Restrictions on civic space rising despite prevalence of democracy

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Civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean is coming under increasing pressure despite the prevalence of electoral democracy in the region, says a new report released today by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance.

While the core civil society freedoms of association, assembly and expression are constitutionally recognised in most countries, legal, administrative and de facto barriers to the exercise of these freedoms have risen throughout the continent. These restrictions are appearing after an upsurge of citizens’ protests over entrenched issues of inequality, corruption and abuses of political power.

“When the space for civil society in democratic countries shrinks, the quality of their democracy must be called into question,” said Inés M. Pousadela, lead researcher and author of the report. “We need to ask: How representative, responsible and accountable are our democratic institutions, how open are they to citizen participation, and to what extent are they helping realise social justice and human rights?”

According to the report, much of the danger for civil society results from webs of corruption that mesh the interests of politicians and other public officials with those of large private entities and, in some cases, organised crime.

While not seeking to exhaustively document civic space restrictions in the region, the report illustrates key current trends.

Concerning freedom of association, the report documents:

  • obstacles to the creation, functioning, communication and resourcing of civil society organisations that have either been maintained or recently introduced in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela;
  • increased scrutiny and surveillance, moves to close CSOs forcibly, and smear campaigns against civil society actors in Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela;
  • arrests, imprisonment and miscarriages of justice concerning members of civil society in Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay and Venezuela;
  • intimidation and targeted assassination of activists and human rights defenders in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.

Such measures disproportionally affect the work of organisations, activists and journalists that engage in advocacy, seek to hold governments to account, and work to expose poor governance and realise the rights of excluded populations.

Concerning freedom of assembly, the report documents:

  • legal changes towards more authoritarian policing of protests in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay and Venezuela;
  • crackdowns on demonstrators in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru.

Concerning freedom of expression, the report documents:

  • judicial persecution and use of criminal defamation laws against journalists or activists in Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela;
  • violence against journalists, as well as against civil society organisations and activists using the media, in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

Notably, despite a continuing trend towards the adoption of access to information laws, conditions for the exercise of the freedom of expression have deteriorated. Increasingly, conflicts between governments and media critical of their actions, and concentration of media ownership, are having a negative impact in the region.

The report concludes that despite restrictions, civil society activists are continuing to organise and challenge lack of accountability by states and corporations. In many instances, they are affirming their own power by defying limitations and seizing opportunities to expand civic space.

Several recommendations have been made in the report. These include: 

  • adoption of national frameworks to better protect human rights defenders and civil society organisations while creating corresponding responsibilities on law enforcement agencies;
  • commencement of law and policy reform processes to enable exercise of fundamental freedoms e.g. by classifying libel as a civil as opposed to a criminal offence, and removing unwarranted legal and bureaucratic obstacles to the formation and funding of civil society organisations as well as holding of peaceful assemblies;
  • enhanced training for law enforcement officials as protection against use of excessive force in dealing with public gatherings; and
  • increased focus on strengthening national institutions to end impunity for attacks on civil society activists and journalists.

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