elections

 

  • SINGAPOUR : « Les partis d’opposition ont bénéficié d’une couverture défavorable de la part des médias d’État et ont eu des difficultés à accéder aux électeurs »

    Jolovan WhamCIVICUS s’entretient avec le défenseur des droits humains Jolovan Wham au sujet des récentes élections à Singapour, qui se sont déroulées sur fond de pandémie de COVID-19. LeCIVICUS Monitor a documenté l’utilisation de lois restrictives contre les activistes de la société civile, les défenseurs des droits humains, les avocats, les médias indépendants en ligne et les membres de l’opposition politique de Singapour, qui risquent d’être poursuivis, notamment par des procès pour diffamation et des accusations d’outrage à la cour.

    Y a-t-il eu des désaccords sur la question de savoir si, quand ou comment les élections doivent être organisées ?

    Oui. Les partis d’opposition s’y sont largement opposés car la pandémie de COVID-19 n’avait pas reculé et la tenue des élections pouvait constituer une menace pour la santé publique. Ils craignaient également que les rassemblements physiques et le démarchage en porte-à-porte ne soient pas autorisés, ce qui entraverait leurs efforts de campagne.

    Et, de fait, il était plus difficile d’établir un contact direct avec les électeurs lorsqu’il était nécessaire de maintenir une distance d’un mètre pendant les marches et les visites en porte-à-porte. Chacun a dû prononcer son discours et se connecter aux électeurs en ligne. Certains changements ont été introduits pour que les élections se déroulent dans le contexte de la pandémie. La période de vote a été prolongée de deux heures en prévision de files d’attente plus longues en raison de la distanciation sociale. Mais il n’a pas été question du vote en ligne. Et il est possible que les personnes âgées ou ayant des problèmes de santé n’aient pas participé par peur d’être infectées par le COVID-19.

    Quel était l’état des libertés civiques avant les élections ?

    Le contrôle du People’s Action Party (PAP) au pouvoir sur toutes les institutions publiques est un problème majeur de liberté civique. Cela signifie qu’il peut façonner le discours politique en fonction de son programme et fixer les règles du jeu à sa convenance. Par exemple, le département électoral, qui dessine les circonscriptions électorales, relève du Premier ministre. La plupart des groupes de la société civile ont peur de s’impliquer de manière significative dans les élections en raison des conséquences d’être perçus comme "partisans". Si une association de la société civile est liée à un parti d’opposition, elle peut perdre le financement, le soutien et les ressources nécessaires à son travail.

    Un récent rapport de l’ASEAN (Association des nations de l’Asie du Sud-Est) Parliamentarians for Human Rights a mis en évidence des failles structurelles qui ont empêché l’élection d’être équitable. Il s’agit notamment des pouvoirs étendus du premier ministre sur l’ensemble du processus électoral, sans qu'aucun contrôle efficace ne soit exercé. Le contexte dans lequel les Singapouriens pouvaient exercer leur droit de participer à la vie publique était sévèrement restreint. Les principaux candidats de l’opposition ont fait l’objet de poursuites judiciaires par des membres du PAP, et les électeurs des districts dirigés par l’opposition craignaient des représailles s’ils ne votaient pas pour le PAP. Les libertés fondamentales, qui sont intrinsèquement liées à l’existence d’élections libres, sont limitées car le gouvernement contrôle les médias et utilise des lois restrictives contre les voix critiques et dissidentes.

    Comment cela a-t-il affecté les chances de l’opposition ?

    Les candidats et les partis de l’opposition ont dû s’appuyer uniquement sur les médias sociaux pour faire passer leur message en raison de la couverture défavorable qu’ils ont reçue de la part des médias d’État. Ils ont également eu des difficultés à atteindre les électeurs en raison du monopole, de la manipulation et du contrôle exercés par le PAP sur les syndicats et les organisations et groupes de base dans tout le pays, auxquels s’ajoutent les difficultés liées à l’organisation de manifestations physiques dans le contexte de la pandémie.

    Les élections ont eu lieu le 10 juillet. Le PAP a remporté 83 sièges parlementaires, mais a également connu un revers, l’opposition ayant réalisé des gains plus modestes mais historiques. Le Parti des travailleurs, seul parti d’opposition présent au Parlement, a vu ses sièges passer de six à dix, ce qui constitue le meilleur résultat pour l’opposition depuis l’indépendance. Le vote populaire remporté par le PAP est tombé à 61%.

    Quelles étaient les principales questions autour desquelles s’articulait la campagne ?

    Pour le PAP, la campagne s’est concentrée autour de la diffamation des candidats de l’opposition, les accusant de colporter des mensonges et d’avoir des intentions néfastes, et s’est attachée à les discréditer. Des tactiques de peur ont également été utilisées : l’idée a été transmise à l’électorat que seul le PAP pouvait sortir les Singapouriens de la pandémie de COVID-19, et que la présence de plus de représentants de l’opposition au Parlement contrecarrerait ces efforts.

    Les partis d’opposition, quant à eux, se sont attachés à faire passer à l’électorat le message qu’ils étaient sur le point d’être éliminés du Parlement, puisqu’ils disposaient de moins de 10 sièges sur près de 90. Les autres questions clés soulevées par l’opposition étaient le coût élevé de la vie et l’immigration.

    L’espace civique à Singapour est classé « obstrué » par leCIVICUS Monitor. 

     

  • Slovenia: New research on the state of civic freedoms ahead of elections

    SLOVENIAN

    New research on the state of civic freedoms ahead of Slovenia's parliamentary elections - journalists & civil society facing restrictions

    • The ruling SDS party has interfered & undermined the work of the Slovenian Press Agency and the largest public broadcaster, RTVSLO
    • Budget cuts have targeted organisations and media critical of the Prime Minister’ Janez Janša’s government
    • COVID-19 used as a pretext to restrict protest rights & the work of civil society

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the European Civic Forum are concerned about the ongoing decline of civic freedoms in Slovenia under Prime Minister Janez Janša’s government.  

    Ahead of Parliamentary elections on 24 April, the government has stepped up its political interference in the public broadcaster, while anti-government protesters and independent journalists continue to  be harassed.

    Our latest research brief released today highlights how in the last two years under Janez Janša’s government, civic freedoms are deteriorating. In December 2020 the CIVICUS Monitor downgraded the country’s civic space rating from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ signalling the  decline. In June 2021 the country was also placed on the rights index's periodic Watchlist, a roundup of countries where a rapid decline in civic freedoms has occurred. The fundamental civic and democratic rights of freedom of peaceful assembly, expression, and association are under attack ahead of the elections.

    Since Janša came to power in March 2020, Slovenians have staged weekly, spontaneous cycling anti-government protests. The government has responded by intimidating protesters, with the State Prosecutors Office bringing cases against so-called organisers of unannounced or unregistered protests to recover the costs of police intervention. Jaša Jenull, a prominent protester at the anti-government protests is facing fines amounting to over 40,000 Euros.

    “These repressive practices have wider repercussions beyond targeted activists. For example, administrative courts are now kept busy with reviewing these unlawful fines, reducing their capacity to work on other cases. State resources which are being deployed to enforce disproportionate pandemic restrictions and silence dissent could have been used to address people’s needs which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and initially triggered ongoing protests,” said Giada Negri, Research and Advocacy coordinator for the European Civic Forum.

    The current government has ramped up its political interference at public broadcaster RTV Slovenia (RTVSLO). In March 2022 RTVSLO staff staged protests over the appointment of Igor Pirkovič as acting editor of the public broadcaster’s web portal Multi Media Centre (MMC), who was previously paid by the government as a screenwriter of state celebrations. The MMC’s editorial board claims that Pirkovič is biased in favour of the ruling SDS party and believes that he was brought in to change the portal's pre-election reporting in favour of the ruling coalition. Last year, the appointment of Director General Andrej Grah Whatmough at RTVSLO sparked a series of editorial and programming changes, which were approved by RTV SLO’s Programme Council, an editorial decision-making body which has been infiltrated by the ruling SDS Party. 

    Prime Minister Jansa has used the current Ukraine crisis as an excuse to attack RTVSLO’s political debate channel Tarča for its coverage of the war against Ukraine, accusing it of playing “Putin’s Agenda”. This led to the Programme council reprimanding RTVSLO journalists and announcing that it would now only be using BBC News coverage on the Ukraine crisis. 

    “While Jansa has condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, at home he is adopting Putin style tactics through repeated political interference at the public broadcaster RTVSLO and vilification of independent journalists. His government has increasingly harassed peaceful protesters and slashed funding to civil society. The European commission must take action to ensure that repressive measures against journalists and civil society are redressed,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Lead Europe, CIVICUS.

    Slovenia is rated "Narrowed" on the CIVICUS Monitor. 40 other countries have this rating including Romania, Italy and South Korea (see all). The narrowed rating means that while the state generally allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of association, violations of these rights also take place.


    More information

    Download the Slovenia country research brief here. Also available in Slovenian here.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Aarti Narsee, CIVICUS European & Central Asia Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

     

  • Slovenia: New research on the state of civic freedoms ahead of elections

    SLOVENIAN

    New research on the state of civic freedoms ahead of Slovenia's parliamentary elections - journalists & civil society facing restrictions

    • The ruling SDS party has interfered & undermined the work of the Slovenian Press Agency and the largest public broadcaster, RTVSLO
    • Budget cuts have targeted organisations and media critical of the Prime Minister’ Janez Janša’s government
    • COVID-19 used as a pretext to restrict protest rights & the work of civil society

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the European Civic Forum are concerned about the ongoing decline of civic freedoms in Slovenia under Prime Minister Janez Janša’s government.  

    Ahead of Parliamentary elections on 24 April, the government has stepped up its political interference in the public broadcaster, while anti-government protesters and independent journalists continue to  be harassed.

    Our latest research brief released today highlights how in the last two years under Janez Janša’s government, civic freedoms are deteriorating. In December 2020 the CIVICUS Monitor downgraded the country’s civic space rating from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ signalling the  decline. In June 2021 the country was also placed on the rights index's periodic Watchlist, a roundup of countries where a rapid decline in civic freedoms has occurred. The fundamental civic and democratic rights of freedom of peaceful assembly, expression, and association are under attack ahead of the elections.

    Since Janša came to power in March 2020, Slovenians have staged weekly, spontaneous cycling anti-government protests. The government has responded by intimidating protesters, with the State Prosecutors Office bringing cases against so-called organisers of unannounced or unregistered protests to recover the costs of police intervention. Jaša Jenull, a prominent protester at the anti-government protests is facing fines amounting to over 40,000 Euros.

    “These repressive practices have wider repercussions beyond targeted activists. For example, administrative courts are now kept busy with reviewing these unlawful fines, reducing their capacity to work on other cases. State resources which are being deployed to enforce disproportionate pandemic restrictions and silence dissent could have been used to address people’s needs which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and initially triggered ongoing protests,” said Giada Negri, Research and Advocacy coordinator for the European Civic Forum.

    The current government has ramped up its political interference at public broadcaster RTV Slovenia (RTVSLO). In March 2022 RTVSLO staff staged protests over the appointment of Igor Pirkovič as acting editor of the public broadcaster’s web portal Multi Media Centre (MMC), who was previously paid by the government as a screenwriter of state celebrations. The MMC’s editorial board claims that Pirkovič is biased in favour of the ruling SDS party and believes that he was brought in to change the portal's pre-election reporting in favour of the ruling coalition. Last year, the appointment of Director General Andrej Grah Whatmough at RTVSLO sparked a series of editorial and programming changes, which were approved by RTV SLO’s Programme Council, an editorial decision-making body which has been infiltrated by the ruling SDS Party. 

    Prime Minister Jansa has used the current Ukraine crisis as an excuse to attack RTVSLO’s political debate channel Tarča for its coverage of the war against Ukraine, accusing it of playing “Putin’s Agenda”. This led to the Programme council reprimanding RTVSLO journalists and announcing that it would now only be using BBC News coverage on the Ukraine crisis. 

    “While Jansa has condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, at home he is adopting Putin style tactics through repeated political interference at the public broadcaster RTVSLO and vilification of independent journalists. His government has increasingly harassed peaceful protesters and slashed funding to civil society. The European commission must take action to ensure that repressive measures against journalists and civil society are redressed,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Lead Europe, CIVICUS.

    Slovenia is rated "Narrowed" on the CIVICUS Monitor. 40 other countries have this rating including Romania, Italy and South Korea (see all). The narrowed rating means that while the state generally allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of association, violations of these rights also take place.


    More information

    Download the Slovenia country research brief here. Also available in Slovenian here.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Aarti Narsee, CIVICUS European & Central Asia Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

     

  • SOUTH KOREA: ‘North Korean defectors and activists face increasing pressure to stay silent’

    Ethan Hee Seok ShinCIVICUS speaks with Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst with the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), a Seoul-based civil society organisation (CSO) founded by human rights advocates and researchers from five countries. Founded in 2014, it is the first Korea-based CSO focused on transitional justice mechanisms in the world’s most repressive regimes, including North Korea. TJWG aims to develop practical methods for addressing massive human rights violations and advocating justice for victims in pre and post-transition societies. Ethan works on TJWG’s Central Repository project, which uses a secure platform to document and publicise cases of enforced disappearances in North Korea. He uses legislative and legal action to raise awareness about North Korean human rights issues.

     

    Can you tell us about the work being done by South Korean civil society groups about the human rights situation in North Korea?

    There is a rather broad range of CSOs working on North Korean human rights issues. TJWG has been working to prepare the ground for transitional justice in North Korea, in line with its core mission of human rights documentation.

    TJWG’s flagship project has resulted in a series of reports mapping public executions in North Korea, based on interviews with escapees living in South Korea. We record the geospatial information of killing sites, burial sites and record storage places, including courts and security service facilities, by asking our interviewees to spot the locations on Google Earth. The report’s first edition was released in July 2017 and was based on 375 interviews, and its second edition was launched in June 2019 after conducting 610 interviews.

    We are also currently in the process of creating an online database of abductions and enforced disappearances in and by North Korea, called FOOTPRINTS. This uses Uwazi, a free, open-source solution for organising, analysing and publishing documents, developed by HURIDOCS, a CSO. When launched to the public, FOOTPRINTS will provide an easily accessible and searchable platform to track individuals taken and lost in North Korea.

    Other than documentation and reporting work, we have been active in international and domestic advocacy. Jointly with other human rights CSOs, TJWG drafted and submitted an open letter urging the European Union to strengthen the language and recommendations in the annual human rights resolutions adopted by the United Nations’ (UN) General Assembly and Human Rights Council on North Korea. We have also made case submissions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and other UN human rights experts.

    In July 2020, the South Korean government revoked the registration of two CSOs and issued a notice of administrative review and inspections of ‘defector-run’ groups working on human rights in North Korea. Why are these groups being targeted?

    The direct catalyst was the June 2020 provocations by North Korea. On 4 June, Kim Yo-Jong, sister of supreme leader Kim Jong-Un and the first vice department director of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee, criticised the ‘anti-DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] leaflets’ flown to North Korea by ‘North Korean escapees’ and threatened the cessation of Mount Kumgang tourism, the complete demolition of the Kaesong industrial region, the closure of the inter-Korean liaison office, or the termination of the 9/19 military agreement (the 2018 agreement to create demilitarised buffer zones) unless the South Korean authorities took ‘due measures’.

    Just four hours after Kim Yo-Jong’s early morning bombshell, the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced that it would prepare legislation banning the distribution of leaflets to North Korea. This was a complete reversal of the government’s longstanding position, which consistently avoided such legislation for fear of infringing upon the freedom of expression.

    On 10 June 2020, the MOU announced that it would file criminal charges against Park Sang-Hak and Park Jung-Oh, two defectors from North Korea, for violating article 13 of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, which requires prior approval of any inter-Korean exchange of goods, and would revoke the incorporation of their organisations, Fighters For Free North Korea (FFNK) and KuenSaem, for sending leaflets in air balloons and rice-filled PET bottles on sea currents to North Korea, as they did on 31 May 2020.

    While the North Korean government eventually toned down its rhetoric, the South Korean government began to take actions against North Korean human rights and escapee groups, viewed as a hindrance to inter-Korean peace.

    On 29 June 2020 the MOU held a hearing and on 17 July it announced the revocation of the legal incorporation of FFNK and KuenSaem for contravening incorporation conditions by grossly impeding the government’s reunification policy, dispersing leaflets and items to North Korea beyond the stated goals of their incorporation and fomenting tension in the Korean peninsula under article 38 of the Civil Code, a relic from the authoritarian era. 

    The MOU also launched ‘business inspections’ of other North Korean human rights and escapee settlement support groups among the over 400 associations incorporated by MOU’s permission, possibly with a view to revoking their incorporation. On 15 July 2020, the Association of North Korean Defectors received a notice from the MOU that it would be inspected for the first time since its incorporation in 2010. The following day, MOU authorities informed journalists that they would first conduct business inspections on 25 incorporated North Korean human rights and escapee settlement support groups, 13 of them headed by North Korean defectors, with more to be inspected in the future. While acknowledging that the leaflet issue triggered the inspections, the MOU added that the business inspections would not be limited to those involved in the leaflet campaign.

    How many groups have been reviewed or inspected after the announcements were made?

    Because of the international and domestic uproar caused by the obviously discriminatory nature of the inspections targeting North Korean human rights and escapee groups, the MOU has somewhat toned down its approach, and has belatedly begun to argue that it is focusing on all CSOs registered under the MOU.

    On 6 October 2020, the MOU told reporters that it had decided to inspect 109 out of 433 CSOs for failing to submit annual reports or for submitting insufficient documentation. According to the information provided, 13 of the 109 groups to be inspected are headed by North Korean escapees; 22 (16 working on North Korean human rights and escapee settlement, five working in the social and cultural fields and one working in the field of unification policy) have already been inspected and none has revealed any serious grounds for revocation of registration; and the MOU intends to complete the inspection for the remaining 87 CSOs by the end of 2020.

    In any case, the government appears to have already succeeded in its goal of sending a clear signal to North Korea that it is ready to accommodate its demands in return for closer ties, even if it means sacrificing some fundamental principles of liberal democracy. The government has also sent a clear signal to North Korean human rights and escapee groups with the intended chilling effect.

    How has civil society responded to these moves by the government?

    Civil society in South Korea is unfortunately as polarised as the country’s politics. The ruling progressives view the conservatives as illegitimate heirs to the collaborators of Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, and post-independence authoritarian rule up to 1987. The previous progressive president, Roh Moo-Hyun, who served from 2003 to 2008, killed himself in 2009 during a corruption probe, widely seen as politically motivated, under his conservative successor. The incumbent Moon Jae-In was elected president in 2017, riding a wave of public disgust at his right-wing predecessor’s impeachment for corruption and abuse of power.

    Most CSOs are dominated by progressives who are politically aligned with the current Moon government. The progressives are relatively supportive of the human rights agenda but are generally silent when it comes to North Korean human rights because of their attachment to inter-Korean rapprochement. The same people who talk loudly about Japanese ‘comfort women’ – women forced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japan before and during the Second World War – or authoritarian-era outrages readily gloss over present North Korean atrocities in the name of national reconciliation.

    Most North Korean human rights groups are formed around North Korean escapees and the Christian churches of the political right that passionately characterise leftists as North Korean stooges. Many are also generally hostile to contemporary human rights issues such as LGBTQI+ rights, which is rather ironic as Australian judge Michael Kirby, the principal author of the 2014 UN report that authoritatively condemned the grave human rights violations in North Korea as crimes against humanity, is gay.

    The largely progressive mainstream CSOs have not been on the receiving end of persecution by the government led by President Moon; on the contrary, prominent civil society figures have even been appointed or elected to various offices or given generous grants. Some do privately express their dismay and concern at the government’s illiberal tendencies, but few are ready to publicly raise the issue because of the deep political polarisation.

    Is the space for civil society – structured by the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression – becoming more restrictive in South Korea under the current administration?

    The Moon government has displayed worryingly illiberal tendencies in its handling of groups that it views as standing in its way, such as North Korean human rights and escapee groups, who have faced increasing pressure to stay silent and cease their advocacy. 

    President Moon has reopened a dialogue with the North Korean government to establish peaceful relations, neutralise the North’s nuclear threat and pave the way for family reunification, along with other estimable goals.

    However, along with US President Donald Trump, President Moon has employed a diplomatic strategy that downplays human rights concerns. Notably, neither the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration between North and South Korea nor the Joint Statement issued after the 2018 Trump-Kim summit in Singapore make any mention of the North’s egregious human rights abuses.

    In the weeks before President Moon met North Korean leader Kim in Panmunjom, there were reports that North Korean defector-activists were being prevented from carrying out their activism. In October 2018, South Korea acquiesced to North Korea’s demand to exclude a defector journalist from covering a meeting in North Korea. On 7 July 2019, there was an extraordinary rendition of two defectors, fishers who were allegedly fugitive murderers, to North Korea five days after their arrival without any semblance of due process.

    The Moon government has resorted to illiberal tactics on other perceived opponents as well. A man who put up a poster mocking President Moon as ‘Xi Jinping’s loyal dog’ (referring to the Chinese president) at the campus of Dankook University on 24 November 2019 was prosecuted and fined by court on 23 June 2020 for ‘intruding in a building’ under article 319 (1) of the Penal Code, even though the university authorities made clear that they did not wish to press charges against him for exercising his freedom of expression. Many criticised the criminal prosecution and conviction as a throwback to the old military days.

    The government has also moved to exercise ever more control over state prosecutors. The Minister of Justice, Choo Mi-ae, has attacked prosecutors who dared to investigate charges of corruption and abuse of power against the government, claiming a conspiracy to undermine President Moon.

    Another worrying trend is the populist tactic by ruling party politicians, notably lawmaker Lee Jae-jung, of using the internet to whip up supporters to engage in cyberbullying against reporters.

    What can the international community do to support the groups being targeted?

    In April 2020 the ruling party won the parliamentary elections by a landslide, taking 180 of 300 seats, thanks to its relative success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. The opposition is in disarray. All this has emboldened rather than humbled the government, and its illiberal tendencies are likely to continue. Due to the severe political polarisation, ruling party politicians and their supporters are not likely to pay much heed to domestic criticism.

    The voice of the international community will therefore be crucial. It is much more difficult for the government to counter concerns raised by international CSOs as politically motivated attacks. A joint statement or an open letter spearheaded by CIVICUS would be helpful in forcefully delivering the message that human rights in North Korea are of genuine concern for the international community.

    Furthermore, South Korea will soon be submitting its fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee in accordance with the list of issues prior to reporting (LOIPR). Because North Korea-related issues and concerns are not included in the LOIPR, it would be extremely helpful if international CSOs joined forces to include them in the oral discussion with the members of the Human Rights Committee and in their concluding observations.

    In the shorter run, country visits to South Korea by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders would be excellent opportunities to internationalise the issue and put pressure on our government.

    Even progressives may support a reform of the outdated law on CSO registration, for instance, as a matter of self-interest, if not of principle, in case of change of government.

    Civic space inSouth Korea is rated ‘narrowedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Transitional Justice Working Group through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@TJWGSeoul on Twitter.

     

  • SPAIN: ‘Democratic rules are being used to promote an anti-rights ideology’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent election in Spain with Núria Valls, president of the Ibero-American League of Civil Society Organisations (Liga Iberoamericana), a platform that brings together 29 civil society organisations from 17 Ibero-American countries, specialising in human, social and community development. Legally incorporated in Spain, the Ibero-American League has worked on childhood, youth, education and labour issues from a human rights perspective for 20 years, by providing advice to governments, monitoring and evaluating programmes and building networks and doing public policy advocacy at the local, domestic and international levels.

    Nuria 1320x877

    What were the causes of the political instability that required Spain to hold two elections in 2019?

    The widespread rejection of the political system that was established following the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s led to a significant deterioration of the two traditional parties: the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP). These political parties were very used to bipartisanship and ruling with the support of large majorities. When other parties appeared on stage, pacts and coalitions became necessary, which until then had only been a feature of local politics. It became necessary to include more minority parties and nationalist parties from the country’s periphery, which does not always pay electorally.

    In addition, the political conflict in Catalonia had radicalised the positions of parties present at the state level, which entered into a sort of competition to show who was the most Spanish. Even leftist parties do not dare to speak in recognition of Spain’s national plurality because the media, and particularly those from the capital, Madrid, criticise them aggressively.

    In the first elections of 2019, held in May, the PSOE felt uncomfortable when negotiating with the leftist and independent parties that had supported the motion of censure leading to the replacement of the conservative government led by the PP. On top of this, the personal ambitions of the leaders of both the PSOE and Unidas Podemos, the left-wing coalition formed in 2016 by the Podemos political movement and several other political forces, made a pact impossible at that time.

    The PSOE misread the polls and believed that a second election would give them the majority, and therefore the possibility of governing alone. But ahead of the November elections, people were angry because, as they saw it, due to their leaders’ personal egos parties had not done their job, and instead had made us waste time and money. All of this further deepened dissatisfaction with politics.

    Would you say that the extreme right party Vox benefited from this?

    Vox was one of the parties that benefited the most from the second election. It doubled its number of votes and became the third most represented party, with 52 seats, right behind the two major parties.

    Traditionally in Spain it was considered that there was no extreme right because the PP encompassed the entire right wing. But Vox emerged with great force and with a Francoist, aggressive anti-human rights discourse, presenting itself as the guarantor of the unity of Spain against separatism. In fact, the way the situation in Catalonia has been handled has been a breeding ground for the acceptance of increasingly right-wing discourse, justified in the need to preserve the unity of Spain.

    Another electoral result worth mentioning is that of Ciudadanos, a seemingly liberal party, which not long ago thought it would soon be in government, but which practically disappeared given its meagre results. Ciudadanos had focused its discourse on territorial conflict and on the unity of Spain. Voters who prioritised this issue preferred Vox, which has a more radical stance.

    Despite the good results obtained by Vox, however, it was the left that won the elections and this time they worked fast. In just 24 hours a pact between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos was forged, which had previously been impossible to achieve. Citizens found it hard to understand why what a few months ago had been impossible was now possible. But what is important is that the formation of a government was prioritised against the feeling of instability and paralysis that has prevailed in recent years. Faced with this broad pact among leftist parties, the right wing reacted with a very aggressive discourse, strongly rooted in the Francoist tradition.

    Finally, due to the abstention of Catalan pro-independence parties, it was possible to form a government. Governing will not be easy, but it promises to be a very interesting experience, which offers the possibility of creating change. It will be a very broad government, with 22 ministerial portfolios, notably characterised by gender parity.

    How would you characterise Vox as a political force and ideological trend?

    Vox is a far-right party that does not hide its xenophobic anti-human rights discourse. It prioritises two major issues: the unity and centralisation of Spain, and the elimination of gender policies.

    This is a worrying phenomenon that is not only happening in Spain. Extreme right parties arise in times of citizen frustration in the face of economic and social inequalities in a globalised world. There is an international movement – which spans Brazil, France, Italy, Norway, the USA and many other countries – that focuses on stigmatising and criminalising migration and so-called ‘gender ideology’. The support for these speeches by some religious congregations should also be analysed.

    These parties use democracy’s rules to promote an anti-human rights ideology. It is paradoxical that democracy, which was born under the values ​​of participation and respect for rights, is currently being used to strengthen and foster an ideology that is totally opposed to those values.

    How did this right turn take place just a few years after so many people had taken part in protests for economic and social justice?

    An element of this turn has to do with the anger that a section of the population feels toward politics. Corruption of political parties has had a great impact on society, as people think that politicians are in politics only to enrich themselves. There is no idea of politics in the broader sense as linked to the common good.

    In particular, there is a bloc of young people who see a very difficult future for themselves. They have very low expectations and view a vote for Vox is an anti-system choice. This is the vote of those who think that migration will deprive them of jobs and state resources, and that gender policies are an exaggeration. Vox is very apt at using social media with direct messages often based on falsehoods but that are reaching the population.

    The territorial conflict between Spain and Catalonia has also functioned as a catalyst for this anger. The message of ‘we’ll go after them (‘A por ellos’) used to despatch police units from the rest of Spain towards Catalonia to try to prevent the referendum on 1 October 2017, later reinforced by a message from the King, aroused an anti-Catalan sentiment. The right bloc, and especially Vox, appropriated the defence of the monarchy against republican leftist parties.

    How is this process being experienced by civil society? Do you think that the space for civil society is being degraded in Spain?

    Organised civil society was caught a little off guard. On the one hand, we did not believe that electoral support for Vox would be so strong, and on the other hand, we had a debate about whether we should respond to them, and therefore give them more media coverage, or whether it was best to ignore them. The second option prevailed, among political parties as well. And the strategy of ignoring them contributed to the increase in votes for Vox. There was nobody left to respond to their expressions bluntly and with clear arguments.

    Now civil society debate revolves around the need to defend human rights clearly and forcefully and respond to any expression that hurts or stigmatises any population group.

    In the territories where it is governing together with the PP and Ciudadanos, such as Andalusia, Madrid and Murcia, one of Vox's first actions has been to press for the end of aid to organisations working with women or vulnerable groups.

    We are experiencing a risk of regression in freedoms and therefore it is necessary for us to work in a more united way than ever as civil society. A clear communication strategy must be developed to reach all people. Often we in civil society remain locked in our own spheres and find it hard to take our message beyond our circles.

    Another strategy used by the right wing, and especially by Vox and the PP, is to use the justice system to settle political disagreements. Much of the judiciary in Spain is still very ideological, since many conservative judges remain as heirs of the Franco regime. As a result, sentences have abounded against the freedom of expression on social media, including censorship of songs. And many people have also been convicted for protesting publicly, especially in Catalonia.

    How has the situation in Catalonia evolved since the 2017 referendum?

    The referendum of 1 October 2017 was an act of empowerment by a section of the Catalan population that participated very actively, with a collective sentiment of civil disobedience, to achieve a better future against a state that did all it could to prevent it from happening. The violent state repression unleashed during the referendum and afterwards increased the collective feeling of a big section of the population in favour of independence, and especially in favour of the right to decide through elections.

    After the referendum, repression against Catalan pro-independence groups increased, and the state put all its police and judicial machinery in motion. In addition, it launched article 155 of the Constitution, which provides the state with a coercive mechanism to bind the autonomous communities that breach constitutional or legal obligations or seriously undermine Spain’s ‘general interest’. Article 155 suspended the autonomy of Catalonia from 27 October 2017 until 2 June 2018, when new regional elections were held. It amounted to almost a year of political, financial and administrative paralysis in Catalonia.

    Previously, on 16 October 2017, the leaders of the two most representative Catalan pro-independence groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, had been imprisoned for mediating in a spontaneous and peaceful demonstration in front of a building of the Generalitat, the Catalan government, where the police were conducting a search. They were imprisoned preventively, with no possibility of release before their trial.

    Following these arrests, judicial repression against the government of Catalonia increased, culminating in the detention of the vice president and five government ministers plus the president of the parliament of Catalonia, all of whom were placed in pre-trial detention. For his part, the president of the Generalitat went into exile in Belgium along with four more ministers, and two other politicians went into exile in Switzerland. The government of Spain made statements affirming that it had decapitated the pro-independence movement.

    This entire judicial and repressive process further complicated the political situation in Catalonia. The ruling issued on 14 October 2019, which sentenced independence leaders to prison terms of between nine and 13 years, amounting to a total of 100 years, caused new street protests to break out.

    Unlike all previous pro-independence demonstrations since 2012, the latest protests caused many riots and faced police repression. In addition, young people were the protagonists and adopted a more radical attitude towards repression. In that context, the anonymous Democratic Tsunami movement emerged. Inspired by the Hong Kong protests, this movement uses social media to call for large peaceful mobilisations in various locations, such as the border or the airport. The police have tried to discover who is behind this movement, but it really is just an instance of collective empowerment by pro-independence civil society.

    At present, following the latest Spanish elections in which the PSOE and Unidas Podemos required the abstention of the pro-independence party Republican Left of Catalonia to be able to form a government, the picture has changed. The government has pledged to initiate a dialogue with the government of Catalonia and to bring any agreements reached through dialogue to a citizen vote. This will not be easy because right-wing parties, using any judicial remedy at their disposal, are trying to boycott the process. An effort must be made to find a solution for the situation of pro-independence prisoners that facilitates a peaceful and political way out and allows a process of real dialogue to begin.

    Civic space in Spain is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with La Liga Iberoamericana through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@LigaIberoamOSC on Twitter.

     

     

  • SRI LANKA : « Le contrôle des médias a donné au gouvernement un grand avantage »

    CIVICUS s’entretient avec Sandun Thudugala, directeur des programmes du Law and Society Trust (LST), au sujet des élections législatives qui ont eu lieu au Sri Lanka le 5 août 2020, dans le contexte de la pandémie de la COVID-19. LST est une organisation de recherche et de défense juridique fondée en 1982 à Colombo, au Sri Lanka, dans le but de promouvoir des réformes juridiques pour améliorer l’accès à la justice, la judiciarisation des droits et la responsabilité des institutions publiques.

    A l’approche des élections d’août 2020, le CIVICUS Monitora documenté le fait que les avocats de droits humains et les journalistes étaient victimes d’arrestations, de menaces et de harcèlement. Unrapport du rapporteur spécial des Nations unies (ONU) sur les droits à la liberté de réunion pacifique et d’association, publié en mai 2020, a également montré que la société civile était confrontée à des difficultés d’enregistrement et de fonctionnement et à divers obstacles à l’exercice du droit de manifestation.

     

  • SRI LANKA: ‘Media control gave the government a definite advantage’

    CIVICUS speaks to Sandun Thudugala, Head of Programmes at the Law and Society Trust (LST), about the legislative elections held in Sri Lanka on 5 August 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. LST is a legal research and advocacy organisation founded in 1982 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with the goal of promoting legal reforms to improve access to justice, the justiciability of rights and public accountability.

    Ahead of the August 2020 elections, the CIVICUS Monitordocumented that human rights lawyers and journalists in Sri Lanka faced arrests, threats and harassment. Areport by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, published in May 2020, also showed that civil society faced challenges in registering and operating along with various barriers to protest.

    Sandun Thudugala

    What was the situation for civic freedoms and civil society ahead of the elections?

    As in many other countries, the situation of civic freedoms and the space for civil society has always been in a vulnerable situation in Sri Lanka. Even under the previous government, which was supposed to be more supportive towards civil society and the human rights agenda, efforts to introduce new draconian laws to control civil society and the undermining of basic freedoms in the name of counterterrorism continued.

    The situation got worse with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new president in November 2019. His election campaign, which was built on the ideas of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, disciplined society and enhanced national security, was supported by an overwhelming majority, especially from the Sinhala Buddhist community. This result was seen as a mandate given to the government to undermine basic freedoms and civic space in the name of national security and development.

    There have been signs of an increased militarisation of every aspect of society and the undermining of democratic institutions, such as the appointment of members of Presidential Task Forces – which are accountable only to the president – to handle key governance functions. There has also been a clear message of unwillingness to cooperate with the state’s international obligations, including by complying with UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which the previous government had co-sponsored and which was aimed at promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka after the 1983-2009 internal conflict, as well as with local human rights mechanisms.

    There have been increased surveillance of civil society activities and arrests of social media activists. This has clearly reflected a trend of undermining civic freedoms and civic space before the elections. The situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to deal with the virus has been used as an excuse to increase militarisation and the concentration of power in the hands of the president.

    What were the main issues the campaign revolved around?

    The government led by newly elected President Rajapaksa, of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP), was seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament to be able to amend the current constitution and give the president additional powers. That’s been the major election campaign goal of the SLPP. The need to have a strong government to protect the aspirations of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, defend national sovereignty and foster economic development were therefore among their major campaign themes. The popularity the president gained after winning the presidential election was used to mobilise voters to support the SLPP.

    The main opposition parties were divided, and their internal conflict was more prominent in the election campaign than their actual election messages. One of their major promises was to provide economic assistance for poor people who were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

    Issues such as the need to strengthen democratic governance systems, justice for war victims, longer-term solutions to ethnic issues or the root causes of rural poverty, indebtedness and inequality were not highlighted during the election campaign by any of the major parties

    Was there any debate around whether the election should be held during the pandemic? 

    The government wanted to conduct the election as soon as possible. It was willing to hold the election in April 2020, as planned, even at the height of the pandemic. Almost all opposition parties were against holding the election in April. The Election Commission subsequently decided to postpone it to August 2020 due to the health risks it might entail. By August, the situation had got considerably better and there was no major opposition to conducting the elections, which took place on 5 August.

    As far as I know, online voting was not considered as an option for this election. I do not think that Sri Lanka has the infrastructure and capacity to adopt such an option at this moment. More than 70 per cent of eligible voters cast votes and apart from the people who are still in quarantine centres, people experienced no major barriers in casting their votes. There were however incidents of some private factories denying leave for their employees to vote.

    Was it possible to have a normal campaign in the context of the pandemic?

    Health guidelines were issued by the Election Commission, which imposed significant controls on election campaigning. No major rallies or meetings were allowed, but the government and the main opposition parties violated these health guidelines by convening public rallies and other meetings openly, without any repercussions. It was clear that the parties with power had a clear advantage in overstepping certain rules. Additionally, candidates from major political parties, who had more money to use for electronic and social media campaigns, had a definite advantage over the others.

    Due to its control over state media and the support it received from most private media, both electronic and print, the government had a definite advantage over the opposition during the election campaign. The smaller opposition political parties were at the most disadvantageous position, as they did not get any significant airtime or publicity in mainstream media.

    This surely impacted on the election results, in which the SLPP, led by President Rajapaksa and his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, won 145 seats in the 225-member parliament. The opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya party, which was established in early 2020 as a breakaway from the right-wing United National Party, won 54 seats. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi party, which represents the Tamil ethnic minority, won 10 seats, and 16 other seats were split among 12 smaller parties. As a result, on 9 August, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the fourth time.

    Was civil society able to engage in the election in a meaningful way? 

    Apart from being engaged in election monitoring processes, the engagement of independent civil society in the election was minimal. This is a drastic change when compared to the 2015 election, in which civil society played a key role in promoting a good governance and reconciliation agenda within the election campaign. Divisions within the opposition and the COVID-19 context made it difficult for civil society organisations to engage effectively in the process. Some organisations tried to create a discourse on the importance of protecting the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which curbed presidential powers while strengthening the role of parliament and independent institutions and accountability processes, but didn’t get any significant spaces within the media or any other public domains to discuss these issues.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Law and Society Trust through itswebsite orFacebook page and follow@lstlanka and@SandunThudugala on Twitter.

     

  • Sri Lanka: Human Rights Under Attack

    Lawyers, Human Rights Defenders and Journalists Arrested, Threatened, Intimidated

    SriLankaCourts

     

  • Suppression of freedom of expression in Uganda increases

    CIVICUS speaks to Ugandan independent blogger and journalist Rosebell Kagumire (pictured). She speaks on the situation for journalists in Uganda, freedom of expression in the country and the relationship between the media and civil society in the country

    1. What is the operating environment at the moment in Uganda for the media?
    The past year 2016 has been particularly bad for media. There were been a record number of attacks due to elections that were held in February 2016. It was the 31st year of the President, Yoweri Museveni, being in power so it was a high-stakes game. The environment was hostile as the president felt really challenged. Many journalists who tried to cover opposition leaders were intimidated, attacked, harassed, restricted and pepper-sprayed. Over 80 journalists were violated in that month only by the state. Over 100 journalists were attacked by the state during the elections. For example, a huge case of intimidation was when a television journalist was arrested while broadcasting live and the police did not realise they were “live” and the nation got see there was no legitimate reason for his arrest. So it was not an easy year. Also some cases of violations were not publicly reported.

    2. Social media and the Internet were cut off on election day. What happened?
    On the day of voting, Internet, social media and access to mobile money services were cut off. We were also cut off on the day of the counting of votes. A few people were able to connect using other means such as VPN. The reason for the cut off was that government said there was a “national emergency” but they did not explain to us what sort of an emergency. The general view of the public is that the election was so tight so they needed the cover of darkness to prevent people from sharing of results from polling stations. Rigging is never done at polling stations but at the tabulation of results. So where people are not connected they could not share results of individual stations. The poll was highly fraudulent so cutting off social media was also to prevent people from mobilising to protests and to kill any planning of uprisings against the government. So you control the mood of the public and kill expectations by not having social media. The results were in favour of the opposition then suddenly overnight the results changed.

    3. How are you as online media treated by the authorities?
    The government is realising the power of online media. It was an independent blogger who exposed ghost voters on the voters roll. And this had not been identified by journalists. In terms of covering protests, we have the problem covering opposition rallies. We are generally able to cover protests but the more government feels threatened by protest, the more difficult it is to cover protests. Such as a few years ago, an army commander told journalists that their safety would not be guaranteed if they attended a particular protest. So journalists know protection is not a given.

    4. Are members of the public free to express themselves in media?
    Despite the challenges we face of shrinking civic space, Ugandans like to talk. We are able to talk in the media. We have over 200 radio stations. If you tune in, you hear people speak their minds. Off course government targets specific people. Members of public speak to media freely on the streets if their opinion is asked for. Even during Idi Amin’s time, we still expressed ourselves even though it was underground. Government has set up media Crimes Unit and people know they are being monitored but people are not afraid and use their real names even online even though we know we are being watched and have that discomfort of being watched, we still speak. Sometimes people are cautious but generally we express ourselves freely. Academics are able to also express their opinion, even those working at state universities. Although sometimes there is self-censorship on some topics as some people prefer not to speak about security or military or things to do with the first family.

    However, of concern, the Uganda government has made requests to Facebook to access certain accounts. One example is an account called TVO which does some exposès and commentary on government workings. One Ugandan Robert Shaka was arrested because government thought he is behind the account.

    5. Are journalists able to protect their sources and whistle-blowers?
    No we’ve not had public cases of intimidation of members of the media to reveal sources in 2016. Whistle blowing is generally weak in Uganda. You can get leaked stuff here and there but it’s not common. But media houses have been closed over coverage of security issues and the journalists and editors at heart of those stories face enormous pressure.

    6. What is the state of investigative reporting of both the private and public sector?
    Investigative journalism has gone low this year I think. There’s maybe sense of resignation affecting the media after the electoral outcome as the same regime has been in power for so long and maybe fear as well plays a part. I think we still have great in-depth stories on issues but newsrooms do not have dedicated investigative desks that are fully functional. Sometimes media ownership also affects how much a journalist can dig deep because owner interest may also mean the owner has a larger business empire to protect so journalists don’t want to bite the hand feeding them. The media owner may have a big empire with media being a small part of that empire that may have interests in hotels and so on, so the media has to support the rest of the owner’s business empire. Also advertising is a lifeline for media so there’s no in-depth questioning of big companies as the media wants the advertising revenue. So economic crimes go unreported unless if it’s a matter before parliament.

    7. What is the impact of terrorism on the work of journalists?
    Terror reporting is expected to be in praise of government only. We also now have anti-terror laws and the recent case of journalist Joy Biira being charged with abetting terrorism is one such case where these laws are being used. Using terrorism and treason charges as a way to stifle journalism is huge. Another journalist after the 2010 bombings, Timothy Kalyegira, faced criminal libel charges for presenting a different narrative on who was behind the bombings and role of government. Another journalist was also remanded on treason charges.

    The arrest of KTN television journalist Joy Biira in November 2016 and being charged of abetting terrorism is ridiculous and shows how far government is willing to go to intimidate journalists perceived to show their military actions in Kasese in good light. The government was trying to control a narrative on the Kasese massacre and once photos of dead bodies were leaked it was upset. These charges cannot even hold in a court of law.

    8. How far reaching is political influence over the media in Uganda? What drives this?
    You will find that most media attention goes to politicians and the elite and less on ordinary poor people. From time to time we have allegations of journalists being on “payrolls” of rich people but this is also employed as a tactic to smear journalists. The other problem is some politicians or their friends own media especially radio stations so there is that bias. Nonetheless, many good journalists continue to stand above the political interests and do their work well to deliver news to millions of Ugandans.

    9. What is the relationship between the media and civil society in Uganda? How can it be improved?
    It’s a bit of a loose relationship. Media covers civil society activities but perhaps media and civil society do not always realise and appreciate we are fighting for the same goal most times ─ public accountability.

    We can improve the relationship by highlighting the young and upcoming young people in civil society using social media who are fighting for democracy and accountability. We have to identify these good voices in civil society and make good coalitions with media. Civil society and media can work in coalition on certain causes. For example, in Uganda, in recent months an association of female lawyers highlighted cases of women in the flower industry being exposed to chemicals and being denied leave benefits. A couple of television stations and newspapers picked up on the issue and put a spotlight on this and were backed by civil society. The outcome looks good and it is still ongoing and the responsible ministers have put together a committee to investigate safety standards on flower farm workers. This is a great example of media and civil society working together to fight for those underprivileged in our society. We are a long way and need more such partnerships.

    Follow Rosebelle on Twitter on @RosebellK and read her blog on https://rosebellkagumire.com/

     

  • SWEDEN: ‘Swedish civil society needs to defend democracy at the grassroots level on a daily basis’

    Anna Carin HallAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. Following Sweden’s September election, CIVICUS speaks to Anna-Carin Hall, press officer at Kvinna till Kvinna (Woman to Woman), a Swedish civil society foundation that seeks to strengthenthe role of women in conflict regions by collaborating with women’s organisations and supporting their work to promote women’s rights and peace. Its advocacy focuses on six thematic areas: safe meeting places, the empowerment of women’s rights defenders, increasing women’s power, women’s participation in peace processes, power over one’s body and security for all.

    Sweden’s September election saw support fall for the established centre-left and centre-right parties and rise for the far-right Sweden Democrats. What factors lie behind this result, and what broader trends do you think it points to?

    First, I must emphasise that my answers reflect my own personal opinions rather than those of the organisation I work for. Kvinna till Kvinna is a politically and ideologically independent organisation and has only taken one single standpoint regarding the elections – against what we see as the Sweden Democrats’ anti-feminist policy.

    That said, the drop in support for social democratic parties, for example, is an ongoing trend all over Europe, and not just in Sweden, so one answer could be that this global trend towards a more traditional, nationalist and authoritarian climate finally got hold of Sweden, too.

    Part of the explanation is, as always, fear of globalisation, as traditional jobs move out of Sweden as a result of cost-efficiency thinking, and a large influx of migrants over a short time span, particularly in 2015, create a heavy pressure on the Swedish welfare system, including education and health services, as well as housing shortages.

    Before the election there was also public discussion about the gap between urban and rural areas in Sweden, and around health services shutting down in remote areas. Support for the Sweden Democrats is more common in regions with low education, low income and high unemployment.

    Nevertheless, the Swedish economy is still very strong, and Swedes are in no way suffering economically because of heavy immigration. But large migration centres set up in the countryside have altered the makeup of the population very quickly, causing tension in these places. Additionally, long-term studies in Sweden have shown that for many decades public opinion has been less pro-immigrant than the policies of the dominant parties, and the Sweden Democrats are now being able to capitalise on this.

    Apart from the economy, insecurity issues have also been used to stir anti-immigrant sentiment. A rising level of spectacular shootings among criminal gangs in some immigrant-dominated suburbs has attracted the attention of both Swedish and international media – one of those events was even mentioned by US President Donald Trump, who incorrectly implied that it had been a terrorist attack – and alt-right websites have used these politically a lot.

    Longer term, do you expect support for far-right causes to continue rise, or do you think it has peaked?

    There are different views on this. Some analysts say that the Sweden Democrats have become popular because the other parties in parliament have tried to shut them out. As a result, the Sweden Democrats and their supporters have been able to play the role of victims and claim that the political elite does not care for the views of the common people. Some therefore argue that the Sweden Democrats should be included in the government, and refer to the case of Finland, where Sannfinnlandarna, a nationalist party, reached the government and showed themselves unfit to govern, as a result of which support for them rapidly dropped. This is suggested as one potentially easy way to get the Sweden Democrats off the agenda.

    Several analysts have predicted that the Sweden Democrats will rise a bit more in the next election and will then start to lose popularity. The explanation for this would be that the right turn in the Western world will eventually fade out - but this is really just an assumption, with not much in terms of facts to support it.

    Are these trends indicative of rising currents of xenophobia and racism? If so, how have the more mainstream political parties responded to these and how have they impacted on rights-oriented civil society?

    There is a discussion in Swedish media right now regarding whether support for the Sweden Democrats is driven mainly by xenophobia and racism. Some opinion-makers claim this is the case, but there are surveys pointing towards the fact that Swedes think that the problem is failed integration, rather than immigration itself. Swedish society hasn´t been able to provide immigrant groups with proper education in Swedish, guidance about the Swedish community, decent jobs and so on.

    The change in the political climate manifests itself in, for example, more outspoken discussion of the costs of immigration and its impact on the Swedish welfare system. We can also see a more vivid discussion around cultural or traditional behaviour, such as honour crimes, with some claiming that for too long Sweden has not taken a strong stand against this and avoided several conflictive issues around immigration and integration that were considered culturally sensitive.

    The normalisation of the Sweden Democrats, a party that originated in the Neo-Nazi movement of the 1970s and 1980s, has also led to a louder alt-right Neo-Nazi movement in Sweden, which though still low in numbers, gets a lot of media attention. Several alt-right media outlets are spreading fake news about crime rates among immigrants. Alt-right groups are also making threats, spreading hatred and running smear campaigns in social media. This climate may very well lead to self-censorship among pro-immigration, feminist and LGBTQI groups.

    Mainstream parties have responded to all of this by moving towards a more moderate immigration policy and placing higher demands on immigrants – for instance, by introducing new requirements that they must meet in order to receive social aid and subsidies. Rights-oriented civil society groups are still trying to raise their voices in favour of a generous immigration policy based on humanitarian values, but they aren’t getting much attention these days.

    How is civil society working to combat xenophobia, racism and right-wing populism in Sweden, and what else could it do to build support for human rights and social justice?

    Open racism and xenophobia are in no way tolerated by the vast majority of Swedes, and several local rallies have been staged against racism and the Neo-Nazi movement both before and after the elections. Rights-oriented civil society has prepared for a long time to counter these trends, but stills needs the support of large groups of everyday people to have an impact on official discourse and the public conversation.

    Swedes take great pride in their open society and will likely defend the free press, the freedom of speech and gender equality, among other values. Threats and hatred against immigrants, journalists, feminists and LGBTQI activists get much attention in the media and several political actions have been organised to prevent them from happening. So, if a right-wing government forms with silent or open parliamentary support from the Sweden Democrats, we will likely see a lot of strong reactions from the political and cultural establishment as well as from civil society.

    In the long run, Swedish civil society needs to work to defend democracy at the grassroots level on a daily basis, and maybe it also needs to go to the barricades to build opinion and change what could turn out to be a dangerous course of history.

    Civic space in Sweden is rated as ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Kvinna till Kvinna through its website and Facebook page or follow@Kvinna_t_Kvinna on Twitter.

     

  • Tanzania: Systematic restrictions on fundamental freedoms in the run-up to national elections

    READ IN SWAHILI (KISWAHILI)

    Civil society letter endorsed by over 65 organisations to President of Tanzania ahead of 28 October National Elections 


    To: President John Magufuli

    Excellency, 

    We, the undersigned civil society organizations, are deeply concerned about the continued deterioration of democracy, human rights and rule of law in the United Republic of Tanzania. In the past five years, we have documented the steady decline of the country into a  state of repression, evidenced by the increased harassment, intimidation, prosecution, and persecution of political activists, human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists and media houses; the enactment of restrictive laws; and disregard for rule of law, constitutionalism, as well as regional and international human rights standards. We are deeply concerned that the situation has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and as the country heads for general elections on 28 October 2020.[1]

    Tanzania as a party to several regional and international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, has a legal obligation to respect and protect fundamental rights, particularly the right to - freedom of expression and the media, peacefully assemble, form and join associations, and to participate in public affairs, which are fundamental rights for free and fair elections in a democratic society. As a member of the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Tanzania has committed to uphold and promote democratic principles, popular participation, and good governance.

    Leading up to the elections in Tanzania, we have unfortunately documented an unfavourable environment for public participation and free engagement in the political process. The role of the media in providing information and access to varying viewpoints in a true democracy is indispensable. Media houses must be allowed to provide these services without undue restrictions, yet in recent times, several independent media houses have been suspended. These have included the seven-day suspensions of The Citizen newspaper in February 2019,[2] Clouds TV and Clouds FM in August 2020, and the six-month suspension of Kwanza online TV in September 2019[3] and again in July 2020 for 11 months;[4] the online publication ban against Mwananchi news in April 2020;[5] the revocation, effective June 24, 2020, of the license of the Tanzania Daima newspaper;[6] and the fines against online stations, Watetezi TV and Ayo TV in September 2019.[7]We note, with great disappointment, that the government is yet to comply with a ruling by the East African Court of Justice requiring the amendment of the Media Services Act to address the unjustified restrictions on freedom of expression.[8]

    We are further concerned about the restrictions on individuals peacefully expressing their opinions, including criticising public officials.[9] The latter are required to tolerate a greater amount of criticism than others - a necessary requirement for transparency and accountability. Tanzania’s criminal justice system has however been misused to target those who criticize the government. Tito Magoti and IT expert Theodory Giyani were arrested in December 2019 and questioned over their social media use and association with certain government critics.[10] The duo were subsequently charged with economic crimes, including “money laundering” which is a non-bailable offence. Despite their case being postponed more than 20 times since December 2019, and no evidence being presented against them, they remain in pre-trial detention.[11] Investigative journalist Erick Kabendera was similarly arrested and charged with “money laundering” where he was held in pre-trial detention for seven months with his case postponed over ten times.[12] Several United Nations (UN) mandate holders have raised concern about the misuse of the country’s anti-money laundering laws that “allow the Government to hold its critics in detention without trial and for an indefinite period.”[13]

    Most recently, a prominent human rights lawyer and vocal critic of the government, Fatma Karume was disbarred from practising law in Tanzania following submissions she made in a constitutional case challenging the appointment of the Attorney General.[14] Other lawyers are also facing disciplinary proceedings for publicly raising issues on judicial independence and rule of law.  Opposition leader, Zitto Kabwe was arrested and prosecuted for statements made calling for accountability for extrajudicial killings by State security agents.[15] The above cases are clear evidence of intolerance for alternative views and public debate.

    In addition, authorities should ensure respect for the right of individuals to freely form associations and for those associations to participate in public affairs, without unwarranted interference. We note the increasing misuse of laws to restrict and suspend the activities of civil society organisations.[16] On August 12, Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) was notified that its bank accounts had been frozen pending police investigations. THRDC’s coordinator was then summoned by the police to explain an alleged failure to submit to the State Treasury its contractual agreements with donors.[17]  Prior to this, in June 2020, the authorities disrupted the activities of THRDC for allegedly contravening “laws of the land.”[18] Several other non-governmental organisations working on human rights issues have been deregistered or are facing harassment for issuing public statements critical of the government. Ahead of the elections some civil society organisations have reported being informally told by authorities to cease activities. As a result of the repressive environment, civil society organisations have been forced to self-censor activities. 

    We also note the enactment of further restrictive laws.[19] For example, the Written Laws Miscellaneous Amendments Act (The Amendment Act)[20] which has introduced amendments to 13 laws.[21] The Amendment Act requires anyone making a claim for violation of rights to have been personally affected.[22] This limits the ability of civil society organisations to carry out legal aid and law-based activities where they are not personally harmed. It violates Article 26(2) of the country’s Constitution, which provides for the right of every person “to take legal action to ensure the protection of this Constitution and the laws of the land.” Furthermore, it is an internationally recognized best practice that all persons, whether individually or in association with others, have the right to seek an effective remedy before a judicial body or other authority in response to a violation of human rights.[23] The Amendment Act further provides that lawsuits against the President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Speaker, Deputy Speaker, or Chief Justice cannot be brought against them directly but must be brought against the Attorney General.[24] This provision undermines government accountability for human rights violations. We remind the authorities that international bodies have raised concerns about Tanzania’s repressive laws.[25]

    We are especially concerned over the continued cases of verbal threats and physical attacks against members of opposition political parties.[26] We note with concern that to date, no one has been held accountable for the 2017 attack against the CHADEMA party leader, Tundu Lissu, who is a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections. Most recently, opposition leader Freeman Mbowe was brutally attacked and his assailants are still at large. Failure to thoroughly and impartially investigate such cases breeds a culture of violence and impunity, which in turn threatens the peace and security of the country. The government must take steps to bring perpetrators of such violence to account and to guarantee the safety of all other opposition party members and supporters.

    Earlier, in November 2019, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) issued a press statement on the “deteriorating human rights situation in Tanzania.”[27] The Commission specifically voiced concern over “the unprecedented number of journalists and opposition politicians jailed for their activities.” The ongoing crackdown on civic space in Tanzania also led the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to issue a strong warning ahead of the 28 October 2020 General Elections. At the opening of the UN Human Rights Council’s 45th session, she “[drew] the Council's attention to increasing repression of the democratic and civic space, in what is becoming a deeply deteriorated environment for human rights” and stressed that “[with] elections approaching later this month, we are receiving increasing reports of arbitrary arrests and detention of civil society actors, activists, journalists and members of opposition parties.” She added: “Further erosion of human rights could risk grave consequences, and I encourage immediate and sustained preventive action.”[28]

    While we acknowledge measures taken by your government to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect the citizens of Tanzania, we are deeply concerned that the pandemic has been used to unduly restrict fundamental freedoms. Examples are the arrest and sentencing of two Kenyan journalists for interviewing members of the public in Tanzania on the status of the pandemic in the country[29] as well as, the suspension of  Kwanza Online TV for reposting an alert by the U.S. embassy in Tanzania regarding the pandemic in the country.[30]  The rights to peacefully express one’s opinion, receive information, peaceful assembly and association, and to participate in public affairs are not only essential in the context of the upcoming elections, but also in relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Freedom of expression in particular, ensures “the communication of information to the public, enabling individuals to … develop opinions about the public health threat so that they can take appropriate steps to protect themselves and their communities.”[31]  The UN has repeatedly emphasized that Government responses to COVID-19 must not be used as a pretext to suppress individual human rights or to repress the free flow of information.[32] 

    The need for Tanzania to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law is now more than ever important as a matter of national security, following recent reports of insurgent attacks along Tanzania’s border with Mozambique.[33] Studies have shown that experiences of injustice, marginalization and a breakdown in rule of law, are root causes of disaffection and violence. A peaceful and prosperous nation requires good governance and respect for rule of law, with a society that protects fundamental freedoms and ensures justice for all.

    As civil society organisations deeply concerned about constitutionalism, justice, and democracy in the United Republic of Tanzania, we strongly urge your Excellency to adhere to your undertaking to ensure a free and fair election in Tanzania. The government has an obligation to create an enabling environment for everyone, including political opposition, non-governmental organisations, journalists, and other online users, HRDs, and other real or perceived government opponents to exercise their human rights without fear of reprisals. As such, we call on the relevant authorities to immediately drop criminal charges and release defenders such as Tito Magoti and Theodory Giyani and any others being prosecuted for peacefully exercising their rights. Suspensions and the freezing of assets of non-governmental organisations such as THRDC, independent media houses such as Kwanza Online TV, and members of the legal profession- particularly Fatma Karume, must be reversed.  Opposition parties must be allowed to freely and peacefully campaign and engage with their supporters without undue restrictions such as arbitrary arrests, physical attacks, forceful dispersal and intimidation of supporters, and harassment by security forces. The legitimacy of Tanzania’s elections is at stake.

    We call on Tanzania to heed the messages delivered by national, African, and international actors and to change course before the country enters a full-fledged human rights crisis, with potentially grave domestic and regional consequences.

    Signed:

    1. Access Now, Global
    2. Acción Solidaria on HIV/aids, Venezuela
    3. Africa Freedom of Information Centre 
    4. Africa Judges and Jurists Forum
    5. AfroLeadership
    6. ARTICLE 19, Global
    7. Asia Dalit Rights Forum (ADRF), New Delhi and Kathmandu
    8. Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
    9. Association of Freelance Journalists
    10. BudgIT Foundation, Nigeria
    11. CEALDES, Colombia
    12. Center for Civil Liberties, Ukraine
    13. Centre for Human Rights & Development (CHRD), Mongolia
    14. Centre for Law and Democracy, Canada
    15. Center for National and International Studies, Azerbaijan
    16. Child Watch, Tanzania
    17. CIVICUS, Global
    18. Civic Initiatives, Serbia
    19. CIVILIS Human Rights, Venezuela
    20. Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
    21. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
    22. Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), South Sudan
    23. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
    24. Corporación Comuna Nueva, Santiago de Chile
    25. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    26. Democracy Monitor PU, Azerbaijan
    27. Eastern Africa Journalists Network (EAJN)
    28. Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO)
    29. Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition (EHRDC)
    30. Espacio Público, Venezuela
    31. Front Line Defenders, Global
    32. Gestos (HIV and AIDS, communication, gender), Brazil
    33. Greenpeace Africa
    34. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP-Afrique), Canada
    35. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP-BENIN)
    36. Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (GAPP Mali)
    37. HAKI Africa, Kenya
    38. Human Rights Concern - Eritrea (HRCE)
    39. Human Rights Defenders Network, Sierra Leone
    40. Humanium, Switzerland
    41. HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement (HuMENA Regional)
    42. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) - Belgium
    43. Jade Propuestas Sociales y Alternativas al Desarrollo, A.C. (JADESOCIALES)- México
    44. Ligue Burundaise des droits de l’homme Iteka-Burundi
    45. Maison de la Société Civile (MdSC), Bénin
    46. MARUAH, Singapore
    47. Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Nigeria
    48. Nigeria Network of NGOs, Nigeria 
    49. Nouvelle Dynamique de la Société Civile de la RD Congo (NDSCI)
    50. Odhikar, Bangladesh
    51. ONG Convergence des Actions Solidaires et les Objectifs de Développement Durable (CAS-ODD ONG) - Bénin
    52. ONG Nouvelle Vision (NOVI), Bénin
    53. Open School of Sustainable Development (Openshkola), Russia
    54. Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)
    55. Partnership for Peace and Development, Sierra Leone
    56. RESOSIDE, Burkina Faso
    57. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Global
    58. Sisters of Charity Federation, United States
    59. Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS), Somalia
    60. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
    61. Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA), Sudan
    62. The Human Rights Centre Uganda (HRCU), Uganda
    63. Tournons La Page (TLP)
    64. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Network, Sierra Leone
    65. Women in Democracy And Governance, Kenya (WIDAG)
    66. Zambia Council for Social Development, Zambia

    [1] United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, UN Experts call on Tanzania to end the crackdown on civic space, July 22, 2020, available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26117&LangID=E.

    [2] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzania imposes 7-day publication ban on The Citizen, March 01, 2019, available at https://cpj.org/2019/03/tanzania-citizen-7-day-publication-ban/

    [3] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian authorities ban online TV station, fine 2 others, January 8, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

    [4] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzania bans Kwanza Online TV for 11 months citing ‘misleading’ Instagram post on COVID-19, July 09, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/07/tanzania-bans-kwanza-online-tv-for-11-months-citing-misleading-instagram-post-on-covid-19/

    [5] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian newspaper banned from publishing online for 6 months over COVID-19 report, May 11, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

    [6] Committee to Protect Journalist, Tanzanian government revokes license of Tanzania Daima newspaper, June 26, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/06/tanzanian-government-revokes-license-of-tanzania-daima-newspaper/

    [7] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian authorities ban online TV station, fine 2 others, January 8, 2020 available at https://cpj.org/2020/01/tanzanian-authorities-ban-online-tv-station-fine-2/

    [8]Committee to Protect Journalists, East Africa court rules that Tanzania’s Media Services Act violates press freedom, March 28, 2019, available at https://www.mediadefence.org/news/important-media-freedom-judgment-east-african-court-justice

    [9] We refer to cases such as the arrest of prominent comedian, Idris Sultan, in May 2020 (https://thrdc.or.tz/tanzanian-comedian-and-actor-mr-idris-sultan-charged-for-failure-to-register-a-sim-card/), and the disbarment from practicing law of prominent lawyer and human rights advocate, Fatma Karume (https://www.icj.org/tanzania-icj-calls-for-reinstatement-of-lawyer-fatma-karumes-right-to-practice-law/). 

    [10] Committee to protect journalists, Mwanachi, The Citizen, last seen in Tanzania, November 21, 2017, available at https://cpj.org/data/people/azory-gwanda/.

    [11] American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights, Tanzania: Preliminary Analysis of the criminal case against Tito Magoti and Theodory Giyani, July 28, 2020, available at https://www.americanbar.org/groups/human_rights/reports/tanzania--preliminary-analysis-of-the-criminal-case-against-tito/.

    [12] Committee to Protect Journalists, Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabendera freed but faces hefty fines, February 24, 2020, available at https://cpj.org/2020/02/tanzanian-freelancer-erick-kabendera-freed-but-fac/

    [13] Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Letter to President of Tanzania, Reference AL TZA 1/2020, January 31, 2020, available at https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25049.

    [14] International Commission of Jurists, Tanzania: ICJ Calls for the reinstatement of lawyer Fatma Karume’s right to practice law, October 8, 2020, available at https://www.icj.org/tanzania-icj-calls-for-reinstatement-of-lawyer-fatma-karumes-right-to-practice-law/

    [15]The Citizen, Zitto Kabwe sentenced to serve one year ban not writing seditious statements, May 29, 2020, available at https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/news/Zitto-Kabwe-found-guilty-of-sedition/1840340-5567040-m7pifrz/index.htm

    [16] The cancellation of a training organised by Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), the subsequent arrest of THRDC’s Director, Onesmo Olengurumwa, and suspension of the activities of the organisation, as well as freezing of their accounts, exemplifies the misuse of these laws against civil society (See: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/tanzania-human-rights-group-suspends-operations/1945400)

    [17] DefendDefenders, Tanzania: Respect the right to freedom of association, August 24, 2020, available at https://defenddefenders.org/tanzania-respect-the-right-to-freedom-of-association/.

    [18] Two employees of one of THRDC were arrested in Dar es Salaam and thereafter authorities proceed to arbitrarily cancel the hosting of a three-day security training for 30 human rights defenders. The police claimed that the training was in contravention of the “laws of the land” but did not give a specific provision

    [19] These include the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations; Media Services Act; Cybercrimes Act; and Political Parties Amendment Act.

    [20] Written Laws (Miscellaneous Amendments Act (No. 3) of 2020)

    [21] Southern Africa Litigation Center, Joint letter, The Written Laws Miscellaneous Amendments Act no.3 ( 2020), available at https://www.southernafricalitigationcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Honourable-Minister-of-Justice-for-the-Republic-of-Tanzania.pdf-August-2020.pdf

    [22] Section 7(b) of the Written Laws Amendments Act

    [23] The African Commission’s Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa provide that States must ensure through the adoption of national legislation that any individual, group of individuals or nongovernmental organization is entitled to bring a human rights claim before a judicial body for determination because such claims are matters of public concern.

    [24] Amendments to Chapter 310 of the Law Reform (Fatal accidents and miscellaneous provisions) Act and to the Chapter 3 of the Basic Rights and Duties Enforcement Act

    [25]   See for example communication of the Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to the government of the United Republic of Tanzania, AL TZA 3/2020, 17 July 2020, https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadPublicCommunicationFile?gId=25442 

    [26] These include the verbal abuse and threats of execution against Zitto Kabwe, leader of Alliance for Change and Transparency (ACT) Wazalendo opposition party (see: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51355148), his conviction for sedition for statements he made at a press conference in relation to alleged extra judicial killings by state security forces (https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/news/Zitto-Kabwe-found-guilty-of-sedition/1840340-5567040-m7pifrz/index.html), and his re-arrested together with several party members while they participated in an internal meeting (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/24/tanzanian-opposition-leader-zitto-kabwe-released-on-bail/); as well as the conviction of nine Members of Parliament belonging to the opposition Chama Cha Demokrasia(CHADEMA) party and their sentencing in March 2020 to five months in prison or an alternative fine, for allegedly making seditious statements (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-politics/tanzanian-opposition-lawmakers-found-guilty-of-making-seditious-statements-idUSKBN20X2O8); and the attack against the party leader, Freeman Mbowe, by unknown assailants leaving him with a broken leg (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tanzania-politics/tanzanian-opposition-lawmakers-found-guilty-of-making-seditious-statements-idUSKBN20X2O8).

    [27] African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Press statement of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the deteriorating human rights situation in Tanzania, available at https://www.achpr.org/pressrelease/detail?id=459.

    [28] Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “In her global human rights update, Bachelet calls for urgent action to heighten resilience and protect people's rights,” 14 September 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26226&LangID=E

    [29] Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, Two Kenyan Journalists convicted and fined in Tanzania, repatriated back to Kenya, May 21, 2020, available at https://thrdc.or.tz/blog/.

    [30]American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights, Report on the arbitrary suspension of Kwanza Online TV for sharing information related to the COVID-19 pandemic, October 22, 2020. See also Kwanza TV Instagram, available athttps://www.instagram.com/p/CCGT_5ECT_n/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

    [31] Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression, A/HRC/44/49, para. 30

    [32] The Guardian, Coronavirus pandemic is becoming a human rights crisis, UN warns, 23 April 2020, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/coronavirus-pandemic-is-becoming-a-human-rights-crisis-un-warns. See also UNHRC,, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, States responses to Covid 19 threat should not halt freedoms of assembly and association, April 14, 2020, available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25788&LangID=E.

    [33] BBC, Tanzania border village attack “leaves 20 dead”, October 16, 2020, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/live/world-africa-47639452?ns_mchannel=social&ns_source=twitter&ns_campaign=bbc_live&ns_linkname=5f896f00c4548e02bf3cb441%26Tanzania%20border%20village%20attack%20%27leaves%2020%20dead%27%262020-10-16T10%3A29%3A29.229Z&ns_fee=0&pinned_post_locator=urn:asset:2f81fc88-030c-49d4-9d25-b8268a2dbf55&pinned_post_asset_id=5f896f00c4548e02bf3cb441&pinned_post_type=share

     

  • TANZANIA: ‘What is needed is a new constitution reflecting the will of the people’

    CIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democratic change under a new president in Tanzania with Maria Sarungi Tsehai, a communications expert and founder of Change Tanzania. Change Tanzania is a social movement that began on social media as an informal group of people focused on bringing positive, sustainable change to Tanzania.

    Maria Sarungi Tsehai

    What is the current state of civic space – the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression – in Tanzania?

    Civic space continues to be restricted, as the legal framework has not changed. Amendments have been proposed to the 2020 Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, which have led to the severe restriction of online freedom of expression and digital media freedoms. However, these amendments are limited good news, as critical issues such as the criminalisation of what is perceived as ‘fake news’ or misinformation remain and the authorities have retained ultimate arbitrary power to take action and have so-called ‘prohibited content’ removed within two hours. The list of prohibited content, which is open to interpretation and has been used to restrict media freedom and the freedom of expression in the past, remains.

    Regarding the freedom of peaceful assembly, restrictions have become harsher, to the extent that internal political party meetings are now banned and have been disrupted by riot-geared police, as witnessed recently in the case of a number of meetings and convenings held by the main opposition party, the Party for Democracy and Progress – better known as CHADEMA for its acronym in Swahili – as well as in the case of the National Convention for Construction and Reform, another opposition party, whose internal council meeting was broken up by the police on 28 August 2021.

    Those who continued to gather in defiance have been illegally detained and kept incommunicado. In some cases, this has involved dozens of people, while recently in Mwanza, in northern Tanzania, it has affected close to 100 CHADEMA supporters. The chairman of CHADEMA, Freeman Mbowe, was recently abducted by masked security forces and held incommunicado for days before being charged with terrorism – all because he defied police calls and flew to Mwanza to be part of a symposium on constitutional reforms.

    President Samia Suluhu Hassan has accused citizens leading movements for constitutional reform of fostering foreign interests and seeking to destabilise the country for personal gain, therefore designating their actions as ‘sedition’.

    When CHADEMA supporters assembled outside the court building the day Freeman Mbowe was due to appear in court, they received rough treatment from the police and were picked off the streets and detained just for standing silently with banners and wearing opposition t-shirts. Many women have been detained in such a way and denied their basic rights to food, water and sanitary pads while in illegal detention. One female CHADEMA leader, Neema Mwakipesile, was detained for over 14 days, and was initially denied any access to a lawyer or contact with family members.

    The government has also frequently instrumentalised the COVID-19 pandemic to limit political gatherings. Specifically, any gathering deemed to be critical of the government is restricted using COVID-19 regulations, while mass gathering in stadiums for sports and entertainment are still allowed.

    As for restrictions on the freedom of expression, harsh reprisals against those speaking up have not been limited to opposition members and critics but have recently started to target dissenting voices within the ruling Party of the Revolution (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM). On 31 August 2021, a CCM member of parliament, Jerry Silaa Ukonga, was suspended because during a meeting with his constituents he said that parliamentarians should pay income taxes. His suspension will deter other lawmakers from speaking up any matter that may be deemed critical of the government, as the parliamentary leadership is an extension of the executive rather than an independent pillar of government.

    Has the new government under President Suluhu – who came to power following the death of President John Magufuli – taken any steps to improve the conditions for civil society and the expression of dissent?

    First of all, calling it a ‘new government’ is a misnomer, because it is basically the same government, in which the former vice president became president and a little cabinet reshuffle took place, but most key positions were retained by the same group of people. There was some hope around the new minister responsible for foreign affairs, but for civil society not much has changed, as the mechanisms for the oversight of civil society organisations (CSOs) and the legal framework have remained in place.

    In fact, a by-law has been recently introduced whereby CSOs are not allowed to give out joint statements without previously developing a memorandum of understanding that needs to be submitted and registered with the NGO Registrar. So it’s the same laws and the same people who continue to be a threat to any open dissent. This continuity is visible in the government’s response to Tanzania’s Universal Periodic Review examination at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which hardly seems to have addressed any area of concern.

    The only visible difference under the new president has been the government’s admission of the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new president has introduced and encouraged COVID-19 preventative measures and Tanzania officially joined the COVAX initiative, as a result of which it has received vaccines.

    However, there has been no change regarding the key people overseeing health policies, and as a result trust in the government is low. The mixed messaging has led to apathy and disbelief; therefore, vaccine uptake is slow and even precautions are not enforced genuinely and systematically. Additionally, COVID-19 data has not been released in a regular and systematic manner. The government randomly releases ad hoc and aggregate numbers that are impossible to assess. There are evidently a lot of COVID-19-related deaths that go undocumented.

    Do you think the fact that the country has its first female president will make a difference for women’s rights?

    So far, nothing has changed. In fact, President Suluhu has fronted herself as a patriarchy enabler, both in rhetoric and appointments. She has adopted approaches similar to those used by previous governments to target opposition and dissent. She has even refused to lift a ban on pregnant schoolgirls from re-entering formal education after delivery.

    For real change to happen, a shift in fundamental structures needs to take place, starting with constitutional and legal reforms to enable political competition and allow access for more female decision-makers who are not dependent on patronage by the male-dominated leadership of the CCM. But President Suluhu is ignoring calls for constitutional reform. 

    What would the government need to do so that Tanzania becomes more open and democratic?

    Unfortunately, the government led by the CCM, which is in power as a result of an openly rigged election that was accompanied by one of the most violent post-election repression episodes, is not capable of driving any democratic reform. What is needed is a new constitution reflecting the will of the people. A good place to start would be the ‘Warioba draft’ – named after the chairperson of the Constitutional Review Commission, retired judge Joseph Warioba - that was published in 2013 and ditched at the last minute by CCM in October 2014, during its failed attempt to pass a new constitution through a constituent assembly.

    The process has to be revived and it has to be multi-party and involve the citizenry more broadly. But President Suluhu seems unwilling to do this, and in some cases, as in that of Freeman Mbowe, she has shown outright hostility towards the opposition. If its only goal is to cling to power, the government will not work on any real reforms. The sooner this becomes clear to everyone, the better.

    Besides writing a new constitution, the government would also need to improve accountability, especially by following up on the Controller and Auditor General’s (CAG) Annual Report. The first thing that President Suluhu did when she was sworn in was to ask the CAG to submit its report and promised that measures would be taken against those civil servants who were involved in wrongdoing. She also ordered a CAG special audit of the Central Bank for the first quarter of 2021. But the report was never published, and only a press statement was released which said that everything was in order. Regarding accountability and transparency, rejoining the Open Government Partnership would be a good starting point. The government should also introduce police and prison reforms and make new appointments for positions including judges, the Inspector General of Police, the Attorney General, the Chief Justice, and other positions to improve justice and social services.

    How can global civil society support civil society in Tanzania?

    The main focus should be on high-level, intense pressure on the government of Tanzania to engage with the opposition and credible civil society representatives and citizen groups in ushering in constitutional reforms so that by 2025 we will have laid down the foundations for free and fair elections. Otherwise, the next elections may put Tanzania on a very dangerous path in many regards.

    Global civil society needs to make sure that Tanzania is held accountable and that in all discussions fundamental structural and legal framework reforms are emphasised. It should make sure not to succumb to nice promising rhetoric and superficial cosmetic changes because allowing the government to get away with such flimsy actions will have very grave consequences.

    Those funding projects in Tanzania need to consider funding social movements and more loose coalitions of citizens and groups rather than small circles of civil society actors that embrace a top-down approach. This will have significant impacts on building a society conducive to the greater good and serving the wider population.

    Civic space inTanzaniais rated asrepressedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Change Tanzania through itsFacebook page and follow@ChangeTanzania and@MariaSTsehai on Twitter. 

     

  • The Gambia: Time to respect the will of Gambians

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS urges Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to respect constitutional norms and the will of the Gambian people. As the 19 January deadline for the inauguration of incoming President Adama Barrow approaches, Gambian authorities are silencing independent media houses and arbitrarily arresting public spirited citizens calling on incumbent president Jammeh to hand over power in line with the results of the 1 December 2016 elections.

     

  • THE MALDIVES: ‘Civic space is practically nonexistent now’

    CIVICUS speaks to Shahindha Ismail, Executive Director of the Maldivian Democracy Network, about the ongoing crackdown on dissent and the upcoming presidential elections in the Maldives.

    widespread crackdown on dissent began in the Maldives in February 2018 when a court ordered the release of opposition leaders. This decision led to the arbitrary arrest of judges, scores of opposition politicians and activists who face a variety of trumped-up charges from bribery to terrorism. Police also used unnecessary force to disperse peaceful demonstrations, and in some cases, indiscriminately used pepper spray and tear gas. There are also documented cases of people being ill-treated in detention. At least a dozen journalists were injured while covering protests, with reporters being arrested and ill-treated.

    With elections due on 23rd September 2018, civic space is likely to become increasingly contested. Already in May 2018, the Electoral Commission moved to bar four opposition leaders from running in the upcoming presidential elections.

    This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    1. What is the state of civil society freedoms in the Maldives ahead of the elections?

    Civic space is practically nonexistentnow and has been for a few years. No one but those who support the government are allowed to speak freely or assemble. All rallies organised by the political opposition or civil society are dispersed, and their organisers and participants are arrested. The police intimidate people. Defamation is criminalised, and this has been a challenge, as media houses and individuals are fined millions of Rufiyaa and face the prospect of imprisonment for expressing themselves or broadcasting alternative views.

    Those working in countering radicalism and violent extremism also face violent threats, including the possibility of disappearance or murder, from vigilante groups sanctioned by the government. These groups operate with full impunity and have targeted organisations and individuals promoting tolerance, offering alternate narratives and promoting secularism.

    2. Can you tell us about the work of the Maldivian Democracy Network, and how it has been affected?

    The Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) was founded in September 2004, following the mass arrests of August 2004, and was originally named Maldivian Detainee Network. It began as a torture documentation civil society organisation (CSO) and focused on assisting detainees and their families and fostering the establishment of a network of families that could support one another. Two years later, after several delays, MDN finally achieved registration with the Ministry of Home Affairs. In 2010 MDN amended its statutes and changed its name to Maldivian Democracy Network, following the introduction of a new Constitution that recognised most of the detainee rights that MDN advocated for. Presently MDN conducts a wide range of work, including monitoring parliament, monitoring trials and advocating for detainee rights, protecting human rights defenders, advancing the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and countering violent extremism.

    In the current situation we have to do most of our work underground, and anything that we do publicly requires extra care. As human rights defenders (HRDs), we are constantly looking over our shoulders and have to take extra caution when moving around. We fear for the safety of our families. Those who are part of the HRD community and work in the civil service or at government-owned companies also fear the loss of their jobs. As an organisation, funding has become a serious challenge and we are on the brink of shutting down.

    3. What should the international community do to support fundamental freedoms and free and fair elections in the Maldives?

    The resolutions of the European Union about the Maldives, including the latest one issued in March 2018, are strong and encouraging. We would like to see their framework on targeted sanctions replicated and implemented by other states.

    I believe it is critical that the international community have a strong presence in the Maldives in the final run-up to the elections as well as during and after the elections. An international observation mission is still the best we can ask for, and I hope that it happens.

    4. What is your hope for the future?

    I hope that we get a good change in this election, and that the new government will be more inclusive of the human rights community and CSOs when they plan reforms and implement them, as HRDs and civil society have had first-hand interactions with vulnerable groups and have represented them in difficult times. These experiences have given civil society an insight into some possible reforms and lots of training in advancing human rights issues in the Maldives. For example, we advocate for and hope that the government will include a strong civic education programme in the national school curriculum, in order to help produce critical, informed and articulate new citizens.

    Civic space in the Maldives is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. The country is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor’sWatchlist.

    Get in touch with the Maldivian Democracy Network through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow@MDN_mv and@HindhaIsmail on Twitter.

     

  • TUNISIA: ‘Civil society is not yet under direct threat, but we believe that our turn is coming’

    Amine GhaliCIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democracy in Tunisia following the president’s July 2021 power grab with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at promoting civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider region, through awareness-raising, capacity-strengthening and documentation. 

     

  • TUNISIE : « La société civile n’est pas encore directement menacée, mais nous pensons que notre tour arrivera »

    Amine GhaliCIVICUS s’entretient des perspectives de démocratie en Tunisie après le coup de force du président de juillet 2021 avec Amine Ghali, directeur du Centre de transition démocratique Al Kawakibi (KADEM). KADEM est une organisation de la société civile (OSC) qui vise à promouvoir la contribution de la société civile à la démocratie et à la justice transitionnelle en Tunisie et dans la région, par la sensibilisation, le renforcement des capacités et la documentation.

    Quelle a été la position de la société civile tunisienne face au coup de force du président Kais Saied ?

    En juillet dernier, le président Saied a limogé le premier ministre et suspendu le parlement, tout en promettant un processus de révision constitutionnelle. Depuis lors, il s’est octroyé des pouvoirs étendus et a supprimé les contrôles sur ce pouvoir.

    Les réactions ont été variées, car la société civile tunisienne a toujours été très diverse. Une partie a soutenu les actions de Saied, ou du moins les a vues d’un bon œil, tandis qu’une autre s’y est complètement opposée. D’autres personnes ont été plus sélectives au sujet de ce à quoi elles s’opposent : peut-être n’étaient-elles pas satisfaites de l’arrangement politique précédent ou même de l’actuel, mais pensaient néanmoins que les actions de Saied ouvriraient de plus grandes opportunités de changement et de réforme.

    Une diversité similaire a été visible dans la société en général, mais nous n’avons pas connu de polarisation malsaine parce que les gens ne se sont pas divisés entre des positions aux deux extrémités du spectre.

    Et bien que je ne dispose pas de véritables chiffres ou statistiques, j’ai récemment remarqué une opposition croissante de la société civile face aux événements de juillet. Au début, il y avait une sorte d’euphorie, mais maintenant, la société civile est plus critique sur ce qui s’est passé, peut-être parce que les gens ont commencé à remarquer que Saied n’a pas encore tenu ses promesses.

    Qu’est-ce qui a fait évoluer les positions de la société civile ?

    L’une des premières promesses de Saied était de lutter contre la corruption et la mauvaise gouvernance, ce qui ne s’est pas encore produit. En outre, il a pris des mesures et des décisions qu’il n’a pas annoncées le 25 juillet. Ses actions - principalement contre le parti Ennahda et d’autres partis politiques importants - étaient initialement conformes à la Constitution, mais il a ensuite commencé à agir contre la Constitution et à inverser les étapes de notre transition démocratique.

    Selon le discours officiel, repris par certains acteurs politiques, notre Constitution actuelle est si mauvaise que nous en nécessitons une nouvelle. Mais à mon avis - et à celui de la société civile - elle n’est pas si mauvaise. Plus important encore, le processus d’élaboration de la Constitution à la suite des soulèvements de 2010 a fait l’objet d’un large consensus, et la nouvelle Constitution a été approuvée par beaucoup plus que la majorité requise des deux tiers de l’Assemblée nationale constituante - elle a reçu les voix de 200 députés sur 217. Mais maintenant, nous semblons passer d’un processus participatif à un processus restrictif.

    En termes de gestion électorale, il est difficile de savoir si les prochaines élections et le référendum seront organisés par un organisme indépendant. De plus, Saied a remis en question un autre acquis démocratique majeur, l’indépendance du pouvoir judiciaire.

    Comment la société civile a-t-elle réagi à la feuille de route que le Président Saied a dévoilée en décembre 2021 ?

    Je pense que c’est la pression exercée par la société civile, les partis politiques et la communauté internationale qui a poussé le président à définir une feuille de route à la mi-décembre. Pendant les trois ou quatre premiers mois qui ont suivi la suspension du Parlement, il s’y était opposé.

    Une partie au moins de la société civile continuera à plaider pour que des mesures plus nombreuses et plus efficaces soient incluses dans la feuille de route, notamment une élection présidentielle, que nous pourrions être amenés à organiser puisque la feuille de route prévoit la rédaction d’une nouvelle Constitution, qui entraînera une nouvelle répartition des pouvoirs entre le président et le chef du gouvernement. Nous ferons également pression pour une approche plus participative, car l’organisation d’un référendum sur la Constitution n’est pas suffisante, dans la mesure où elle ne permettra aux gens que de répondre à une question par oui ou non.

    Ce sont des points qui seront probablement soulevés dans les prochaines semaines ou les prochains mois. Nous avons des OSC fortes travaillant sur les élections, qui se réunissent déjà pour discuter de la manière de maintenir la commission électorale comme acteur principal, et de celle d’aborder le passage du vote pour des listes au vote pour des individus, comme annoncé par les partisans du président.

    Je m’attends à ce que nous assistions bientôt à la formation de nouvelles coalitions pour agir sur le nouvel agenda politique. En fait, certaines de ces coalitions se sont déjà formées, incluant des éléments de la société civile et politique, comme Citoyens contre le coup d’État. D’autres coalitions de la société civile travaillent à l’amélioration des mécanismes de protection des droits humains. À mon avis, cette nouvelle dynamique va se développer au cours des prochains mois.

    Y a-t-il des possibilités d’engagement de la société civile autour du prochain référendum constitutionnel ?

    Malheureusement, l’une des principales caractéristiques de ce nouveau système de gouvernance est le manque de consultation, non seulement avec la société civile mais aussi avec les partis politiques. Jusqu’à présent, l’espace réservé au processus de consultation n’a pas été assez large. L’une de ses caractéristiques est la consultation en ligne, qui n’est pas le type de consultation auquel nous nous sommes habitués ces dix dernières années.

    Même si beaucoup de choses n’ont pas fonctionné comme elles étaient censées le faire, il y avait au moins une forme de consultation, une forme de donnant-donnant, entre les politiques et la société civile, les experts et la communauté internationale. Cet écosystème que nous avions autrefois n’existe plus. Les OSC feront pression pour obtenir de meilleures formes de coopération entre les décideurs et la société civile.

    Quelle pression subit l’espace civique en Tunisie ?

    L’espace civique se réduit. Bien que la société civile ne soit pas encore directement menacée, nous pensons que notre tour va arriver. Nous avons remarqué que les décideurs tunisiens détestent les corps intermédiaires. Ils ont donc fermé le parlement, attaqué le système judiciaire et boycotté les médias. Nous sommes probablement les prochains sur leur liste, nous devons donc être très vigilants. Des rumeurs circulent selon lesquelles les politiciens introduiront des changements juridiques qui affecteront les OSC, ce que nous n’accepterons pas. Nous devons défendre l’espace civique tant que nous avons encore un peu d’espace pour interagir avec les décideurs en l’absence du parlement, le corps intermédiaire traditionnel.

    Les récentes arrestations d’opposants politiques s’inscrivent-elles dans une tendance inquiétante ?

    Nous n’avons pas connu d’arrestations massives d’opposants politiques - en fait, il y en a eu très peu. Pour autant que nous le sachions, ces arrestations n’étaient pas fondées sur des raisons politiques, mais plutôt sur des activités illégales commises par des politiciens pendant leur mandat. Nous avons condamné les procédures et les circonstances des arrestations, qui n’étaient pas appropriées, mais personne n’est au-dessus de la loi, alors s’il existe des preuves suffisantes contre ces personnes, arrêtons-les et traduisons-les en justice selon les procédures judiciaires et non sur la base de décisions de l’exécutif.

    Quelles sont les perspectives de consolidation démocratique en Tunisie, et comment la communauté internationale peut-elle y contribuer ?

    Je pense que si nous la livrons à elle-même, le sort de la démocratie en Tunisie sera plutôt sombre. La société civile, la société politique, la communauté internationale et les amis de la Tunisie devront donc intensifier leurs efforts de plaidoyer, non pas pour restaurer la démocratie mais pour la maintenir. Nous avons besoin des efforts de tous les acteurs pour maintenir la pression afin de s’assurer que la Tunisie est sur la voie de la démocratie. Si nous ne nous engageons pas et nous contentons de regarder le spectacle, cela ne nous mènera probablement pas vers plus de démocratie et une meilleure démocratie, mais bien dans la direction opposée.

    Tant que les acteurs internationaux reconnaissent qu’il y a une menace pour la démocratie et s’engagent, cela nous aidera. La communauté internationale ne doit pas nous traiter comme elle l’a fait avec l’Égypte en 2013 - c’est-à-dire qu’elle ne doit pas privilégier la sécurité et la stabilité au détriment de la démocratie. Nous avons besoin que la communauté internationale maintienne la pression sur les décideurs en Tunisie pour s’assurer que l’achèvement de la transition démocratique est notre objectif commun. De cette façon, la Tunisie deviendra un exemple majeur de transition démocratique réussie dans la région arabe.

    L’espace civique en Tunisie est classé « obstrué » par leCIVICUS Monitor.
    Contactez KADEM via sonsite web ou sa pageFacebook.

     

  • TURKMENISTAN: ‘There is nothing resembling real civil society – and no conditions for it to emerge’

    Farid TukhbatullinCIVICUS speaks with Farid Tukhbatullin, founder and director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), about the upcoming election and the environment for civil society in Turkmenistan.

    TIHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Austria, where Farid lives in exile, that collects information from sources inside Turkmenistan to report internationally on human rights and civic space violations and advocate for democratic change.

    What is the state of the space for civil society in Turkmenistan?

    In the early 1990s, several independent CSOs appeared in Turkmenistan. The fingers of one hand were enough to count them. These included our organisation, Dashoguz Ecological Club.

    But by the late 1990s, the first president of the country, Turkmenbashi, viewed them as a danger to the system he was building. Independent CSOs were liquidated and only a few quasi-CSOs remained - the Union of Women, the Union of Veterans and the Union of Youth, all of which were remnants of the Soviet era.

    Turkmenistan not only lacks anything resembling real civil society – it also does not meet the minimal preconditions for its emergence.

    There are no independent media outlets in Turkmenistan. Not surprising, in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, the country constantly ranks second-to-last or last, next to North Korea.

    People who dare express opinions critical of the government publicly, through YouTube or on social media, end up in prison. Recent examples include Murat Dushemov and Nurgeldy Khalykov, both sentenced to four years in prison, and Pygamberdy Allaberdiyev, who received a six-year sentence.

    Special services also harass relatives of activists who are working or studying abroad and run opposition blogs from outside the country. They try to silence them by threatening their families back home.

    What have been the implications of Turkmenistan’s policy of insisting it has no COVID-19 cases?

    Unfortunately, there is no reliable information regarding the real impact of the pandemic in Turkmenistan, and of course no assistance for those who have been badly hit. According to our sources, the number of people hospitalised is now decreasing. But before this there was a large number of deaths. Small towns were holding several funerals a day. According to local traditions, a large part of the local population takes part in funeral rites, so the whole town knows who died and when.

    Why has President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov called an early election, and what is its likely outcome?

    President Berdimuhamedov started promoting his son Serdar as his heir quite a long time ago. We became aware of the planning of an extraordinary meeting of the People’s Council, the upper house of parliament, in November 2021. The idea of holding early presidential elections was voiced at this meeting; that’s when preparations for the next step for a formal change of power began.

    But there is no reason to believe this process will trigger real political change in Turkmenistan. No one doubts that on 12 March the younger Berdimuhamedov will become the country’s next president. But his father is not going to give up the reins. In violation of the constitution, he is now both president and leader of the People’s Council. After the election, he will retain his second position.

    Moreover, it has already been announced that changes will be made to the constitution. We have no details yet, but changes will surely create further opportunities for father and son to lead the country in tandem.

    Even leaving the presidency to his son frightens President Berdimuhamedov. The younger Berdimuhamedov will certainly want to make changes in the cabinet of ministers, replacing some with proxies of a younger age, and this may create some turbulence in the highest spheres of power. So Gurbanguly will most likely remain the real ruler at the beginning, with Serdar’s leadership a formality.

    How is civil society, and TIHR specifically, working to defend human rights and monitor violations in Turkmenistan?

    A CSO, the Helsinki Group of Turkmenistan (HGT), was founded in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in July 2002 to monitor the human rights situation on the ground. HGT was the predecessor organisation to TIHR. It operated underground and its members were systematically persecuted and repressed. I was detained on 23 December 2002 and sentenced to three years in prison for my peaceful activism. Fortunately, the campaign ran by international CSOs and pressure from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) paid off and I was pardoned and released on 2 April 2003. I left the country in June and received refugee status in Austria in November 2003. I led the establishment and registration of TIRH in Austria in November 2004.

    TIHR has the vision of a democratic Turkmenistan based on the rule of law, respect for human rights and cooperation with civil society. We work to create the conditions that would allow for the emergence and evolution of a so far non-existent civil society and to raise citizens’ legal awareness, particularly regarding human rights. 

    We collect, analyse and publish information on various human rights issues, including prison conditions, the treatment of ethnic minorities, child labour, the education system and restrictions on the freedom of association. Our reporting is based on information from sources inside Turkmenistan whose identities we must keep confidential to protect them and their families.

    In 2006 we established a website, Chronicle of Turkmenistan, which provides first-hand information in English, Russian and Turkmen and has become one of the most widely cited sources on Turkmenistan. And in 2007 we started making YouTube videos. We have so far published 244, which have overall reached almost 50 million views.

    This format has allowed us to use humour effectively as a political tool. For instance, in August 2017 we published one of our many satirical videos about President Berdimuhamedov, based on official state TV footage of his meetings with military personnel Rambo-style. The video instantly became a meme on social media and was republished by leading global media outlets. The president with the ‘hard-to-pronounce last name’ became a YouTube star and we gained millions of viewers.

    The popularity snowball effect reached the USA with Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, which in February 2018 awarded President Berdimuhamedov the prize for ‘best performance by a dictator in a propaganda video’. And in August 2019, it further snowballed when John Oliver reused our content in a Last Week Tonight episode about the Turkmen president, amassing 10 million clicks. Finally, in December 2019 Netflix released the action movie ‘6 Underground’, about the overthrow of the dictator of the fictional state of Turgistan, which very much resembled Turkmenistan.

    We do all this to shed light on the human rights violations that continue to happen in this very isolated country. We have submitted several shadow reports – 16 since 2008 – to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and to nearly all UN treaty bodies, often together with other human rights organisations. We have also submitted dozens of analytical reports and briefing papers to intergovernmental organisations, and have published countless statements and open letters, often in cooperation with other CSOs. In 2020 alone, we published 10 analytical reports, four briefing papers, two press statements and six open letters.

    Our analytical reports include a series focusing on civic space, which since 2017 we have published quarterly together with CIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights. We cooperate with all major international human rights CSOs, all of which rely – at least partly – on our work when it comes to Turkmenistan.

    What can the international community, including international civil society, do to support civic space and human rights in Turkmenistan?

    What helps the most is targeted advocacy at the international level and reporting to inform, shape and guide the policies of outside actors – international institutions such as the European Union, OSCE and UN, but also individual governments and others that have political or economic interests in the country – with respect to human rights issues in Turkmenistan.

    Civic space in Turkmenistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with TIHR through the Chronicles of Turkmenistanwebsite orFacebook page. 

     

  • Turkmenistan’s elections under cloud as civil society faces total clampdown

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS, the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) today highlight a near total absence of civic space in Turkmenistan, as the country prepares to go to the polls for presidential elections this Sunday, 12 February 2017.

     

  • UGANDA: ‘No candidate can possibly win the election without young people’s votes’

    CIVICUS speaks with Mohammed Ndifuna, Executive Director of Justice Access Point-Uganda (JAP). Established in 2018, JAP aims to kickstart, reignite and invigorate justice efforts in the context of Uganda’s stalled transitional justice process, its challenges implementing recommendations from its first and second United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Reviews and the backlash by African states against the International Criminal Court.

    Mohammed is an experienced and impassioned human rights defender and peacebuilder with over 15 years of activism in human rights and atrocity prevention at the grassroots, national and international levels. He was awarded the 2014 European Union Human Rights Award for Uganda, has served on the Steering Committee of The Coalition for the Criminal Court (2007-2018) and the Advisory Board of the Human Rights House Network in Oslo (2007-2012), and currently serves on the Management Committee of The Uganda National Committee of Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.

     Mohammed Ndifuna

    What is the state of civic space in Uganda ahead of the much-anticipated 2021 elections?

    Civic space in Uganda may be characterised as harassed, stifled and starved. It would seem like civil society has been on a slippery slope of sorts, with things turning from bad to worse. For instance, civil society organisations (CSOs) have witnessed a wave of brazen attacks against their physical space in the form of office break-ins and broad-daylight workplace raids. In the meantime, there seems to be no let-up in the waves of attacks against CSOs, and especially against those involved in human rights and accountability advocacy. Over the past few years, an array of legislation and administrative measures has been unleashed against CSOs and others, including the Public Order Management Act (2012) and the NGO Act (2016).

    Ahead of the general and presidential elections, which will be held on 14 January 2021, the Minister of Internal Affairs has ordered all CSOs to go through a mandatory validation and verification process before they are allowed to operate. Many CSOs have not been able to go through it: by 19 October 2020, only 2,257 CSOs had successfully completed the verification and validation exercise, including just a few that do mainstream advocacy work on governance.

    Ugandan CSOs are largely donor-dependent and had already been struggling with shrinking financial resources, severely affecting the scope of their work. This situation became compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown that was imposed in response, all of which impaired CSO efforts to mobilise resources. Therefore, these three forces – harassment, restrictions and limited access to funding – have combined to weaken CSOs, pushing most of them into self-preservation mode.

    The stakes for the 2021 elections seem to be higher than in previous years. What has changed?

    The situation started to change in July 2019, when Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, announced his bid to run for president as the candidate of the opposition National Unity Platform. Bobi Wine is a singer and actor who is also an activist and a politician. As a leader of the People Power, Our Power movement, he was elected to parliament in 2017.

    Bobi’s appeal among young people is enormous, and let’s keep in mind that more than 75 per cent of Uganda’s population is below the age of 30. This makes young people a significant group to be wowed. No candidate can possibly win the Ugandan election without having the biggest chunk of young people’s votes. In the upcoming presidential race, it is Bobi Wine who appears most able to galvanise young people behind his candidature. Although not an experienced politician, Bobi is a charismatic firebrand who has been able to attract not just young people but also many politicians from traditional political parties into his mass movement.

    Bobi Wine, long known as the ‘Ghetto President’, has taken advantage of his appeal as a popular music star to belt out political songs to mobilise people, and his roots in the ghetto also guarantee him an appeal in urban areas. It is believed that he has motivated many young people to register to vote, so voter apathy among young people may turn out to be lower in comparison to past elections.

    Given the ongoing cut-throat fight for young people’s votes, it is no surprise that the security apparatus has been unleashed against young people in an apparent attempt to stem the pressure they are exerting. Political activists linked to People Power have been harassed and, in some instances, killed. People Power’s political leaders have been intermittently arrested and arraigned in courts or allegedly kidnapped and tortured in safe houses. In an apparent attempt to make in-roads into the ranks of urban young people, President Yoweri Museveni has appointed three senior presidential advisors from the ghetto. This raises the spectre of ghetto gangster groups and violence playing a role in the upcoming presidential elections.

    Restrictions on the freedom of expression and internet use have been reported in previous elections. Are we likely to see a similar trend now?

    We are already seeing it. Restrictions on the freedoms of expression and information are a valid concern not just because of hindsight, but also given recent developments. For instance, on 7 September 2020 the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) issued a public notice stating that anyone wishing to publish information online needs to apply for and obtain a licence from the UCC before 5 October 2020. This will mostly affect online users, such as bloggers, who are paid for published content. Obviously, this is meant to stifle young people’s political activities online. And it is also particularly concerning because, as public gatherings are restricted due to COVID-19 prevention measures, online media will be the only method of campaigning that is allowed ahead of the 2021 elections.

    There is also increasing electronic surveillance, and the possibility of a shutdown of social media platforms on the eve of the elections may not be too remote.

    How has the COVID-pandemic affected civil society and its ability to respond to civic space restrictions?

    The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken in response have exacerbated the already precarious state in which the CSOs find themselves. For instance, civil society capacity to organise public assemblies and peaceful demonstrations in support of fundamental rights and freedoms or to protest against their violation has been restricted by the manner in which COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been enforced. This has resulted in the commission of blatant violations and onslaughts against civic space. For instance, on 17 October 2020, the Uganda Police Force and the Local Defense Units jointly raided thanksgiving prayers being held in Mityana district and wantonly tear gassed the congregation, which included children, women, men, older people and religious leaders, for allegedly flouting COVID-19 SOPs.

    As the enforcement of COVID-19 SOPs gets intertwined with election pressure, it is feared that the clampdown on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association will be aggravated. Regrettably, CSOs already find themselves restricted.

    How can international civil society help Ugandan civil society?

    The situation in which Ugandan civil society finds itself is such that it requires the urgent support and response of the international community. There is a need to turn the eyes towards what is happening in Uganda and to speak up to amplify the voices of a local civil society that is increasingly being stifled. More specifically, Ugandan CSOs could be supported so they can better respond to blatant violations of freedoms, mitigate the risks that their work entails and enhance their resilience in the current context.

    Civic space inUganda is rated repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Justice Access Point through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@JusticessP on Twitter.

     

  • Uganda: Egregious measures threaten free and fair elections

    Urgent joint civil society letter on Ugandan Elections taking place on 14 January 2020

    To the: African Commission and United Nations Special Procedures
    ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders 
    ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
    UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
    UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders
    UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions 
    UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention 

    cc: United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
    Regional and International Heads of State and Government 

    Re: Egregious and widespread pre-electoral violence, intimidation and repressive measures threaten free and fair electoral process in Uganda

    Uganda is set to hold Presidential and Parliamentary general elections on January 14th, 2021. The undersigned organisations are deeply concerned with the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country and submit this urgent appeal to your respective mandates under the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and United Nations (UN) to urge the Government of Uganda to adhere to its constitutional, regional and international obligations, particularly during this critical electoral period. 

    Over the last few months, we have noted an escalation of violations that has created a climate of unprecedented fear and intimidation by State security and other regulators, seemingly intended to silence dissent, undermine political opposition participation 1, and deprive Ugandans of their enjoyment of fundamental rights; in particular, the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Security forces have adopted the use of excessive and deadly force to quell public gatherings and intimidate the public, especially human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians and their supporters, and vulnerable groups such as women and youth.

    Credible human rights organisations and media institutions have documented numerous cases of mass arrests and abductions of civilians, which are becoming more of a daily occurrence 2. In addition, COVID-19 related prevention measures have been exploited to unduly restrict civil and political rights and other fundamental freedoms. In the months leading to the election, authorities arrested opposition party leaders, journalists, and dispersed opposition campaign rallies with teargas for allegedly violating COVID-19 guidelines 3. On the other hand, authorities in a partisan manner, allowed certain rallies organised by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to continue unhindered 4.

     Covering the political opposition has become an unacceptably dangerous job for journalists, who have been assaulted numerous times by security personnel. For example, on December 27 at least three journalists -- Daniel Lutaaya, Ashraf Kasirye, and Ali Mivuli-- were injured by projectiles fired by police 5. Kasirye remained hospitalized at the time of publication. In early December, police beat at least six journalists who were covering opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi in Lira 6 and fired a rubber bullet at another journalist in Jinja 7. In a December 27 statement 8, police said they would investigate attacks on journalists, a commitment that was deeply undermined on January 8, when the Inspector General of Police, Martin Okoth Ochola, told journalists that police were beating them for their own safety 9.

    Regulators have sought to further restrict media access and coverage during the electoral period. In December, the Media Council of Uganda issued guidelines, requiring all foreign journalists in Uganda to reapply for accreditation; introducing a more stringent regime for accreditation of journalists seeking entry into Uganda; and barring all local journalists from covering political events without credentials 10. The Uganda Communications Commission in December wrote to Google, asking for the take-down of opposition aligned YouTube pages 11. On January 12 Reuters 12 and AFP 13 news agencies reported that the regulator ordered Internet Service Providers to block access to social media platforms. In a speech 14, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni claimed the shutdown of social media platforms was retaliatory to an earlier measure by Facebook, which took down government-linked accounts for allegedly manipulating public debate 15.

    Human rights defenders and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play an important role in promoting an enabling environment for the respect and protection of human rights. In relation to elections, they support institutional processes in areas such as voter education, independent election monitoring and helping to reduce election-related conflict. Despite this critical role, organisations such as the Uganda National NGO Forum and Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) that were engaging in election-related activities such as polling have had their bank accounts arbitrarily frozen following allegations of money-laundering 16. Prominent human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo along with four others were arrested last month on similar money-laundering allegations 17. Another striking example is the suspension of the National Election Watch-Uganda (NEW-U), a loose coalition of largely formal NGOs engaged in election monitoring, by the National Bureau of NGOs, allegedly for non-registration 18.

    In light of the numerous and widespread violations that have been observed, particularly over the past several weeks, there is a strong justification to be concerned over the fairness and integrity of the upcoming elections. 

    This appeal calls on the UN and African Commission special procedures to exercise their mandates to urge the government of Uganda to adopt all reasonable safeguards to enable Ugandans to participate in the election free of violence and intimidation, and to abandon all efforts to restrict the media from freely reporting on the electoral process. Ugandan security forces must refrain from the excessive use of force against civilians and refrain from arbitrary arrests and detention as a means to silence persons critical of the State. Anyone arrested must be afforded the full due process of the law, including a prompt, free and fair trial. Perpetrators of election related violations that have occurred in recent months must be held accountable and effective remedies afforded to the victims.

    We further call on you to strongly urge the government of Uganda to embrace the fundamental right to political participation and to observe the cardinal principles of transparency, accountability, fairness and non-discrimination in collecting, processing, registering and reporting of the votes. In addition, the Ugandan government must allow independent organisations to freely and safely conduct election monitoring to help safeguard the general election process from electoral misconduct and instill public confidence in the integrity of the process.

    Finally, we call on you to remind member States of the African Union and United Nations and other multinational organisations to uphold their treaty obligations and hold Uganda accountable to its own constitution, regional and international obligations, ensuring adherence to the principles of a free and just democratic society. 

    We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues that carry with them serious implications for the rule of law and respect for fundamental freedoms in Uganda, as well as the East African sub-region more generally, and stand ready to provide any further information.

    Sincerely, 

    Access Now
    African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
    African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)
    ARTICLE 19 - Eastern Africa 
    Association Nigérienne des Scouts de l'Environnement (ANSEN)
    Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
    Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine) 
    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance
    Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
    Eastern Africa Journalists Network (EAJNet)
    Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center (EHRDC)
    MARUAH, Singapore
    Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
    Network of Estonian Non-profit Organizations
    Network of Public Interest Lawyers, Uganda  
    Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
    ROSE (Réseau des Organisations de la Société Civile pour l'Observation et le Suivi des Élections en Guinée), Guinea
    Odhikar, Bangladesh
    Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS)
    Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network
    Spaces for Change, Nigeria
    Uganda National NGO Forum
    Vijana Corps, Uganda
    Womankind Worldwide 
    Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD)


    1. The Independent, NUP accuses security of targeting their supporters during night operations, November 24, 2020, available at https://www.independent.co.ug/nup-accuses-security-of-targeting-their-supporters-during-night-operations/.

    2.  Id.See also NTV Youtube broadcaST, Mukono residents cry out, some now sleep in the bush in fear of arrest, January 6, 2021, available at  https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mukono+residents+cry+out. Relatedly see Daily Monitor, Two NUP candidates, four supporters go missing in Mpigi District, available at https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/two-nup-candidates-four-supporters-go-missing-in-mpigi-district-3251388.

    3. Human Rights Watch, Uganda: Authorities weaponize covid-19 for repression, November 20, 2020, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/20/uganda-authorities-weaponize-covid-19-repression.

     4. Id.

    5. Committee to Protect Journalists, Police beat, detain journalists covering opposition candidates ahead of Uganda elections, January 7, 2021, available at https://cpj.org/2021/01/police-beat-detain-journalists-covering-opposition-candidates-ahead-of-uganda-elections/.

    6. Human Rights Network for Journalists- Uganda, Journalists covering presidential candidate Kyagulanyi brutally attacked by security forces, December 12, 2020, available at https://www.hrnjuganda.org/journalists-covering-presidential-candidate-kyagulanyi-brutally-attacked-by-security-forces/.

    7. Foreign Correspondents Association Uganda, Tweet, December 2, 2020, available at https://twitter.com/fcauganda/status/1334184041722093568?lang=en.

    8. Uganda Police Force, Statement on violent fracas at Kyabakuza, December 27, 2020, available at https://www.upf.go.ug/statement-on-violent-fracas-at-kyabakuza/.

    9. Daily Monitor, Police will beat you for own safety, ICP Ochola tells journalists, January 8, 2021, available at https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/police-will-beat-you-for-own-safety-igp-ochola-tells-journalists-3251102.

    10. International Press Institute, Uganda orders journalists to seek fresh accreditation, December 11, 2020, https://ipi.media/uganda-orders-journalists-to-seek-fresh-accreditation/.

    11. Accessnow, KeepItOn: Uganda must #KeepITOn during the upcoming general election, January 11, 2021, available at, https://www.accessnow.org/cms/assets/uploads/2021/01/KeepItOn-open-letter-uganda-general-election.pdf.

    12. Reuters, Uganda orders all social media to be blocked -letter, January 12, 2021, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-uganda-election-social-media/uganda-orders-all-social-media-to-be-blocked-letter-idUSKBN29H1E7

    13. Rfi, Uganda bans social media ahead of election, Bobi Wine says home raided, January 12 2021, available at https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20210112-uganda-bans-social-media-ahead-of-election-bobi-wine-says-home-raided-yoweri-museveni.

    14. NTV Uganda, Facebook, January 12, 2021, available at https://web.facebook.com/169252986456497/videos/401297207829849.

    15. DW, Uganda elections: Facebook shuts down government-linked accounts, January 11, 2021, available at https://www.dw.com/en/uganda-elections-facebook-shuts-down-government-linked-accounts/a-56195067.

    16. Daily Monitor, Govt freezes accounts of 4 NGOs doing poll work, December 2, 2020, available at https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/special-reports/elections/govt-freezes-accounts-of-4-ngos-doing-poll-work-3216360.

    17. The Guardian, Uganda charges leading lawyer for LGBT rights with money laundering, December 24, 2020, available at, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/24/uganda-charges-leading-lawyer-for-lgbt-rights-with-money-laundering-nicholas-opiyo

    18. URN, Government suspends operations of national Election Watch Uganda, October 29, 2020, available at https://ugandaradionetwork.net/story/government-suspends-operations-of-national-election-watch-uganda.