates Iraq "one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in power today." It says Saddam Hussein's vast secret police apparatus has "subjected citizens to a wide range of human rights abuses."

Saudi Arabia is criticized for the forcible expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers, and Syria for the brutality of its security apparatus against political opponents and ethnic and religious minorities.

China, Burma, North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos are all faulted for undemocratic behavior.

Despite lingering problems, the world, according to Freedom House, "underwent an unprecedented political shift" toward freedom in 1990.

Dictators, take note of the trend.