New report looks at the state of civic freedoms in Latvia

CIVICUS has produced a new research brief on the state of civic freedoms in Latvia. Freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are guaranteed in Latvia in law and in general in practice. While restrictions to freedom of peaceful assembly were put in place during the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were gradually removed with the easing of restrictions and finally terminated when the state of emergency ended.

There are processes and frameworks for the participation of civil society in decision-making, which are followed by institutions and administrations. However, civil society – most notably Civic Alliance – Latvia (CAL) – the largest network of civil society organisations (CSOs) in the country – believes that engagement with local and national decision-makers needs to be more structured, deliberative and meaningful.  

CSOs face difficulties in achieving and maintaining financial sustainability, which has an impact on the type and breadth of activities they can carry out, as well as on their public visibility. Nevertheless, the strong advocacy work carried out by CSOs means that over the years, funding and partnerships between state institutions and CSOs have been steadily increasing. 

The pandemic has contributed to increasing government transparency, with meetings being conducted online and accessible to civil society and other external actors. This practice has continued after the end of the state of emergency: meetings are broadcast live, offering the opportunity to follow and participate in debates.  

Press freedom, confidentiality of journalistic sources and access to public information are guaranteed by law. However, during the pandemic, misinformation has been spread on social networks, and the overall trustworthiness of the media and information have been undermined. Journalists who cover topics perceived to be controversial, such as vaccines, migration, or same-sex relations, are routinely subjected to hate or harmful speech online.  

Several media channels broadcasting from Russia, considered to be agents of misinformation that pose a threat to Latvia’s security, have been banned. The spreading of misinformation is criminalised under the charge of ‘hooliganism’ and criminal proceedings have been brought against several Latvian people for spreading COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories. 

There have been slight improvements in the rights for LGBTQI+ people, including a draft Civil Union Law, which – despite considerable opposition from the most conservative parts of society – is due for its final reading in the parliament by the end of 2022. In May 2022, an Administrative District Court recognised ‘the existence of a public legal relationship’ for a same-sex couple. The judgment recognised that the state has an obligation to provide a same-sex couple with the opportunity to strengthen their family relationship legally and to be recognised as a family by the state. 


More information

Download the Latvia research brief here.


Latvia is currently rated Narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 40 other countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where the state generally allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of association, but violations of these rights also take place (see the full description of ratings)

 

New report documents restrictions to civic freedoms in Morocco

CIVICUS has produced a new research brief on the state of civic freedoms in Morocco. Freedom of expression is strictly limited and those who criticise the government or the monarchy, or question Morocco’s territorial integrity, are likely to be arrested and imprisoned. Laws related to the COVID-19 public health emergency have been used as a pretext to further restrict freedom of expression.

Three leading journalists, Taoufik Bouachrine, Omar Radi and Souleiman Raissouni, are currently imprisoned on trumped up sex-related charges, a move intended to isolate them and tarnish their reputations. Morocco’s last independent publication, Akhbar Al Yaoum, was forced to end its activities in March 2021, after being denied aid and after its founder and leading reporters were judicially harassed and imprisoned.

Social media commentators and bloggers have been prosecuted and imprisoned for publishing content on Facebook or YouTube critical of the government or the monarch.

Morocco has been implicated in Amnesty International’s investigation into Pegasus spyware, sold to states by Israel’s NSO group. Several journalists have been targeted with the surveillance tool, both inside and outside Morocco.

LGBTQI+ rights are restricted and homosexuality and consensual same-sex relations are criminalised. Recently, a book on LGBTQI+ issues was withdrawn from the Rabat Book Fair following a social media campaign.

Morocco exercises even stricter control over Western Sahara, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Most of this disputed area is under de facto Moroccan administration. Sahrawi activists, human rights defenders and journalists are brutally harassed, arrested and imprisoned, often for long spells and in inhumane detention conditions.


More information

Download the Morocco research brief here.


Morocco is currently rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 50 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).

 

 

New Research brief on Uzbekistan documents ongoing violations to civic freedoms

CIVICUS has produced a new research brief on the state of civic freedoms in Uzbekistan. Despite much-publicised steps by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to improve Uzbekistan’s image in the eyes of the international community, civic freedoms in the country remain severely restricted.  

Mass protests in Karakalpakstan 

Mass protests rarely take place in Uzbekistan, reflecting the restrictive environment for the exercise of freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression. 

However, the presidential announcement of proposed constitutional amendments that affected the autonomous status of Karakalpakstan led to mass protests in the republic on 20 June 2022 and on 1 and 2 July 2022, when thousands of people gathered in Karakalpakstan’s capital Nukus and other cities to peacefully express their discontent with the proposed amendments. On the evening of 1 July 2022, the authorities reportedly dispersed protesters with rubber bullets, stun grenades, smoke bombs and water cannon. There were also unconfirmed reports that some people were killed by law enforcement officers during the dispersal. 

Bloggers and journalists targeted 

Individuals have faced retaliation for blogging on corruption and other issues considered sensitive by the authorities. In accordance with amendments to the Law on Informatisation adopted in March 2021, the owners of online resources, including bloggers, are required to ensure that their resources are not used for the dissemination of ‘knowingly false’ information, ‘defamatory’ information, or other information defined as impermissible through vaguely worded language. The failure to promptly remove such information, if detected, might result in restrictions in accessing the online resources in question.

CSOs denied registration  

Although the government publicly claims that there are over 10,000 CSOs now operating in Uzbekistan, closer examination reveals that the majority of these organisations are in fact government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs). The Uzbekistan Independent Institute for Formation of Civil Society reported that 66 per cent of groups are GONGOs, with almost half of them established by government decree. In comparison, the process of registering genuine new CSOs remains fraught with difficulties, particularly when they focus on human rights. Although human rights defender Nikolay Kungurov successfully registered his organisation in September 2022, several independent CSOs have repeatedly been denied registration on grounds that appear to be politically motivated. 


More information

Download the Uzbekistan research brief here.


Uzbekistan is currently rated Closed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 25 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where there is complete closure - in law and in practice - of civic space. An atmosphere of fear and violence prevails, where state and powerful non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, seriously injure and kill people with impunity for attempting to exercise their rights to associate, peacefully assemble and express themselves. Any criticism of the ruling authorities is severely punished and there is virtually no media freedom. The internet is heavily censored, many websites are blocked and online criticism of power holders is subject to severe penalties (see the full description of ratings). 

 

Recommendations for advancing climate justice through increased recognition & protection of land & environmental defenders

As the climate crisis worsens, so does the violence against those protecting our environment, including climate-critical forests. To achieve real climate justice, we need to address the situation of those working on the frontlines to demand climate action. Around the world, environmental defenders working on climate justice are increasingly targeted with violence, harassment, and criminalisation. Most of these attacks are related to land conflicts involving climate-damaging industries–from deforestation by agribusinesses to mining – yet corporate accountability for such harm is lacking.

COP27 Joint Brief

In this brief for policymakers attending the United Nations Climate meeting in Egypt (COP27), civil society organisations: EarthRights, Global Witness, Natural Justice, Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental, CIVICUS, and the International Land Coalition share their recommendations for protecting those on the frontlines of the climate crisis and enabling the diverse, safe, and effective participation of civil society observers during COPs and other international climate negotiations.

 

 

 

New Research brief on Sudan documents ongoing violations in the aftermath of the Coup

  • Killings, torture, and arrests of pro-government protesters
  • Women activists and protesters targeted through sexual violence 
  • Journalists detained and media outlets raided 

Since the October 2021 coup, violations of civic freedoms have continued unabated, with 117 protesters killed during protests. Others have faced detention, sexual violence and torture. 

Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the 25th October coup, a new research brief by CIVICUS, released today, looks at violations on civic freedoms taking place during the coup and in its aftermath.

Ongoing tensions between military and civilian factions in the government resulted in the 25th October 2021 coup d’etat by military leadership which sparked mass protests. Protests have been met with excessive and lethal force, with torture and ill-treatment of protesters documented in detention. 

The crisis was only compounded by internet disruptions and shutdowns, which created an information blockade, affecting the ability of the public to get accurate and up-to-date information.

One concerning development is how women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and women protesters have been targeted by sexual violence in an effort to silence them. As of 22 March 2022, 16 women were reportedly raped during protests in Khartoum. In one example, on 18th March 2022, an 18-year-old woman protester was gang raped by three members of the Central Reserve Forces, who threatened to kill her if she moved or screamed. 

“Sudanese civil society groups are facing increased restrictions on civic space and rising repression - equal to the conditions during the former regime. The increasing militarisation of the state is threatening the work of WHRDs in particular, as the coup leaders systemically use sexual and gender-based violence to crackdown on the pro-democracy movement,” said Nazik Kabalo, WHRD from Sudan.

Press freedom has also come under attack, with journalists facing detention and physical violence, while media outlets have been raided by security forces. For example, El Musalmi El Kabbashi, Sudan Bureau chief for Al-Jazeera in Khartoum was arrested and later released by security forces after they raided his home overnight. In another incident, three women journalists were subject to arrest, intimidation and sexual violence.

“Sudanese military leaders should end arbitrary arrests, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment against pro-democracy protesters and respect the right to peaceful assembly. They should foster a peaceful transition with civilian authorities that would lead to democratic elections and restore hope for democracy in the region,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space researcher, CIVICUS.

Sudan is currently rated ‘Repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 50 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).


More information

Download the Sudan research brief here.


Sudan is currently rated ‘Repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 50 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).

 

Philippines: Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee on the deterioration of civic space 

CIVICUS has submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Committee on the state of civic space in Philippines ahead of its review of the state’s implementation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 10 October 2022.   

In the submission, CIVICUS documented use of defamation and sedition laws to stifle dissent as well as ongoing harassment and attacks against journalists in the Philippines. A number of laws in the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines have been used to criminalise the freedom of expression and as such are inconsistent with the ICCPR. They include Article 154 (unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances), Articles 353 to 355 (libel), Article 357 (slander) and Article 139 (sedition).  Section 4(c)(4) of the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act criminalises online libel. 

There has also been closure of media outlets. Former President Duterte had been at odds with critical media outlets for reporting on his administration’s ‘war on drugs’. ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ top broadcaster, was forced off the air in May 2020 after it was ordered by the media regulator to stop operations as the network’s congressional franchise had expired and it was refused a new licence. CIVICUS has also documented cases of arrests, threats and the killing of journalists with impunity. 

The submission also notes that 1985 Public Assembly Act is still inconsistent with international law and standards and a proposed new law regulating public assemblies which was adopted by the House of Representatives in February 2018 and is currently before the Senate could allow for unlawful restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. CIVICUS has also documented a number of cases where the right to protest was restricted by the police arresting protesters and using unnecessary or excessive force again them. 

The phenomenon of ‘red-tagging’ – labelling individuals or groups as communists or terrorists – poses a serious threat to civil society and activists. ‘Red-tagging’ has been used for decades in the Philippines but according to human rights groups, ‘red-tagging’ became deadlier when Duterte became president in 2016. This label puts activists at grave risk of being targeted by the state and pro-government militias.  

Restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs have been documented. The authorities have also targeted activists directly by arresting and detaining them, often on fabricated charges. There have also been reports of evidence being planted by the police and military forces to justify arrests or violence against activists.  

CIVICUS has documented the extrajudicial killings of human rights defenders and activists. Accountability for these actions have been virtually non-existent. The draconian 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act includes a worryingly broad definition of terrorism and grants the Philippines police and military wide powers to detain suspects and relaxes accountability for law enforcement agents who violate the rights of suspects, particularly those in detention. 

The submission calls on the UN Human Rights Committee to make a series of recommendations including:  

  • Reform or repeal defamation legislation, immediately drop all charges or quash convictions against journalists and conduct prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigations into the killings, threats and harassment of journalists and bring the perpetrators to justice.  
  • Amend the 1985 Public Assembly Act in order to guarantee fully the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly in accordance with international law and standards and adopt best practices on the freedom of peaceful assembly, as put forward by the 2012 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association. 

  • Immediately end the red-tagging and vilification of CSOs and activists, ensure that HRDs are able to carry out their legitimate activities without fear or undue hindrance, obstruction, or legal and administrative harassment. Establish mechanisms to protect human rights defenders, including by adopting and implementing the Human Rights Defenders Bill and conduct prompt, thorough, impartial and effective investigations into the killings of human rights defenders and activists and bring the perpetrators to justice. 

Philippines is currently rated Repressed  by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 50 countries and territories in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see full description of ratings).  

More information

Download the Philippines research brief here


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Palestine: New Research brief documents escalation of attacks on civic freedoms

ARABIC

Civic freedoms in Palestine continue to deteriorate with an escalation of attacks on civil society organisations, journalists and Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) by the Israeli Occupying Forces (IOF).

Ahead of the United Nations Human Rights Council debate on Item 7, “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories, a new research brief by CIVICUS provides an overview of recent civic space restrictions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) perpetrated by both IOF and OPT authorities.

PalestineCountryBrief.September2022.en Page 01Violations documented as a result of Israel’s institutionalised regime of apartheid include the harassment and killing of journalists, protesters and HRDs, censoring Palestinian voices online and offline, and the forcible closure of civil society organisations (CSOs).

Israel’s targeting of CSOs escalated in 2021 after six leading Palestinian human rights organisations were designated as “terrorist organisations” under the Counter-Terrorism Law. On 18 August 2022, the IOF forcefully entered, raided, and sealed the entries to the offices of seven CSOs[1], confiscating and damaging property in some of the offices. Following the raid, the director of Al-Haq, one of the organisations targeted, was intimidated and threatened that he would pay a ‘personal price’ if Al-Haq continued its work.

To date, there has been no accountability for the killing of Palestinian-US Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed over four months ago, in May 2022, while reporting on an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, despite wearing a helmet and flak jacket marked “PRESS”.

Violations of Palestinians' digital rights are commonplace, with major social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Tik Tok complicit in silencing Palestinian voices. For example, during the Sheikh Jarrah protests, where families faced forced eviction and imminent threat by Israeli settler organisations, social media was one of the most important vehicles to share evidence of human rights violations. However, users were systematically silenced on an egregious scale, including by deletion of content, blocking or closing of accounts, hiding hashtags, and reducing content reach. Offline, Palestinians who continue to express their discontent by staging protests are often met with violence from the IOF and settlers.

In addition, violations of civic space and Palestinian human rights are committed by Palestinian authorities. Both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank are responsible for harassing, detaining and attacking activists, journalists and protesters.

“The deterioration of civic freedoms in Palestine due to increasing attacks by Israeli Occupying Forces can no longer be ignored. It's time for democratic governments to break their silence and condemn Israel's apartheid regime of systematic racial domination and oppression over the Palestinian people as a whole and to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Israel,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Officer. 


More information

Download the Palestine research brief in EnglishArabic


[1] The seven CSOs are: Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), Health Work Committees (HWC), the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC).

Palestine is currently rated ‘Repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 50 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).

 

 

Cambodia: New brief highlights lack of tangible improvements around civic space

As the state of civic space in Cambodia continues to regress, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, calls on the authorities to halt its persecution of activists, trade union activists, the opposition and others and end all restrictions on fundamental freedoms. The organisation also calls on the international community to increase its pressure on the Hun Sen regime to respect and protect human rights through the UN Human Rights Council and also directly in the country, ahead of the crucial 2023 elections

A new CIVICUS brief on restrictions to civic freedoms in Cambodia published today shows that following the Human Rights Council’s resolution adopted on 11 October 2021 there have been no tangible human rights improvements on the ground. Despite ongoing engagement and reporting by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and multiple resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council and recommendations, the Cambodian government has shown no political will to undertake democratic or and civic space reforms.

Cambodian human rights defenders and activists continue to face repression. Over the past year, vaguely worded charges of ‘incitement’ have been systematically used to harass and convict them. Highly politicised courts mean that those arbitrarily detained and charged are often held for prolonged periods in pretrial detention and have no chance of getting a fair trial. In May 2022, the Phnom Penh Appeal Court upheld the baseless September 2018 convictions of four members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), all of whom were previously imprisoned and convicted on spurious charges of bribery.

Hundreds of workers from the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), a casino workers’ union  continue to face repression for their activism since December 2021. Dozens have been arrested and at least 11 people have been charged. The authorities have blocked roads and dragged strikers, sometimes violently, onto city buses and driven them to the outskirts of the city, dropping them off. This action has been entirely arbitrary without any legal justification or reasoning. There have been incidents of strikers being violently pushed to the ground by the authorities, punched in the face by a uniformed officer and targeted with sexual harassment. Strikers have been detained at quarantine centres on charges of violating COVID-19 protocols.

Press freedom remains under attack in Cambodia. Radio stations and newspapers have been silenced, newsrooms purged, and journalists prosecuted, leaving the independent media sector devastated. A report published by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 3 August 2022 found that journalists in Cambodia are increasingly being subjected to various forms of harassment and pressure, as well as violence.

Further, the restrictive 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) continues to be used to restrict civil society groups. In January 2022, the Prey Lang Community Network and the Prey Preah Roka Forest Community Network were forcibly prevented from engaging in forest patrols to document and prevent illegal logging as they are not ‘registered’, a requirement under LANGO.

“Cambodia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which imposes obligations on states to respect and protect civic space. Despite the multiple resolutions at the Human Rights Council the authorities have instead continued to target human rights defenders, union activists and journalists with impunity. The government must drop all charges against them immediately as well as take steps to amend or repeal provisions in the Criminal Code that have been used to criminalise dissent” said Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific researcher for CIVICUS

The brief also highlights the ongoing politically motivated criminal charges faced by former members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). On 17 March 2022, the courts convicted 21 opposition politicians and activists on unsubstantiated charges of ‘incitement’, ‘inciting military personnel to disobedience’ and ‘plotting’. The courts convicted another 51 opposition politicians and CNRP activists on 14 June 2022 of ‘incitement’ and ‘conspiracy.’

Ahead of June 2022 commune elections, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) removed more than 100 candidates from the opposition Candlelight Party from the list of those standing. Members and activists of the Candlelight Party faced political harassment from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia noted various irregularities in the process. In July 2022, Candlelight Party Vice President Son Chhay was charged with defamation after he criticised the commune elections and the NEC.

Members of the ‘Friday Women’ movement who have been protesting since June 2020 against the jailing of their husbands, brothers and other relatives who were affiliated with the CNRP have been subject to heavy-handed tactics including being beaten, kicked, dragged along the ground and, in many cases, arrested. Those who have avoided jail are often followed by the police and subject to surveillance by local authorities.

“The criminalisation of the opposition in the last five years and recent efforts to harass and undermine new political parties during the commune elections is a signal of things to come next year, when the general elections are held. If the international community wants to see a free and fair elections in Cambodia it must step up efforts to call the government out on these violations and initiate stronger action at the Human Rights Council. Failure to do so will see the one-party regime further entrench itself in years to come,” added Benedict.

An interactive dialogue will be held at the Human Rights Council on 5 October with the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, who recently set out a 10 points rights agenda to improve the human rights situation in Cambodia, including to open up civic and political space and to end prosecution of the political opposition and human rights defenders. CIVICUS calls on States to raise the above concerns in the dialogue.


More information

Download the Cambodia research brief here.


Cambodia is currently rated ‘Repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 50 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).

 

Belarus: Overview of recent restrictions to civic freedoms

  • Authorities increasingly categorise civil society personnel and groups as extremist, in a bid to invalidate and criminalise their work, and subject them to prosecution and banning
  • Over 765 CSOs liquidated since August 2020 as authorities leverage legislative changes to issue liquidation orders
  • More amendments to domestic laws made to create new offences that criminalise civil society and its work
  • Prosecution for 2020 election protests continues with the total number of political prisoners rising to 1,254 by 19 July 2022

CIVICUS has produced a new research brief on the state of civic freedoms in Belarus. The repression of Belarusian civil society that followed disputed presidential elections in August 2020 continues relentlessly. Over the past year, the authorities have continued to charge and imprison thousands of protesters, designate civil society as ‘extremist’, disband civil society organisations (CSOs) and media outlets and amend laws to allow prosecution of activists who are outside Belarus.

Civil Society Actors Targeted as Extremists

Over the last year, the authorities in Belarus have used a range of tactics to intimidate and criminalise the work of civil society. As has been documented in several CIVICUS Monitor updates, the categorisation of civil society personnel and groups as 'extremist', in a bid to invalidate and criminalise their work, has become an increasingly common practice. Activists, journalists and independent media have been targeted with this classification, which subjects them to prosecution and being banned.

765 CSOs Liquidated Since 2020

The process of liquidating CSOs has continued over the past year in Belarus. As government authorities continue to accuse CSOs of extremist actions, as discussed above, they have leveraged legislative changes to issue liquidation orders. By May 2022, the number of liquidated CSOs reached 765. Of these, 448 were forcibly liquidated by the authorities and 317 decided to self-liquidate.

Amendments to Law Further Rein in Activists

Amendments to domestic law have been made over the last two years by the authorities in order to create new offences that criminalise civil society and its work. In May 2022, an amendment to the Criminal Code was tabled in parliament, which if passed will make it possible to prosecute people outside the country’s national borders.


More information

Download the Belarus research brief here.

 

South Sudan: Overview of recent restrictions to civic freedoms

  • Civil society groups criminalised
  • Protests systematically repressed by authorities
  • National Security Service (NSS) officials on the spot for systematic harassment
  • Blatant attacks on journalists by state and non-state actors continue

CIVICUS has produced a new report on the state of civic freedoms in South Sudan. Since the 2015 Peace Deal, restrictions to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association have persisted.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

Arbitrary arrests and violence against protesters

Arbitrary arrest, intimidation and use of force against protesters has characterised the authorities’ response to peaceful protests. Over the last year, there have been reported recurring incidents of law enforcement officials violently dispersing protests and intimidating and arbitrarily arresting protesters.

Freedom of Expression

Arbitrary arrests and harassment of journalists and media outlets

During the past year, cases of harassment, raids on media outlets and arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists by NSS officials, often without charges, were reported. These practices seem solely intended to disrupt media work and intimidate journalists.

Freedom of Association

Criminalisation of civil society organisations and their activities 

On 17 July 2021, the National Security Service (NSS) raided and disbanded an event organised by the South Sudan Civil Society Forum to discuss the constitutional history of South Sudan. According to the NSS, ‘only parliament is authorised to discuss the constitution’.


More information

Download the South Sudan research brief here.

 

Afghanistan: The Taliban's assault on rights, a year on from its takeover

Report highlights assault on civic space by the Taliban and need for more action from the international community

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Over the last year, the Taliban has overseen a systematic assault on civic space, which is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor

This new CIVICUS report The Taliban’s assault on civic space, a year on from its takeover, shows that human rights defenders have lived in a climate of fear since the Taliban takeover and have faced harassment and threats. While some human rights defenders have been able to leave the country, the lack of adequate documents and the impossibility of obtaining visas for many countries make it extremely difficult for them to leave and forcing them into hiding.

Activists have also been arbitrarily arrested and detained for their criticism of the Taliban. Some have also been killed. There has also been abductions of women human rights defenders by the Taliban with impunity.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are being targeted for their work and restricted by the Taliban. According to reports by human rights groups, there have been raids and searches of CSO offices by the Taliban and some have had their bank accounts frozen. Women’s rights programmes have also been halted by the Taliban and most CSO offices have closed, fearing reprisals.

Following the Taliban takeover, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the Taliban and demand their rights. In Kabul and other cities, the Taliban responded with excessive force, gunfire and beatings to disperse crowds, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters.

The Taliban have also sought to repress protests, especially by women’s rights activists over the year, disrupting their protests by firing shots into the air, detaining, interrogating and ill-treating them. In some cases, teargas and batons were used. The Taliban also assaulted journalists and confiscated their equipment to stop them covering the protests. Some of the women’s rights activists have also been intimidated and coerced to air so-called confessions in which women say activists based outside the country had told them to protest.

Journalists are at increased risk following the Taliban takeover. Scores have been arrested, detained, tortured or ill-treated, or attacked for covering the situation on the ground.

The Taliban has also shut down key institutions. Following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was shut down, depriving women’s rights groups of a key channel for survivors of gender based-violence seeking protection and services. In October 2021, the Taliban seized the offices of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and in May 2022, dissolved the commission saying it was ‘not considered necessary’. It has also taken over Afghanistan’s Independent Bar Association (AIBA).

Activists who have fled Afghanistan, particularly those in Central Asia, Pakistan and Turkey, are experiencing various challenges, including running out of funds, expiration of their visas and a lack of programmes for resettlement.

The international community has taken some steps in response to the situation in Afghanistan. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in October 2021 to appoint, for one year, a Special Rapporteur to monitor the status of human rights in Afghanistan. In May 2022, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, appointed in April 2022, undertook his first visit to the country. In July 2022, the Human Rights Council passed a consensus resolution affirming its commitment to equal rights for women in Afghanistan and called for representative participation in an organised dialogue on the issue at the next Council session.

The UN General Assembly, in December 2021, indefinitely postponed international recognition of the Taliban government. The resolution adopted by consensus effectively held off any decision on recognition for at least 10 months. In March 2022 the UN Security Council decided to extend the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for one year.

However, all these efforts have fallen short of the calls made by Afghan civil society activists over the year for the UN to establish a fact-finding mission or similar independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan, end all exemptions for sanctioned Taliban leaders if there is no progress on human rights and increase efforts to provide urgent support and protection for all Afghan human rights defenders, including those in exile.

In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the international community:

  • Call on the Taliban to ensure all people in Afghanistan can exercise their rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and end the harassment, abuse, arbitrary arrest and detention of all protesters.
  • Take proactive steps to provide immediate practical support and protection to human rights defenders, journalists and civil society activists at risk, including those in exile.
  • Call on the Taliban to reinstate the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
  • Support efforts to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and other serious human rights violations, including gendered dimensions of such violations and abuses, by all parties in Afghanistan, via the establishment of an independent investigative mechanism, such as a fact-finding mission or commission of inquiry, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council.
  • Call on the UN Security Council to facilitate inclusive, intra-Afghan peace talks with the effective representation of human rights defenders, particularly women and representation from all ethnic groups, and include guarantees of safety and effective and equitable representation of views.
  • Ensure that political recognition and representation is not extended to Taliban-affiliated authorities.

Afghanistan is currently rated ‘Repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 50 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).

More information

Download the Afghanistan research brief here


Interviews

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Kenya: Stop restrictions on civic freedoms ahead of national elections, says new report

  • Excessive force used against protesters
  • Twitter accounts shut down over calls to lower prices of food & basic commodities
  • Attacks on freedom of speech & political interference with media and judiciary

As Kenyans head to the polls on 9 August to elect a new president, a new report by global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) highlights the decline in civic rights in the country and urges the authorities to respect fundamental freedoms during this crucial period. Protest restrictions, attacks on journalists and the misuse of laws are of particular concern. 

According to the new research brief, Kenyan authorities have used excessive force to clamp down on protests and suppress dissent in the run-up to the election. Recent demonstrations to protest the rising cost of food under the hashtag #Njaa-Revolution (‘Hunger Revolution’) have been met with unlawful arrests, detention and brutal force; in April, human rights defender Julius Kamau was violently assaulted outside the National Treasury after protesting rising food prices.  Lethal and crowd control weapons such as live ammunition, teargas and rubber bullets are commonly used by police to disperse gatherings. 

CIVICUS and the KHRC are also concerned about the misuse of laws to undermine peaceful protest. The Public Order Act, a law from the British colonial period, requires activists to notify authorities of protests at least 3 days in advance. However, there have been cases of authorities tearing up notification letters and refusing to receive them. 

Also, police have mistakenly understood the provision as a requirement for protests to be approved or denied, using it as an excuse to deem protests ‘unpermitted’, as was seen on 28 June 2022 when a letter notifying police about an intended protest by the Social Justice Centre, a Nairobi-based grassroots group, was rejected without explanation. Although the right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed in Kenya’s constitution, it is continually undermined.
 
“The right to peacefully protest is fundamental in any functioning democracy. Authorities and law enforcement bodies must respect and ensure citizens can exercise their civic rights, this is critical in ensuring inclusive participation in the electoral process,” said Sylvia Mbataru, East Africa Researcher, CIVICUS.
 
As the space for street protests becomes more closed and restricted, activists have turned to social media to air their grievances. The #NjaaRevolution attracted a huge online following with its calls to control soaring prices and other basic commodities. In May, the movement was silenced by Twitter with over 20 accounts being suspended for ‘violating Twitter Rules’ and acting ‘suspiciously’ - no further justification was given. Suspending the online accounts of major activists in the run-up to elections is tantamount to censorship.
 
Attacks on freedom of speech extend to journalists. Incidents and violations against the press are on the rise ahead of elections, including the assault of two journalists covering an event at Raila Odinga’s party headquarters in March 2022. In a separate incident a Citizen TV journalist, Martin Kosgey, was threatened via text after airing a story implicating a governor's bodyguard in a murder case. Kosgey also reported that he had received intelligence that there was a plan to harm him over the story.  
 
The apparent political capture of the country’s media regulatory body has also contributed to a decline in press freedom. In November 2021, President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed a new head of the Communications Authority, seemingly consolidating the ruling party's power over a strategically important body that is supposed to be non-partisan.  
 
The possibility of political interference undermines the body's mandate to serve as a watchdog for public media and to monitor the operations of the state news agency. In theory, the authority is responsible for ensuring fair and impartial reporting for the upcoming elections, but there is a risk that it will be used to limit the space for independent media.
 
Political interference in Kenya’s democratic institutions also extends to the judiciary. Most notably, in 2021 when the president defied the constitution by refusing to swear in six judges nominated by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Judicial Officers have also been subjected to numerous attacks from the political elite and the executive.
 
Kenya was placed on the CIVICUS Monitor’s human rights ‘Watchlist’ in June 2022. The Watchlist highlights countries where there has been a recent and steady decline in civic freedoms, including the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly.

Kenya is currently rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are 42 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where power holders heavily contest civic space and impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see the full description of ratings).

More information

Download the Kenya research brief here


Interviews

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Hong Kong: Submission to the UN Human Rights Committee on the deterioration of civic space

CIVICUS has submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Committee on the state of civic space in Hong Kong ahead of its review of the state’s implementation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 7 July 2022.  

In the submission, CIVICUS documented an alarming deterioration of the right to freedom of expression in Hong Kong since 2018, including the use of restrictive laws to silence dissent and criminalise human rights defenders and journalists. Specifically, the National Security Law (NSL) which punishes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”. all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison. These offences are vaguely defined and have easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with heavy penalties.  

Press freedom is under assault in Hong Kong. Media outlets have been targeted with raids and forced to closed and journalists have been criminalised. Foreign reporters have also been subjected to new restrictions under the NSL. 

Academic freedom has come under serious threat since 2020. Several pro-democracy scholars have had their employment terminated by universities in Hong Kong, while school administrators have been told to help ‘prevent and suppress’ acts that could violate the NSL. Academic research is being closely monitored in Hong Kong, and there has been a crackdown on student organisations. 

The submission also notes how the Hong Kong authorities have also continued to prosecute and convict peaceful protesters involved in demonstrations, including pro-democracy leaders. They are often charged for organizing, inciting participation or participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’ under the Public Order Ordinance, which requires organisers to notify police of demonstrations involving more than 30 people at least seven days in advance, and requires organisers to get a ‘notice of no objection’ from the government before proceeding. The charge of ‘unauthorised assembly’ carries up to five years in prison. 

Police officers have been recorded beating and using pepper spray and teargas on people during protests in 2019, including those subdued on the ground; shooting and blinding several individuals; unnecessarily tackling protesters to the ground, including pregnant women, children and older people; and giving patently improbable and outright false explanations about their actions in press conferences. According to human rights groups, no police officers alleged to have committed abuses during the 2019 protests have been held accountable.  

The submission highlights how the right to freedom of association, has been undermined by the introduction of the NSL in 2020. This dramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carry out their work. The entire staff of some organisations quit on the eve of the law’s introduction. While some civil society organisations (CSOs) and pro-democracy movements have disbanded or shut their offices, others have instead exercised greater caution in their activities. Unions have also been forced to disband. The authorities are also investigating CSOs about their fundraising. The chilling effect of the crackdown on civil society cannot be overstated. 

The submission calls on the UN Human Rights Committee to make a series of recommendations including: 

  • Take steps to repeal the National Security Law as it is not compliant with the ICCPR and drop all criminal proceedings against human rights defenders, activists, journalists, political figures and others who have been targeted solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to the freedom of expression and ensure that those already detained are immediately and unconditionally released. 

  • Abolish provisions in Part III of the Cap. 245 Public Order Ordinance relating to the need for permission for protests and bring the ordinance in line with the ICCPR and establish a fully independent, impartial, effective and prompt investigation into all cases of excessive use of force by police, arbitrary arrest and detention of peaceful protesters; 

  • Take measures to foster a safe and enabling environment for civil society, including by removing legal and policy measures that unwarrantedly limit the freedom of association and refrain from acts leading to the closure of CSOs or the suspension of their peaceful activities.  

Hong Kong is currently rated Repressed  by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 50 countries and territories in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see full description of ratings). 

More information

Download the Hong Kong research brief here


Interviews

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Hungary: Orbán and Fidesz party election victory spells further concerns for civic freedoms 

  • ‘Biased and unbalanced news coverage’ during election favouring the ruling party
  • Civil society face orchestrated smear campaigns 
  • Government passes decree which bans independent journalists from accessing hospitals

Global alliance CIVICUS and the Civil Liberties Union for Europe are concerned about civic freedoms in Hungary following Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party’s landslide victory in April’s parliamentary elections, which were declared free but not fair. 

A new research brief provides a snapshot of the recent decline in civic freedoms under the Orbán government which has repeatedly targeted civil society, independent journalists and LGBTQI+ rights.

The government has politically captured key media regulatory bodies resulting in diminishing space for independent media to operate, with the public media sector now a de facto mouthpiece of the government.  The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that the elections were not fair as there was “biased and unbalanced news coverage” in favour of the ruling party.

Threats to LGBTQI+ rights have continued unabated, with the government passing several laws that restrict and target these rights. Although the results of the government’s referendum on its ‘anti-LGBTQI+ propaganda’ law, which took place at the same time as the election, was declared invalid, 16 LGBTQI+ rights CSOs who campaigned against the referendum have been fined by the National Election Committee. 

In the build up to the elections, Magyar Nemzet, a leading pro-government daily online site,  published secret recordings of interviews which were aimed at discrediting civil society and independent media and reshared by the Hungarian government. Similar methods were used to  smear civil society activists critical of the government during the previous general elections.  

“During his victory speech, the Prime Minister took a moment to pinpoint his enemies which include civil society, bureaucrats in Brussels and the Ukrainian President. This is a clear signal that Orbán and his party will only continue to diminish civic freedoms. There is no doubt that attacks on civil society, independent journalism and LGBTQI+ rights will worsen in the coming years,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Lead, Europe, CIVICUS.

The government has also continuously attempted to intimidate civil society. Although it repealed the Lex-NGO foreign funding law, which was found in violation of EU law, it introduced a new bureaucratic measure which requires the State Audit Office to report annually on the financial status of certain NGOs. 

Surveillance of journalists is a tactic used by the government in an attempt to silence dissent, while denying independent media access to press conferences and information has become commonplace. The government recently went over a Supreme court ruling to pass a decree so that it can decide on press and media accreditation for journalists to access hospitals. It has repeatedly used the pandemic as a pretext to restrict access to information on COVID-19 for independent media. 

“A pluralistic media landscape and a healthy  civil society guarantee citizens' access to reliable information about public matters. The Orban government has been doing everything in its power to undermine or eliminate both. By dominating most of the media landscape and trying to silence independent voices, the governing Fidesz party hopes to cement its power for the coming decades to dismantle democracy and cover up widespread corruption,” said Orsolya Reich, senior advocacy officer, Civil Liberties Union for Europe.

The European Commission has triggered its new rule of law conditionality mechanism which could see it cutting funds to Hungary. We call on the commission to act swiftly against Hungary through this mechanism. 

“The European Union must stand up for the rights and principles enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and introduce strategies and legislation capable of reversing the democratic decline in Europe. It must design a well-thought-through European Media Freedom Act with strong guarantees and enforcement mechanisms, and a European civic space strategy capable of empowering democratic voices,” said Reich.

Hungary is currently rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 43 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see full description of ratings). Hungary is one of two countries in the European Union with an Obstructed rating, the other is Poland.


More information

Download the Hungary country research brief here


Interviews

CIVICUS:
Civil Liberties Union for Europe :Orsolya Reich,  

 

 

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 

 

 

Myanmar: The deterioration of civic freedoms a year on from the coup

On 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military junta seized power in a coup. The junta arrested the civilian leaders of the national and state governments and declared a state of emergency.

The junta unleashed a deadly crackdown following mass mobilisation by a ‘civil disobedience movement against the coup. In the last year, peaceful protests have been violently disrupted. The junta arbitrarily arresting or prosecuting activists, students, protesters and journalists, and political prisoners have been tortured or ill-treated. The junta have shut off various communications services – including mobile services and internet access, blocked humanitarian aid and attacked entire villages, forcibly displacing tens of thousands.

The UN and numerous countries condemned the coup, and some members of the international community have imposed sanctions. But regional efforts to address the crisis or halt the grave human rights violations have been minimal. The five-point consensus agreement decided by ASEAN leaders in Jakarta in April 2021 has seen little tangible progress.

Nearly a year after the coup, serious violations are still being reported daily – some of which may amount to crimes against humanity - and the human rights and humanitarian crisis continues unabated in Myanmar.

Lethal crackdown on protests

Mass protests and strikes took place across Myanmar against the coup. Under the banner of the civil disobedience movement (CDM), doctors, teachers and other civil servants mobilised alongside students and the workers’ movement.

In response, the Myanmar security forces intensified their crackdown on protests using violent crowd dispersal techniques. The use of water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound grenades escalated to battlefield weapons, including assault rifles, light machine guns, sniper rifles and live grenades. Large numbers of battle-hardened troops were deployed into towns and cities to quell the protests. The human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) has reported 1,493 individuals killed as of 25 January 2022.

Facing increasing violence from the security forces, demonstrators attempted to protect themselves with homemade shields and construct barricades across roads. Despite this, hundreds have been killed and thousands injured. Nevertheless, protests have persisted.

Arrest and criminalisation of activists and protesters

According to AAPPB, a total of 8788 individuals are currently in detention. They include human rights defenders, lawyers, trade unionists, student activists, LGBTQI+ activists, poets, writers, filmmakers and monks. Some were taken in terrifying night-time raids. Others were abducted off the streets, held in secret facilities out of contact with their families and denied access to lawyers. Hundreds of political prisoners have been held in Insein Prison, one of Myanmar’s most notorious jails, on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.

In  February 2021, the military regime announced amendments to the Penal Code to stifle dissent. Following the coup, a new ‘incitement’ provision, section 505A, was added to criminalise comments that could “cause fear,” spread “false news, [or] agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offence against a Government employee” – which would include any comments on the illegitimacy of the coup or the military government. Violation of the section is punishable by up to three years in prison.

The junta also significantly broadened the “treason” provisions in section 124 of the Penal Code. Section124A already criminalised comments that “bring into hatred or contempt” or “excite disaffection against” the government. This was expanded to include comments relating to the defence services and defence services personnel, effectively criminalising any criticism of the military or military personnel. Violation of the section is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Following the coup, these provisions and other trumped-up charges have been brought against activists and protesters. In further attempts to spread fear, Myanmar’s junta have arrested family members of dissidents in an effort to pressure the dissidents to turn themselves in.

Journalists at risk

The junta has systematically targeted journalists since the coup. Over 100 journalists have been arrested, and at least 26 are still imprisoned as of 1 December 2021. Many were detained during newsroom raids or while covering anti-coup street protests. The junta published lists of journalists wanted for providing information about the pro-democracy protests; unsurprisingly, a number of journalists have gone into hiding or have had to flee the country.

Many have been charged for violating section 505(a) of the penal code, a new provision that makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” Other charges brought against journalists include alleged violations of the Telecommunications Act, the Immigration Act, the Unlawful Association Act, the Insubordination Act and the Natural Disaster Prevention Law.

In October 2021, it was reported that three journalists jailed by the junta are now facing terrorism charges that could see them sentenced to several years in prison. The journalists are Win Naing Oo, a senior Channel Mandalay reporter, D Myat Nyein, a reporter with the now-defunct Zayar Times in Sagaing Region, and Pyae Phyo Aung, who worked for the same outlet.

Civil society organisations affected

The coup has also had a negative impact on civil society organisations due to the legal, financial, and other threats civil society groups are facing. According to a report commissioned by the PROTECT Consortium, one immediate impact of the coup was that many CSOs were forced to reduce or suspend their operations or close their offices. Important documents and files had to move to safer places in different locations, and civil society leaders fearing their lives had to go into hiding or leave the country.

There are also concerns about the renewal of registration of CSOs, which is granted on a five-year basis and which allows them, among other things, to open organisation bank accounts in the country and receive funding from international donors. Requirements to regularly report on organisational activities is another security concern for registered organisations, as it will be dangerous to share full details about their work. CSOs are also concerned about long term funding given the completely different operating environment in the country post-coup.

Crackdown on politicians and lawmakers

Since the junta took control, more than 600 elected lawmakers and officials from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party have been detained in different parts of the country. According to recent reports, more than three-quarters remain in detention.

In April 2021, the junta declared the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government  formed by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – deposed lawmakers, who had been elected in November 2020 – as an “illegal organisation.” In May 2021, the CRPH and NUG were designated as ‘terrorist groups’. The declaration means that anyone arrested on suspicion of affiliation with the groups would face 10 years to life imprisonment if convicted, according to the country’s Counterterrorism Law.

The ousted de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been found guilty of incitement against the military under Section 505 (b) and for alleged breaches of COVID-19 measures under Section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law and for possessing “illegally imported” walkie-talkies. She faces other politically-motivated charges, including corruption and election fraud, which carry a total potential sentence of more than 100 years in prison.

Torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners

There have been continued reports of torture or ill-treatment of political prisoners by the military junta in various prisons and detention centres and, in particular, in Insein Prison, one of Myanmar’s most notorious jails, situated on the outskirts of Yangon.

In May 2021, it was reported that political prisoners were tortured during interrogation at the hands of authorities. Many were tortured in military compounds, where fellow inmates also suffered abuse while blindfolded throughout intake interrogations. Prisoners were forced to eat from the concrete floor with hands cuffed behind their backs. In June 2021, it was reported that 32 young activists who were arrested for opposing the military coup were tortured during the interrogation process in the Tanintharyi Region. They were made to kneel and were beaten with belts, sticks, metal pipes and chains.

A report by the Associated Press (AP) in October 2021 found that the junta has been torturing those it has detained in a methodical and systemic way across the country. While most of the torture has occurred inside military compounds, the military has also transformed public facilities such as community halls into makeshift interrogation centres, with multiple military units and police involved in interrogations. The military has taken steps to hide evidence that it has tortured prisoners, with several prisoners saying interrogators brutalised only the parts of their bodies that could be hidden by clothes. Most inmates slept on concrete floors, packed like sardines. Some became sick from drinking dirty water only available from a shared toilet. Cockroaches swarmed over their bodies at night. There was little to no medical treatment.

The All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) said in January 2022 that it had evidence that three of its members had been tortured by having bamboo sticks thrust inside their rectums in the notorious Mandalay Palace interrogation centre. All three have been denied treatment for their injuries.

Teachers and health workers targeted

Civil servants in Myanmar have been involved in the civilian disobedience movement from the start and have been targeted by the junta for their resistance. In May 2021, it was reported that the military junta had suspended more than 125,000 schoolteachers and 19,500 university staff for joining the movement.

Health workers have been targeted for participating in the protest movement and providing medical care to injured civilians. A report by Insecurity Insight, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and Johns Hopkins University Center for Public Health and Human Rights (CPHHR) in August 2021 found that there had been at least 252 attacks and threats against health workers, facilities and transport. 190 health workers were arrested, 37 health workers were injured, and 25 health workers were killed. Hospitals were raided at least 86 times and occupied by the junta at least 55 times.

Communications blockade

As the military coup was underway in February 2021, internet and phone outages were imposed in several parts of the country. Data from the internet monitoring service Netblocks shows disruptions on network operators, including state-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) and an international operator, Telenor.

Over the year, the junta has attempted to block various forms of communications to interfere with protestors organising and make it harder for citizens, journalists, and human rights activists to broadcast what was happening on the ground to the rest of the world.

Multiple telecoms companies have been ordered to shut off various communications services, including mobile data, roaming and public wi-fi, for varying lengths of time.

In March 2021, the junta amended the Electronic Transactions Law to prevent the free flow of information and criminalise the dissemination of information through cyberspace, including expression critical of the coup or the acts of the junta. They include provisions

that provide criminal penalties for “unauthorised” access to online material and for the creation of “misinformation or disinformation with the intent of causing public panic, loss of trust or social division on cyberspace.”

In May 2021, the junta added a ban on satellite television to existing restrictions on the internet which appeared to be targeted at independent Burmese language broadcasters such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and Mizzima.

Internet users in at least seven townships in the Sagaing and Mandalay regions experienced limited or no service since 14 September 2021. This came a week after Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG) announced the start of a “resistance war” against the regime. On 23 September 2021, the junta cut off mobile internet access and most wi-fi services to 11 townships in Chin State and the Magway Region war-torn areas.

Restrictions and attacks on humanitarian groups

The junta has continued to shell, conduct airstrikes, and raid and torch villages across the country, targeting the resistance movement and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO) - which have taken public positions against the coup - and displacing tens of thousands of civilians. According to the UN, as of 27 December 2021, an estimated 320,900 people remained internally displaced across Myanmar due to clashes and insecurity since the coup.

In December 2021, Human Rights Watch reported that the junta had imposed new travel restrictions on humanitarian workers, blocked access roads and aid convoys, destroyed non-military supplies and attacked aid workers. The junta’s interference in relief operations has disregarded calls for unhindered aid delivery by the UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Security Council, the European Parliament, and donor governments.

Two Save the Children’s staff members were among at least 35 people, including women and children, who were killed on 24 December 2021 in a brutal attack by the Myanmar military in Kayah State, in the east of the country.

The regional and international response

Human rights groups have continued to criticise ASEAN for its failure to address the human rights violations in Myanmar and for shielding the Myanmar military from international pressure and accountability.

Immediately following the coup, ASEAN was divided on a collective response. On 24 April 2021, a regional ASEAN summit was held in Jakarta. A statement released after the summit said ASEAN leaders and foreign ministers had finally reached a consensus on five points. They included asking for an immediate cessation of the violence and opening a dialogue between the military and civilian leaders, with the process overseen by a special ASEAN envoy who would visit with a delegation. The group also offered humanitarian assistance. However, the statement made no mention of the thousands who have been arbitrarily detained by the military, including activists, peaceful protesters and journalists and offered no timeline for these actions to be taken or an implementing mechanism. The summit also failed to acknowledge the National Unity Government (NUG).

On 4 August 2021, ASEAN finally appointed Erywan Yusof, the second foreign minister of Brunei Darussalam, as its special envoy to Myanmar more than 100 days after the Jakarta meeting. Myanmar civil society groups rejected the appointment and expressed “deep disappointment with ASEAN and their lack of inclusive decision-making process”.

In an unprecedented move, ASEAN agreed in October 2021 to bar Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing over his failure to implement the five-point consensus. Southeast Asian leaders voiced disappointment at the Myanmar junta during the first day of their annual meeting. In November 2021, however, Cambodia took over the chairmanship of ASEAN Expectations of any further positive steps have been low.

In early January 2022, civil society groups slammed as ‘rogue diplomacy’ the visit of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, on behalf of Cambodia and as Chair of ASEAN, to Myanmar to meet with the junta representative, General Min Aung Hlaing. They called on ASEAN to refrain from further actions that legitimise the junta and effectively implement the five-point consensus. The visit was conducted without consensus from other ASEAN member states, as leaders were divided on this matter.

At the international level, the UN Security Council has called for an immediate cessation of violence across Myanmar and efforts to ensure the safety of civilians. It has failed to impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar as demanded by civil society groups. China and Russia, which hold veto power on the Security Council and neighbouring India, are the major arms providers to Myanmar. The UN Human Rights Council has also deplored the removal of the elected government, called for the unconditional release of all those arbitrarily detained, and highlighted the need for accountability.

Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States have imposed various targeted sanctions against Myanmar’s top military officials and military-controlled companies. However, no governments have imposed sanctions or other economic blocks on the junta’s oil and natural gas revenues, its single largest source of foreign currency.

Recommendations to ASEAN and the international community:

  • Call upon the military junta to release all individuals arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, journalists, protesters, politicians, civil society members and refrain from the use of excessive force and firearms against protesters
  • Urge the military junta to allow unfettered Internet access, including on all mobile phone networks, lift all restrictions on access to media sites social media platforms and refrain from imposing any further restrictions against the use of the internet.
  • Raise concerns publicly in multilateral fora including the upcoming Human Rights Council, and renew the Human Rights Council resolution on Myanmar to maintain the crucial UN Special Rapporteur mandate
  • Engage with the National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimate government of Myanmar, including in multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly.
  • Urge the Security Council to immediately impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar and cooperate fully with UN mandates.
  • Cooperate with international mechanisms to meaningfully implement the ASEAN five-point consensus and to hold the junta accountable for its crimes
  • Take proactive steps in providing humanitarian assistance, particularly in ethnic and ceasefire areas.
  • Provide material and diplomatic support to civil society, journalists and activists at risk.

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Triggers for urgent action by the United Nations Human Rights Council

This report is a written output of a nine-month long applied research project in association with The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is the foremost body when it comes to human rights. One of its mandates is to address human rights emergencies, which it does through special sessions and urgent debates. This ‘urgent action’ mechanism allows the Council to address emerging human rights crises rather than merely dealing with their aftermath. Yet, the UNHRC addresses human rights emergencies unevenly, giving some regions and situations much more attention than others. In order to understand why, this research seeks to identify “unofficial” triggers that lead to urgent action.

The identification of triggers influencing urgent action at the Council was pursued through the investigation of two cases, namely human rights violations in Myanmar and Ethiopia. Throughout this research, seven triggers were identified:

  1. Intra-council Procedures
  2. Issue Emergence
  3. Transnational Advocacy Networks
  4. Regional Blocs
  5. Geopolitics
  6. Regional and Parallel Human Rights Mechanisms
  7. Communication and Media

Donwload the report 

 

13 countries downgraded in ratings report as civic rights deteriorate globally

 

2021 global data report from the CIVICUS Monitor

  • 9 out of 10 people live in countries where civic freedoms are severely restricted 
  • Country downgrades include Poland, Singapore, Nicaragua, Jordan and South Africa

  • Detention of protesters is the top violation of civic freedoms in 2021

  • COVID-19 continues to be used as a pretext to restrict rights across the globe

The fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association continue to deteriorate year after year worldwide, according to a global report released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online research platform that tracks fundamental freedoms in 197 countries and territories. The new report, People Power Under Attack 2021, shows that the number of people living in countries with significant restrictions on civic rights, including the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, amount to almost 89% of the population this year.

The CIVICUS Monitor data shows that year after year, there is significantly less space for people to exercise fundamental freedoms: only 3.1% of the world’s population lives in countries rated as ‘open’.

Nearly two billion people live in countries with the worst rating, ‘closed’, where the authorities are routinely allowed to imprison, injure and kill people for attempting to exercise their fundamental freedoms. China, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and 21 other countries fall under this category - Nicaragua and Belarus joined their ranks this year. 

It is nearly two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the virus is having a dire impact on civic freedoms globally, one that will have lasting impact if remedial action is not taken. Our research shows the detention of protesters and the use of restrictive laws to muzzle dissent are becoming more prevalent, as governments use the pandemic to introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms. 

“Governments across the world are setting a very dangerous precedent by using the health emergency as a smokescreen to crack down on protests and enact or amend legislation that will further limit peoples’ rights. Specifically, disinformation legislation is being enacted and used to criminalise speech, a concerning practice that could become the new norm to crush dissent,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Cluster Lead. 

This year, 13 countries have been downgraded and only one improved their rating.  The CIVICUS Monitor is particularly concerned about civic space restrictions in Europe, where four countries dropped a rating: Belarus, Belgium, Czech Republic, and Poland. Europe has the greatest number of ‘open’ countries, but year after year we continue to see signs of serious deterioration.

Also alarming is the deterioration of civic space conditions in Africa, where South Africa, Botswana, Mali and Mozambique all dropped ratings. In the Americas, Nicaragua joined Cuba in our worst category, ‘closed’. The Middle East and North Africa retained its status as the region with the worst civic rights record, with Jordan being downgraded to ‘repressed’. In Asia, Singapore also fell into the ‘repressed’ category, as a persistent clamp down on dissent and opposition voices continues. 

“What we are seeing is not a proportional reaction to a health emergency, where restrictions are meant to be extraordinary measures to deal with a crisis that is temporary. On the contrary, governments are using the pandemic as a pretext to further accelerate the crackdown on human rights that we have been documenting over the past years.” 

Although only one country - Mongolia - improved its rating in 2021, it is important to highlight the resilience of civil society. Governments have not been successful in silencing alternative voices or limiting their activism. Despite increasing restrictions, civil society has found ways to continue to speak up and claim their rights.  

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 550 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2021. 

Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several data sources on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
 

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As the climate crisis intensifies, so does the crackdown on environmental activism, finds new report

New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor examines the crackdown of environmental activism and profiles important victories civil society has scored in the fight for climate justice.

  • Environmental protests are being criminalised and met with repression on all continents
  • State authorities and private companies are common perpetrators of violations to civic freedoms
  • Despite the risks and restrictions, activist groups continue to score important victories to advance climate justice.

As world leaders meet in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Negotiations (COP26), peaceful environmental activists are being threatened, silenced and criminalised around the world. The host of this year's meeting is one of many countries where activists are regularly facing rights violations.

New research from the CIVICUS Monitor looks at the common tactics and restrictions being used by governments and private companies to suppress environmental movements. The research brief “Defenders of our planet: Resilience in the face of restrictions” focuses on three worrying trends: Bans and restrictions on protests; Judicial harassment and legal persecution; and the use of violence, including targeted killings.

As the climate crisis intensifies, activists and civil society groups continue to mobilise to hold policymakers and corporate leaders to account. From Brazil to South Africa, activists are putting their lives on the line to protect lands and to halt the activities of high-polluting industries. The most severe rights abuses are often experienced by civil society groups that are standing up to the logging, mining and energy giants who are exploiting natural resources and fueling global warming.

As people take to the streets, governments have been instituting bans that criminalise environmental protests. Recently governments have used COVID-19 as a pretext to disrupt and break up demonstrations. Data from the CIVICUS Monitor indicates that the detention of protesters and the use of excessive force by authorities are becoming more prevalent.

In Cambodia in May 2021, three environmental defenders were sentenced to 18 to 20 months in prison for planning a protest  against the filling of a lake in the capital. While in Finland this past June, over 100 activists were arrested for participating in a protest calling for the government to take urgent action on climate change. From authoritarian countries to  mature democracies, the research also profiles those who have been put behind bars for peacefully protesting.

“Silencing activists and denying them of their fundamental civic rights is another tactic being used by leaders to evade and delay action on climate change” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Research Lead for the CIVICUS Monitor. “Criminalising nonviolent protests has become a troubling indicator that governments are not committed to saving the planet .”

The report shows that many of the measures being deployed by governments to restrict rights are not compatible with international law. Examples of courts and legislative bodies reversing attempts to criminalise nonviolent climate protests are few and far between.

Despite the increased risks and restrictions facing environmental campaigners, the report also shows that a wide range of campaigns have scored important victories, including the closure of mines and numerous hazardous construction projects. Equally significant has been the rise of climate litigation by activist groups. Ironically, as authorities take activists to court for exercising their fundamental right to protest, activist groups have successfully filed lawsuits against governments and companies in over 25 countries for failing to act on climate change.


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Know Your Rights: Protest guidebook & phonebook

KNOW UR RIGHTS Final

Do you know your rights when it comes to Peaceful Assembly?

Produced by CIVICUS and VUKA!, the Know Your Rights guide answers over 20 common questions on which activities related to peaceful protests are protected under international law. It covers important issues such as legal policing practices, accountability mechanisms for violations, as well as practical information on equipment and location considerations for peaceful assemblies. This FAQ guide is based on the United Nations General Comment #3, which details the responsibilities of states in upholding the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

This guide is available in four languages: English, Spanish, French, Arabic 

VUKA Protest supportPhonebookDo you know who to reach out to in case you need support?

This Vuka! Protest Support Phonebook is a support directory for protestors. In the Phonebook, protesters (and their allies) can find various types of support from nearly 30 international and regional civil society organisations to protect themselves and elevate the impact of their protests, including:

 

  • Urgent support for protesters (e.g. legal aid, medical aid, trauma healing, relocation, family support, etc) 
  • Urgent support for journalists covering protests (e.g. legal aid, medical aid, trauma healing, relocation, family support, etc) 
  • Amplifying your movement's messaging through global campaigns networks Strategic litigation support 
  • Digital and physical security support 
  • Human rights monitoring, reporting, and outreach to the United Nations and other international governance forums 
  • Funding, training, and strategizing for creative actions, campaigning, and frontline protesting 

 

Philippines: International community must support independent investigative mechanism to end attacks on civil society

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, continues to call on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent investigative mechanism to address human rights violations and abuses in the Philippines to further accountability and justice. A new brief published today, shows that one year on from the adoption of a profoundly weak resolution at the Council, serious civic freedoms violations continue to occur, creating a chilling effect within civil society.

The CIVICUS Monitor has documented the arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders and activists on fabricated charges. In a number of instances, the activists have been vilified and red-tagged – labelled as communists or terrorists – in relation to their work prior to their arrest. There have also been reports of evidence planted by the police and military forces to justify arrests or violence against activists.

Activists have been killed over the last year, both by the security forces and by unknown individuals. In many instances, activists were killed after being red-tagged. In virtually none of the cases has anyone been held accountable for the killings. In one incident, nine community-based activists were killed in coordinated raids, known as the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings, which took place across four provinces in the Calabarzon region on 7 March 2021 by members of the Philippine security forces. The killing of journalists as well as judicial harassment against them has also persisted.

AdvocacyBrief Philippines CoverIn July 2021, the Philippine government and the UN formalised a human rights programme which includes strengthening domestic investigation and accountability mechanisms; improved data gathering on alleged police violations; civic space and engagement with civil society and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to be implemented.

“The current actions by the UN Human Rights Council have failed to deter the criminalisation and attacks against activists and journalists, which has continued over the year, with impunity. The new joint programme seems to be just more window dressing by the Duterte regime to evade accountability. It is time for the international community to listen to civil society voices and establish an independent investigation to hold the perpetrators to account”, said Lisa Majumdar, CIVICUS UN advocacy officer.

Human rights groups have also documented an assault on the judiciary. An investigative report by the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) found that at least 61 lawyers, judges and prosecutors have been killed under the Duterte administration since 2016. There have been no convictions so far in any of the deadly attacks recorded. 

The new brief outlines other tactics used to silence civil society that have ranged from freezing their accounts to launching  smear campaigns against them. In June 2021, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) froze the bank accounts of Amihan, an organisation of peasant women, which the authorities alleged were linked to communist rebels. Bank accounts of eight other nongovernmental organisations and civil society groups based in Mindanao were also covered by the order.

Human rights alliance Karapatan has been subject to  a spate of cyberattacks since July 2021 against its website, amid an online solidarity campaign #StopTheKillingsPH, which calls on the government to stop attacks against human rights defenders. Earlier attacks against Karapatan and alternative media outlets were traced by Qurium - Sweden-based media foundation - to the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence of the Philippine Army as well as the Department of Science and Technology.

“Civil society groups have been at the forefront of monitoring violations perpetrated by authorities around the deadly war on drugs, and their assaults on activists. Despite the threats and litany of attacks against them, they have refused to be silenced. The international community owes them support and protection,” said Majumdar.

Following tireless research and advocacy efforts by civil society, in June 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda requested judicial authorisation to proceed with an investigation into crimes committed in the Philippines from 1 November 2011 - the date the Philippines became an ICC member - until 16 March 2019. On 15 September 2021, Pre-Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court granted the Prosecutor’s request to commence the investigation in a landmark development.

In December 2020, the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries, downgraded the Philippines from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ in its People Power Under Attack report 2020. 


More information

Download the Philippines research brief here.


Interviews

To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher and

 

 

Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

The National Security Law (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison. These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

The NSL establishes new national security bodies which are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law. It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

"The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”, said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

More than a hundred people have been arrested under the National Security Law including pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers, lawyers, journalists and students. Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

In January 2021, 55 people, including pro-democracy activists, opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primary elections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

The NSL has also dramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carry out their work. Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

The law has also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December 2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announced they had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role in the publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

Since 2019, the Hong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximum five-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’s long-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

In April 2021, the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggered by the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities banned the annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 


More information

Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


Interviews

To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

 

COVID-19 and freedom of expression: A global snapshot of restrictions

New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor finds:

  • New censorship controls have been implemented during the pandemic
  • The pandemic has expanded the use of laws criminalising misinformation - new or amended measures in over 35 countries
  • Journalists detained in over 30 countries for their reporting on the pandemic

Over a year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. During this period, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented ongoing and unjustifiable restrictions to civic freedoms. The latest research brief focuses on the state of freedom of expression and violations committed as a direct response to the pandemic.

The research covers the period from January 2020 to February 2021 and highlights where governments are using COVID-19 as a pretext to censor the media and silence dissent. In some countries, governments have passed laws and regulations which impose undue restrictions on press freedom and access to information.

Censorship and the detention of journalists are some of the violations covered in the research brief. From Tanzania to Turkmenistan, governments have banned and blocked media for their COVID-19 related coverage. While in Chile and China, governments have put journalists in jail for their reporting on the pandemic.

The research brief how of journalists, media workers and civil society organisations have been the target of government overreach and provides over 60 country case studies that illustrate three trends:

  • The use of restrictive legislation to silence critical voices, including the use of misinformation legislation
  • Censorship and restrictions on access to information, including the suspension of media outlets due to their COVID-19 coverage
  • Attacks on journalists over their reporting of the pandemic, including physical attacks and arrests

READ ANALYSIS

 

Malaysia: Fundamental freedoms in decline under Perikatan Nasional government

Joint research report on the state of civic freedoms in Malaysia

The Perikatan Nasional government has undermined and obstructed the exercise of fundamental freedoms during its first twelve months in power, said ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS in a new report published today. The government has not only failed to reform or repeal laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association but has initiated baseless criminal proceedings against government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, and individuals expressing critical opinions.

The report, “Rights in Reverse: One year under the Perikatan Nasional government in Malaysia”, highlights the Perikatan Nasional government’s record during its first year in power against its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The report highlights the government’s sustained use of repressive laws and provisions to silence dissent amid a global pandemic, when press freedom and civil society is needed more than ever to ensure reliable information and to hold the state accountable.

“The Perikatan Nasional government has been extremely secretive about its legislative agenda but has been crystal clear about its intention to continue using repressive laws to target critics and dissenters,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer. “A healthy environment for public discourse cannot be achieved until dissenting and unpopular opinions are respected and protected instead of silenced.”

Over the past year, authorities have aggressively applied the Sedition Act 1948 and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) to investigate, arrest, charge, and convict individuals who have criticized government officials or Malaysian royalty, or who have shared opinions about sensitive issues such as race and religion. Between March 2020 and February 2021, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS recorded 66 cases involving 77 individuals who have been investigated or charged under the two laws because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Over this period, at least 12 people were convicted under the CMA.

Press freedom has also declined sharply during the Perikatan Nasional government’s first year in power. This trend was highlighted by Malaysiakini’s conviction on contempt of court charges in relation to third-party comments made on its website, the unprecedented witch-hunt against Al Jazeera journalists investigating the treatment of migrants workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the targeting of journalists reporting on the actions and statements of government officials. The harassment and intimidation of journalists further demonstrates the shrinking space for free and independent media in Malaysia.

In addition to journalists, the authorities have harassed, investigated, and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, peaceful protesters, women’s rights activists, and union leaders in an effort to silence civil society voices.

The legal framework governing the exercise of freedom of assembly and association remains highly restrictive and excessively burdensome.

The Peaceful Assembly Act falls shorts of international law and standards and denies the right to protest to children and non-citizens. It also fails to allow for spontaneous assemblies. The last year saw peaceful protesters being investigated and arrested, including health workers protesting their lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Societies Act has continued to stand in the way of enjoyment of the right to freedom of association, which is critical in a democracy. The Registrar of Societies has excessive powers and has erected barriers to registration for new opposition political parties such as Muda and Pejuang and civil society groups while simultaneously fast-tracking the registration of the Perikatan Nasional.

“The Perikatan government has attempted to silence peaceful protesters and impede the formation of political parties to keep itself in power,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Researcher. “Its attempt to join the Human Rights Council cannot be taken seriously unless it takes immediate steps to remove undue restrictions on assembly and association,” Benedict added.

ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS urge the Malaysian government to undertake a comprehensive and inclusive process of legislative and institutional reform in order to promote and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. To this end, authorities must ensure that all processes are fully transparent and facilitate full and effective participation of all concerned stakeholders, including civil society.

Malaysia’s reform process must be informed by relevant international human rights standards. The Perikatan National government should take concrete steps towards the ratification of core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

For further information:

  • Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19 Malaysia Program Officer,
  • Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher,

More information

The space for civil society in Malaysia is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. An Obstructed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – face a combination of legal and practical constraints in Malaysia.

 

Sustainable Recovery Lab: Building on human rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

As the UN Secretary-General has highlighted, ‘the 2030 Agenda, underpinned by human rights, provides a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable recovery from the pandemic’.

The Sustainable Recovery Lab, which took place on 14th January 2021, discussed how to operationalise this blueprint for Sustainable Recovery.

 

Civil and political rights are backsliding in West Africa ahead of elections

There has been a rapid decline in civic freedoms and democratic norms in Francophone West Africa with ruling presidents evading term limits and muzzling their opposition and pro-democracy groups, CIVICUS said ahead of presidential elections in Guinea (18 October) and Côte d’Ivoire (31 October).

Over the next six months a series of elections will take place across Francophone West Africa. Voting kicks off in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire later this month, followed by elections in Burkina Faso (November), Niger (December-January) and Benin (April). Togo already had a contested presidential election in February 2020.

In Togo, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, violence and political tensions are being fuelled by presidents refusing to step down. In Benin, recent changes in eligibility requirements mean that members of the opposition may not be able to run for presidency, while Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Burkina Faso are confronting or emerging from violent armed conflicts which are being used to justify repressive laws and policies. In addition, the restrictions introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and armed groups spilling over from the Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea are making the political situations more volatile.

In this tense political environment, the new report “Civic space backsliding ahead of elections in Francophone West Africa” examines the tools of repression being used to undermine opposition groups, human rights defenders, activists and journalists. with a focus on Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo.

It documents recent Internet disruptions, the arrest of hundreds of pro-democracy activists and journalists and the killing of dozens of peaceful protesters in demonstrations organised over the last three years. Governments are using restrictive laws, over-complicated registration processes, judicial harassment and excessive use of force to clampdown on civil society, particularly when dissent is expressed online or during protests.

“Instead of working with civil society groups to create an enabling environment for free and fair elections, authorities across Francophone West Africa have resorted to muzzling human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists. In the hope of stamping out all opposition, they have created a climate of fear which fuels political violence, erodes the rule of law and undermines regional stability,” said François Patuel, senior researcher on West Africa and author of the report.

In Guinea, where President Alpha Condé will run for a third term on 18 October 2020, over fifty people were killed since October 2019 in protests organised by the political opposition and pro-democracy group Front National de Défense de la Constitution (National Front for the Defence of the Constitution, FNDC). In March 2020, the constitutional referendum which opened the way to Alpha Condé running for a third term was marred with a social media shutdown and intercommunal clashes in the Guinea Forest region which left over 30 people dead. Dozens of FNDC supporters and journalists have been detained since the creation of the movement in April 2019.

In Côte d’Ivoire, at least 12 people were killed in protests and clashes between political supporters following President Alassane Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term for the presidential election scheduled on 31 October 2020. Public protests have been banned since August 2020. The authorities have adopted laws criminalising false news and used them to target journalists, bloggers and politicians expressing dissent, including members of parliament such as Alain Lobognon who remains in detention since December 2019. In gross contempt to regional institutions, Côte d’Ivoire has been ignoring orders from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to release pro-Soro supporters and allow Guillaume Soro and Laurent Gbagbo to stand for elections.

“Local human rights groups do not take up sensitive political cases for fear of reprisals. Even lawyers are scared.” --Woman human rights defender, Abidjan, 15 May 2020.

“On paper, the right to freedom of expression is supposed to be protected. But in practice, journalists are intimidated when they write on sensitive topics such as land rights, police brutality and corruption.” -- Interview with a human rights defender, Lomé, 14 May 2020.

With civic freedoms backsliding across West Africa Francophone, civil society organisations need support from regional and international partners to remain safe, to ensure their voice is heard in international and regional fora and to increase the pressure on national authorities for positive human rights change. ECOWAS and the African Union, in particular, must step-up their response to the authorities’ disregard for regional standards and instruments, including their efforts to undermine the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights.


Interviews

To arrange interviews, please contact: 
François Patuel, Consultant & Senior Researcher on West Africa for CIVICUS, , +221 77 693 78 46

 

Feminist movements and the Beijing Vision: Organising, resisting, advocating.

The year 2020 marks 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPfA), heralded as the most progressive blueprint in achieving full human rights for all women and girls. Yet, 25 years on the ambitions of the BDPfA have not been achieved. In fact, the process takes place at a time of ever increasing challenges for women’s rights. 

 

India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

  • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
  • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
  • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics.

More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

“The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

“The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

“It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

“As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

  • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
  • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
  • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

More information

The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


Interviews

To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

 

Threats to civil society’s HIV and AIDS progress have lessons for COVID-19 response

NEW REPORT --See mini-site and supplementary materials

Achievements made in the fight to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic are at risk because of continuous attacks on basic civil liberties all around the world. It has become more and more difficult for civil society to reach out to people in need, says a new report from a global civil consortium which is relevant for the COVID-19 response.

Vulnerable groups like LGBTQI+ communities, particularly transgender people, are among the most commonly persecuted, and police and law enforcement authorities are among the main perpetrators, according to the report by Aidsfonds, CIVICUS, and Frontline AIDS. 

The report, titled Activism and AIDS: protect civil society’s space to end the epidemic, launched during the 23rd International AIDS conference, examines the risks and restrictions facing civil society who are fighting to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic. At the launch event, activists shared how new COVID-19 restrictions undermine their efforts to carry out their work on HIV and AIDS and further jeopardise the achievements towards ending AIDS by 2030. 

“The success that we’ve made towards fulfilling the goal of ending AIDS by 2030 has only been achieved because civil society is able to reach the most marginalised communities,” says Sylvia Mbataru from CIVIUS, lead author of the report. “But this is at serious risk of being derailed by increasing ultra-conservative politics. As we confront the COVID-19 pandemic and we witness new restrictions on civic space, it is imperative that AIDS activists and organisations are given the space to serve their communities.”

The research, unique in its scope and breadth and the global human rights monitors involved, was conducted using the CIVICUS Monitor. The Monitor provides quantitative and qualitative data on the state of civil society and civic freedoms in countries around the world. The report covers trends from four diverse countries - Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Vietnam  ( see civic space rating scale)

The report calls civil society’s response to the disease an “unparalleled example” of ”engagement and leadership”, with those living with HIV and AIDS having played “a vital role as advocates, as watchdogs and in the provision of services”. But governments and law enforcement agencies, among others, are making it difficult and dangerous for civil society to support people living with the disease. 

“The diminishing space for civil society and an increasingly hostile political and social landscape herald an urgent international and regional call for action,” the report says. 

In Indonesia, activists and organisations were attacked online, had their social media content censored by authorities, had protests broken up even before they began, and had their offices raided, among other abuses, according to the report. The country is now a potential coronavirus hotspot, where the government has been accused of lack of transparency, and people have been charged for allegedly spreading fake news about coronavirus. 

In Ukraine, key populations including gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, and transgender people have been targeted by influential religious figures. “I personally saw how supporters of religious organisations disrupted protests of key populations,” says a civil society organisation (CSO) representative, according to the report. In April, one of the country’s LGBTQI bodies announced it was suing an eminent preacher for remarks blaming COVID-19 on same-sex marriage. 

The report also finds that opposition to civic space is strengthening at international and regional levels, with one CSO representative saying that “voices are not heard at the UN”. The World Health Organization (WHO) was a “very closed space for civil society”, the report says, with a complex registration system for organisations.

 

Bangladesh: Two years on, impunity for attacks against student protesters

Two years since student protest movements mobilised in Bangladesh, there is still no accountability for human rights violations against protesters.

Crushing Student Protests,’ a new report launched today by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), highlights the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bangladesh security forces during the protests, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students.

In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.

Law enforcement agencies responded to both movements with excessive force. Protesters reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets and high pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling party, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. They used social media to intimidate, harass and threaten protest leaders and organizers.

An activist from Jagannath University in Sadarghat, Dhaka said that on 20 April 2018, he was attacked by BCL members: “They accosted me and dragged me to a corner. There were 12 people, and they beat me up, and cut my lip…They beat me until I was senseless and left me there.”

Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names, detaining students at will. Some reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.

One activist arrested on 1 July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. “They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,” he said. “I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.”

Bangladeshi journalists also were assaulted and detained as part of government efforts to control the narrative and silence critical voices.

One of those arrested was 63 year old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5 August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests and charged a day later under the Information and Communication Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.

“The failure to hold anyone accountable for the violence against protesters points to deeply ingrained impunity in Bangladesh. We demand a prompt and independent investigation into all reports of violence by the police and nonstate actors against human rights defenders, journalists and protesters, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Sultana Kamal, noted Bangladeshi Human Rights Defender and Chairperson of SAHR.

“The police must drop all charges against the student human rights defenders and protesters and review the convictions of protesters and other individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Roshmi Goswami, SAHR bureau member from India who took part in the joint international mission.

The crackdown occurred just prior to elections held later in 2018, indicating the kind of actions the ruling party was, and remains willing, to take to hold its grip on power.

Long after the protests stopped, many student activists, their friends and family members continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment, effectively silencing future dissent. Social media has been deployed to intimidate and smear human rights defenders and civil society groups that supported the protests. 

A prominent activist was attacked eight times after the protest movement ended. Another protest organizer has been routinely stalked by members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI).

“The authorities must end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

The crackdown on the protests is indicative of a broader pattern of aggression and attacks by the government against critics to silence dissent. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, have been used to restrict freedom of expression while human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged or convicted for speaking up and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.

“The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

The human rights violations documented in this report around the protests are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international laws and standards. Despite the fact that many of these issues have been raised by states, the Bangladesh authorities have failed to address them.


Front Line Defenders is the Ireland-based international human rights organization that works for the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk (HRDs) around the world.

CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. 

South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) is a democratic regional network with a large membership base of people committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels. SAHR seeks to contribute to the realisation of South Asian peoples’ right to participatory democracy, good governance and justice by strengthening regional response, including regional instruments, monitoring human rights violations, reviewing laws, policies and practices that have an adverse impact on human rights and conducting campaigns and programmes on issues of major concern in the region.


Civic space in Bangladesh is currently rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

Civic Freedoms and the COVID19 Pandemic: A snapshot of restrictions

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The spread of the pandemic, and the response of states to the crisis, have created unprecedented living conditions for much of the world’s population. A range of restrictions on freedoms has been introduced in attempts to curb the pandemic. However, some of these have had troubling impacts on human rights and the space for civil society. In many cases, they have patterned onto and reinforced existing restrictions of civic space.

Civic space is the bedrock of any open and democratic society and is rooted in the fundamental freedoms of people to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express their views and opinions. Since 2016, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented and analysed the state of civic space in 196 countries.

States have taken measures that include emergency laws, nationwide lockdowns and restrictions on movement. But one month after the declaration of the pandemic, CIVICUS has documented several alarming civic space trends that have resulted. These are:

  • Unjustified restrictions on access to information and censorship;
  • Detentions of activists for disseminating critical information;
  • Crackdowns on human rights defenders and media outlets;
  • Violations of the right to privacy and overly broad emergency powers.

International human rights law recognises that in the context of officially proclaimed public emergencies, including in public health, which threaten the life of a country, restrictions on some rights can be justified, but they must have a legal basis and be strictly necessary, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, proportionate to achieving the objective, not involve discrimination and be used strictly to the extent required by the emergency in question. Even where an official proclamation of emergency has been made, non-derogable fundamental rights such as the right to life and freedom from torture and inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment still must not be infringed. Where a proclamation of emergency has not officially been made, rights can only be restricted during a public health threat in accordance with the limitations allowed in normal times under the relevant provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

International law is clear, but there are concerns that some of the actions taken by some states may be exceeding justifiable restrictions and negatively affecting civic freedoms. CIVICUS has compiled information on key civic space issues that have surfaced due to the response by governments and some other groups to the COVID-19 pandemic, raising serious concerns about the state of civic space at this time. These reports are sourced from civil society groups and activists, credible news sources and official documents. The restrictions are happening in a range of countries with different civic space ratings. When a country is referenced the respective rating colour is also displayed:

   OPEN NARROWED OBSTRUCTED  REPRESSED CLOSED

Censorship and restrictions on access to information

In  China, the government initially  responded to the outbreak by withholding information from the public, under-reporting cases of infection and downplaying the severity of the infection. The authorities also censored numerous articles and social media posts about the pandemic, including those posted by families of infected people seeking help and by people living in cordoned-off cities documenting their daily life. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, through a ‘medida provisória’ (provisional measure), decreed that government officials were not obliged to answer any freedom of information requests during the outbreak. The Supreme Court subsequently suspended the decree.The CIVICUS Monitor has shown that in 2019, censorship was the most common tactic used by states to silence activists, journalists and government critics and suppress critical information. Human rights groups have documented attempts to censor or restrict information on the COVID-19 pandemic. These have potentially prevented people from accessing information about the pandemic that can help them protect themselves and their families and being able to ask informed questions about the decisions being taken by the authorities in response to the pandemic.

In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s government is limiting the use of the word ‘coronavirus’ as much as possible in order to deter the spread of information about the pandemic. It has ordered the word’s removal from health brochures distributed in hospitals, schools and workplaces. In El Salvador journalists have not been allowed to ask questions during press conferences related to the crisis and the government’s response.

In Vietnam, where the state controls all conventional media and implements strict social media censorship, the authorities have been cracking down on people using Facebook and bloggers who are trying to deliver timely and valuable information about the pandemic. As of 17 March, at least 654 people who posted on Facebook about the outbreak had been summoned to police stations for interrogation about their posts, and 146 of them have been fined.

During this crisis, internet shutdowns directly harm people’s health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control. The shutdown in Indian-administered Kashmir is hampering the ability of doctors to obtain information about the virus and educate the public. Similar concerns have also been raised in Rakhine state in Myanmar, which is also subject to an internet shutdown.

Threats and arrests for criticising state response

There have also been reports of people being threatened or arrested for criticising their state’s response or disseminating information on the pandemic.

In Iran, civil rights activists, journalists, a city councillor and a footballer have all been  detained or summoned for questioning after criticising the Iranian government’s management of the pandemic in social media posts. Some of those who were summoned were accused of portraying the country in a negative light and pressured to be supportive of the government’s response to the outbreak.

In the Solomon Islands, the Ministry of Health has sent out a memo threatening ‘termination with immediate effect’ for staff who post comments online criticising the government’s response to the pandemic. It said the regulations were included under the State of Public Emergency declaration. In Sri Lanka, on 1 April, the Inspector General of Police instructed all police officers to take legal action against those who publish posts on social media criticising government officials.

Police in Pakistan have arrested dozens of doctors and medical staff who protested about a lack of personal protective equipment in their fight against the pandemic. In Thailand, on 23 March, an artist was charged under the draconian Computer Crime Act for a Facebook post criticising the lack of airport COVID-19 screening.

Restrictions on the media

Journalists and the media have a key role to play in sharing timely information about the pandemic. However, some states are shutting down media outlets, restricting the media and criminalising journalists.

On 17 March it was reported that decrees had been issued by the governments of Jordan, MoroccoOman and Yemen to suspend newspaper printing and distribution in response to the pandemic. This includes both independent and state-owned media outlets. Authorities reportedly imposed this to prevent the possible spread of the virus during the printing, delivery and distribution of papers.

On 5 March, authorities in Niger arrested Kaka Touda Mamane Goni, an independent journalist who publishes news reports on his Facebook and Twitter pages, at his home in Niamey, Niger’s capital. His arrest stemmed from a complaint filed by the local General Reference Hospital, which alleged that his social media posts about a suspected COVID-19 case at the hospital posed a threat to public order.

In Kenya, blogger Robert Alai was arrested on 20 March for posting false information about the virus. Alai had claimed that the government was concealing crucial information about the spread of the virus and that its impact was far greater than the government was acknowledging. He is accused of contravening the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act 2018.

The house of journalist, Darvinson Rojas in Venezuela was raided and he was detained by agents of the Special Action Forces of the Bolivarian National Police on 21 March for his reporting on the pandemic in Venezuela. At the hearing on 23 March, Rojas was accused of ‘instigating hatred and public instigation’.

On 26 March, the President of Vanuatu signed a declaration of a State of Emergency in response to the pandemic. As part of the declaration it was announced that all news articles on the virus had to be vetted by the National Disaster Management Office after consultation with the Ministry of Health.

Journalists have at times also been subjected to physical assault or harassment while covering COVID-19 lockdowns. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, journalist Tholi Totali Glody was reportedly chased by police officers and thrown off a motorcycle taxi on 22 March in Likasi, Haut-Katanga province, resulting in injuries that included a broken leg.

Passage and use of restrictive laws to counter ‘fake news’

The pandemic’s spread has been matched by the proliferation of misinformation about the virus. While misinformation is a serious problem, some states have resorted to unduly repressive laws on ‘fake news’ that could have wider impacts.

On 18 March, the government of South Africa's new regulations criminalising statements intended to deceive any person about COVID-19 or the government's response to it. The regulations were published in the Government Gazette under the 2002 Disaster Management Act and carry penalties including fines, imprisonment, or both.

The Philippines government declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic on 25 March and passed a law that included provisions penalising the spreading of ‘false information’ on social media and other platforms. Those found violating this provision may face two months’ imprisonment or a fine of not less than P10,000 (approx. US$196). Courts may also impose a fine of up to P1 million (approx. US$19,642). On 28 March, Egypt's general prosecution said that those spreading ‘fake news’ and rumours about the virus may be imprisoned for five years and fined EGP 20,000 (approx. US$1,266).

Turkey’s Ministry of Interior announced on 23 March that legal action had been taken against 316 social media account holders who had shared information about the virus ‘to cause worry among the public, incite them to fear and panic and target persons and institutions’. In Malaysia, the authorities reported on 11 March that they had opened 37 criminal investigations related to the spread of ‘fake news’ on the virus.

Targeting of human rights defenders

There is also evidence that governments and others are using the pandemic as an opportunity to target human rights defenders.

In Honduras, on 24 March, police arbitrarily arrested Evelyn Johana Castillo for being on the street during the emergency, while she was returning home from buying food with her husband and older daughter. She is the Assistant Coordinator of the Ojojona Women’s Network and a member of the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras. Evelyn stated that this attack against her may have been a reprisal.

A human rights defender in El Salvador has been the target of a smear campaign after posting on Facebook on 13 March about overcrowding and the lack of hygiene for people held in quarantine during the pandemic. She received messages containing harmful speech, intimidation and threats, including misogynistic insults and derision of her feminist activism.

According to local civil society groups, death squads in Colombia are taking advantage of lockdowns to kill rural activists. Marco Rivadeneira, a high-profile activist, was murdered in the southern Putumayo province, Ángel Ovidio Quintero was shot dead in the western Antioquia region and Ivo Humberto Bracamonte was killed on the eastern border with Venezuela.

Police abuses during lockdowns

Civil society groups and journalists have raised concerns about the use of excessive force or inhumane and degrading treatment by law enforcement officials towards people who have violated lockdowns in various countries. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings has raised concerns about this.

According to Human Rights Watch, police and local officials in the Philippines have  confined those arrested for violating the government’s COVID-19 regulations in dog cages and forced them to sit in the midday sun as punishment, among other abuses. In Indiavideos have circulated of police officers violently caning those who do not respect the restrictions. Violators have also been publicly shamed in India by being forced to do squats, push-ups, crawl or roll around the streets.

In South Africa numerous videos have emerged that appear to depict police officers and soldiers kicking, slapping, whipping and even shooting lockdown violators. On the first day of South Africa’s lockdown, police fired rubber bullets at News24 journalist Azarrah Karrim, despite her shouting ‘I’m media’, when she was covering the dispersal of people by security forces in Johannesburg.

In Kenya, police in various locations were also recorded caning people who defied the curfew. Videos and photos also featured the police lobbing teargas canisters and clubbing people with batons in the city of Mombasa to clear the streets in advance of the curfew.

Surveillance and violations of the right to privacy

There have been numerous examples of states increasing intrusive surveillance measures. Any surveillance measures and restrictions on the rights to privacy introduced in response to the pandemic should be provided for by law and be necessary, proportionate, timebound and implemented with transparency and adequate oversight; they must be the least intrusive available to achieve the desired result. The reality has not lived up to these standards.

China's authorities are notorious for using technology for surveillance, unconstrained by privacy legislation. Its universal street camera system, first deployed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has been expanded all over the country's main metropolitan areas and has been recently upgraded with facial recognition capabilities. The authorities have been using this system to catch, shame and fine citizens going outside without face masks and to identify and quarantine individuals who show symptoms.

The move by the authorities in Israel to permit the security service to use mobile phone data of infected people has also raised privacy concerns. This system is apparently already operational, with 400 people having received text messages warning them of potential contact with infected people.

On 31 March, Armenia's parliament passed amendments to broad surveillance powers to enable the use of mobile phone data for tracking COVID-19 cases. The amendments impose restrictions on the right to privacy and allow the authorities to access confidential medical information related to people exposed to the virus. In Fiji, civil society raised privacy concerns after the Ministry of Health disseminated private information that listed the names and addresses of passengers who were on the same flight as the country’s first confirmed COVID-19 patient. The list of 82 names included residential addresses.

Overly broad emergency laws and new restrictive legislation

International civil society has documented a number of countries that have declared a state of emergency or passed emergency laws or regulations to combat the virus that grant the state overly broad powers and endanger civic freedoms. International human rights law is clear that any measures introduced must be subject to sufficient oversight by both the legislature and the courts, should not be discriminatory and must be time bound.

Among the emblematic cases highlighted by CIVICUS partners is Hungary. Its new law (Bill on Protection against the Coronavirus or Bill T/9790), adopted on 30 March, extends the government’s power to rule by decree by absolving it from parliamentary scrutiny and does so without providing a clear cut-off date. The new law also amends the Criminal Code concerning the crime of ‘imparting or conveying false information’: anyone who publicises false or distorted facts that interfere with the ‘successful protection’ of the public or might alarm or agitate the public could be punished by up to five years in prison.

The government of Cambodia has drafted a state of emergency bill, containing many overly broad and vague provisions, which would empower Prime Minister Hun Sen to override fundamental human rights protections. This includes unlimited surveillance of telecommunications, control of the media and social media and complete authority to restrict the freedoms of movement and assembly. Articles 1 and 4 of the bill would allow the law to be used even after the crisis ends.

Some states have also used the crisis to quietly pass restrictive legislation without adequate scrutiny. For example, amid the chaos of the pandemic in the USA, at least three states have passed  laws imposing new criminal penalties on protests against fossil fuel infrastructure.

Recommendations to governments

Given the concerns outlined above, it is clear that governments need to do more to respect civic freedoms when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments should implement the following recommendations to ensure that fundamental freedoms do not become another casualty of the virus:

  • Safeguard the freedom of expression in all forms while addressing the pandemic and refrain from censoring social and conventional media. Any restrictions should be pursuant to an order by an independent and impartial judicial authority, and in accordance with due process and standards of legality, necessity and legitimacy, in line with international law and standards.
  • Maintain reliable and unfettered access to the internet and cease internet shutdowns that prevent people from obtaining essential information and services during the crisis.
  • Address violations against human rights defenders and journalists during the pandemic, and ensure that those who commit violations are independently and promptly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice.
  • Respect and protect media freedom, as guaranteed under international human rights law, during the pandemic.
  • Replace approaches to misinformation on the pandemic that rely on censorship and criminal sanctions with those emphasising transparency and media freedom.
  • Ensure that surveillance measures adopted to address the pandemic are lawful, necessary and proportionate. As part of this, ensure that any expanded monitoring and surveillance powers are timebound, and only continue for as long as necessary to address the current crisis.
  • Ensure that increased collection, retention and aggregation of personal data, including health data, is only used for the purposes of responding to the pandemic.
  • Ensure that law enforcement officials respect the law and avoid abusive conduct while enforcing lockdowns and curfews, and investigate those suspected of such abuses and bring the perpetrators to justice.
  • Guarantee that any new emergency laws and decrees deployed to combat the pandemic do not in any circumstances restrict certain fundamental rights, including the right to life, prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, recognition before the law and the presumption of innocence. Make sure that any such laws or decrees are not discriminatory in any way, including on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sex, sexual identity, language, religion and social origin, and are timebound and subject to sufficient oversight by both the legislature and courts. 

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Global Monitor Report: Twice as many people live in repressed countries compared to a year ago

Findings based on data released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries.

The CIVICUS Monitor's latest global assesment,  People Power Under Attack 2019, finds that the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are backsliding across the world. In the space of a year, twice as many people are living in countries where these civic freedoms are being violated: 40% of the world’s population now live in repressed countries - last year it was 19%.

The report, which is based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration, shows that civil society is under attack in most countries. In practice, this means that just 3% of the world’s population are now living in countries where their fundamental rights are in general, protected and respected – last year it was 4%.

2019 has been a historic year for protest movements. From the streets of Sudan to Hong Kong, people have poured onto the streets to make their voices heard. However, according to the 536 updates by the CIVICUS Monitor, the fundamental right to peaceful assembly is under attack across the world. In fact, within the last year the CIVICUS Monitor documented that 96 countries either detained protesters, disrupted marches or used excessive force to prevent people from fully exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

“This data reflects a deepening civic space crisis across the globe. As millions of protesters spilled onto the streets, government response has been repression instead of dialogue,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “However, the fact that so many activists were brave enough to raise their voices, shows the resilience of civil society in the face of brutal repression.”


Nine countries have changed their civic space rating: seven countries have been downgraded and only two improved their rating. Worrying signs for civic space are recorded in Asia-Pacific, where three countries dropped a rating: Australia, India and Brunei. There is growing concern about the decline of democratic and civic rights in Europe, with Malta also being downgraded. Other countries on the slide include Nigeria, Comoros and Madagascar.

People Power Under Attack 2019 also provides analysis on the kinds of violations most frequently recorded on the CIVICUS Monitor over the past year. Globally, censorship is the most common violation, occurring across 178 countries. From blocking websites and social media, to banning television programmes, governments across the world are going to great lengths to control public discourse and suppress free speech. The other top violations include:

There are bright spots emerging, as both Moldova and the Dominican Republic improved their ratings this past year. The Dominican Republic moved from the obstructed to narrowed category after civil society managed to challenge and overturn restrictive laws; these laws related to defamation cases and constitutional amendments which would lengthen Presidential terms.

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 536 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2019. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Regional summaries and press statements:


For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

 

New paper on the restrictions facing climate change activists

  • Environmental activism is dangerous and too often deadly, and may worsen as the growing climate crisis fuels divides over access to natural resources
  • Millions of people have marched this year calling for an end to climate injustice yet around the world just 4 percent of the world’s population live in countries where governments are properly respecting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression according to the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • The annual United Nations climate change negotiations (COP), to be held in Madrid from 2 to 13 December  was meant to be the ‘People’s COP’ but was unable to find a home in Latin America, which remains the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender

Millions of people have taken to the streets in 2019 calling for an end to climate injustice but on the frontlines of the crisis and at the United Nations brave activists continue to be deliberately silenced.

This new position paper ‘We will not be silenced: Climate activism from the frontlines to the UN’ details how people who speak out for climate justice are threatened and intimidated with violence, repressive laws, frivolous lawsuits and disinformation campaigns. Instead of responding to the demands of the climate movement for a more ambitious and just response to the climate crisis, governments are choosing to smother their voices.

In October, when Chilean civil society called for the government to withdraw the military from the streets before hosting COP 25 the Piñera government instead responded by withdrawing overnight from hosting the pivotal meeting. Chile’s withdrawal reflects a worrying trend after Brazil earlier pulled out from hosting COP 25 and Poland, the host of COP 24, imposed restrictions on public mobilisations and limited the participation of accredited civil society.

Civil society scrutiny and contributions to UN climate talks are vital in a year when millions of people have marched in the streets demanding an end to climate inaction. Recent developments in UN climate talks - including the erasure of the landmark IPCC 1.5 degree report from negotiations - under pressure from states including  Saudi Arabia - show the vital need for the COP 25 to be the first true ‘People’s COP’ - reversing the trends in closing space for civil society from the local to the global level.

For more information and interview requests please contact:

Lyndal Rowlands (English)
Natalia Gomez Peña (English, Spanish)

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Shifting the Power to Grassroots Movements

The question of how grassroots groups and activists based in the global south can mobilise adequate support to overcome the growing ecological, social, political and economic challenges they face and achieve positive change is a serious one that requires our attention. These groups face significant challenges in accessing key resources (financial and otherwise) to sustain their work.

CIVICUS embarked on a consultation process to identify, in a participatory way, possible mechanisms that would increase the scale and quality of resources, both international and domestic, for groups and movements. Over the course of five months, we have had the privilege to learn from activists, organisers, young leaders and progressive funders from around the world about resourcing challenges, and to sense-check solutions and co-create scenarios based on lived experiences, bold ideas and deep understanding of social problems.

This consultation is an attempt to move conversations forward at a practical level, exploring options that, pulled together, could help start a radical transformation in the range and quality of resources accessible to grassroots groups. As well as sense-checking the relevance, appeal and feasibility of emerging concepts, the process itself has been significant. These early explorations have directly engaged the groups that we seek to better resource, including a cross-section of grassroots activists, the financial arms of social movements and other strategic partners.

This document is a distillation of our findings and learnings.

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Silence Does Not Mean Consent: The Dire State of Human Rights in Equatorial Guinea

Located in the west of Central Africa between Cameroon and Gabon, and with a population of less than a million people, Equatorial Guinea is often described as one of the most censored countries in the world. The space for civil society - civic space - is closed, and consequently, independent journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) are vulnerable to judicial persecution, threats and attacks from the state. Recent acts of intimidation, arbitrary arrest, detention and harassment of HRD Alfredo Okenve on the day he was supposed to receive a human rights award from the French Embassy in the capital city of Malabo exemplify the risks faced by HRDs.

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President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is Africa’s longest-serving head of state and the world’s longest-serving non-royal leader, having seized power from his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema through a coup d’état in 1979. Equatorial Guinea remained isolated until oil was discovered in the early 1990s and the country opened up to more foreign investment. However, despite the vast amounts of funds secured from the sale of oil, Equatorial Guinea’s human development indicators remain extremely low. Much of the wealth is controlled by President Obiang’s family and close associates while a majority of citizens lack basic services and live in poverty. President Obiang and his ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) have used violence, repression, intimidation and harassment to maintain control of all state institutions and military forces for four decades. Groups or political parties and activists that are perceived by government officials to threaten the power base of the PDGE are either co-opted, harassed, intimidated, or forced to self-censor.  

This policy brief sheds light on some recent human rights violations committed by the regime and restrictions placed on citizens. Since assuming power four decades ago, President Obiang has refused to implement any verifiable and irreversible democratic or political reform. The ruling PDGE party, maintaining stringent control over all aspects of governance, has completely closed spaces for civil society reforms. Given this, Equatorial Guinea’s UPR hearing offers a rare opportunity to hold the government responsible for human rights violations. The African Union (AU), donors, multilateral organisations and global civil society have a responsibility to exert pressure on the government to implement much-needed reforms.

Read the Policy Brief: ENGLISH | SPANISH

 

In Defence of Humanity: Women Human Rights Defenders and the struggle against silencing

WHRDs PolicyBriefIn recent years, combined with existing threats, the rise of right-wing and nationalist populism across the world has led to an increasing number of governments implementing repressive measures against the space for civil society (civic space), particularly affecting women human rights defenders (WHRDs). The increasingly restricted space for WHRDs presents an urgent threat, not only to women-led organisations, but to all efforts campaigning for women’s rights, gender equality and the rights of all people. In spite of these restrictions, WHRDs have campaigned boldly in the face of mounting opposition: movements such as #MeToo #MenAreTrash, #FreeSaudiWomen, #NiUnaMenos, #NotYourAsianSideKick and #AbortoLegalYa show how countless women are working to advance systemic change for equality and justice. More WHRDs across the world are working collectively to challenge structural injustices and promote the realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Their power has been in the collective, despite constant attempts at silencing them. Furthermore, there have been WHRDs recognized for their invaluable contributions to opening civic space and protecting human rights in India, Poland, and Ireland. In the United States, WHRDs have won awards for the environmental activism, and in Iraq for their work in calling for greater accountability for sexual violence during war time.

This policy brief responds to this context and highlights how the participation of WHRDs in defending and strengthening the protection of human rights is critical for transforming traditional gender roles, embedded social norms and patriarchal power structures. WHRDs are leading actions to advance sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), socioeconomic justice, labour rights and environmental rights. Moreover, WHRDs work to ensure that women are included in political and economic decision-making processes, making clear the disproportionate effects that socioeconomic inequalities have on women and gender non-conforming people.

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New Report: 6 in 10 countries now seriously repressing civic freedoms

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Findings based on data released today by the CIVICUS Monitor a global research collaboration which rates and tracks the respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries. 

CIVICUS has today released People Power Under Attack 2018, a new report showing that nearly six in ten countries are seriously restricting people’s fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This reflects a continuing crisis facing civil society organisations and activists across the world, with the space for civic activism most commonly undermined through censorship, attacks on journalists and harassment of human rights defenders.

“This data is a wake-up call. Given the scale of the problem, global leaders, including the G20 who are meeting this week, need to take the protection of civic freedoms far more seriously,” said Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “For civil society, 2018 was a story of states innovating to suppress and restrict criticism by those who dare to challenge people in power.”

The report, which is based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor - a global research collaboration - shows that civil society is under serious attack in 111 out of 196 countries. This is up from 109 countries at our last update in March 2018. In practice, this means that repression of peaceful civic activism continues to represent a widespread crisis for civil society in all parts of the world, with just 4% of the world’s population living in countries where governments are properly respecting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Nine countries’ civic space ratings have worsened in this latest update, while seven countries improved their ratings. Countries on the slide include Austria, Azerbaijan, Gabon, Kuwait, Italy, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania and Senegal. Those improving are Canada, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Gambia, Liberia, Lithuania and Somalia.

People Power Under Attack 2018 also provides analysis of the kinds of violations most frequently recorded on the CIVICUS Monitor over the past two years. Globally, attacks on journalists and censorship are the two most common violations, indicating that power holders are going to great lengths to control public narratives and repress freedom of expression. Harassment of activists and the use of excessive force by security forces during protests are the third and fourth most common violations recorded on the CIVICUS Monitor since October 2016.

“While there is rightly a lot of concern about the proliferation of bad laws which stifle civic freedoms, our data shows these are just the tip of the iceberg. Extra-legal measures, such as attacking journalists or beating up protestors, are much more common,” said Gilbert. “These tactics are cynically designed to create a chilling effect and deter others from speaking out or becoming active citizens.”

CIVICUS data released today also contains good news stories. In the seven countries which improved their civic space ratings, and elsewhere, we see clear evidence that peaceful activism can force repressive governments to take a different path. In Ethiopia, for instance, following years of popular unrest and the severe repression of all forms of dissent, 2018 has witnessed a remarkable about-turn. New prime minister Abiy Ahmed has released political prisoners, eased restrictions on electronic communication and made important progress towards reforming some the country's most repressive laws. Changes in political leadership in Gambia and Ecuador have similarly led to an improved environment for the exercise of fundamental freedoms.

“Recent improvements in Ethiopia show what is possible when political will is present and leaders take courageous decisions to respond to the calls of civil society,” said Gilbert. “This should encourage those seeking change in repressive countries everywhere. By removing restrictions and protecting civic space, countries can tap into civil society’s true potential and accelerate progress on a wide range of fronts.”

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has published more than 1,400 civic space updates in the last two years, data which is analysed in People Power Under Attack 2018. Civic space in 196 countries is categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Regional press statements:

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead, CIVICUS,

 

New Paper: Regulating Political Activity of Civil Society -- A look at 4 EU countries

A comparative analysis of regulation of civil society organisations’ ‘political activity’ and international funding in Ireland, Netherlands, Germany and Finland. Written by CIVICUS, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, with support from The Community Foundation for Ireland

RegulatingPoliticalActivityOfCivilSociety650This paper provides a comparative assessment of how the “political activities” of civil society organisations are regulated in Ireland and three other European Union member states. This paper focuses particularly on organisations, such as human rights organisations, which carry out public advocacy activities and rely on international sources for a substantial portion of their funding.

All four countries are rated as “open” by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform which tracks respect for civic space in 196 countries. These four  european countries are also well known for their strong promotion of civil society, human rights and democratic freedoms through their foreign policy and international development cooperation on programmes. 

Following a brief outline of key international and regional norms, the paper outlines relevant aspects of domestic regulatory systems in Netherlands, Germany and Finland. A final section sets out what Ireland could learn from these examples, with a view to reforming its laws and policies governing “political activities” and foreign funding of civil society organisations.

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Repression in Paradise: Assault on fundamental freedoms in the Maldives

The Maldives, an archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean, was thrown into a political crisis on 1 February 2018 when the country's Supreme Court ordered the release and retrial of a group of opposition politicians, including exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed. President Yameen Abdul Gayoom refused to comply with the ruling, leading to mass protests in the capital, Malé.In response, the President declared a state of emergency, provided the security forces with sweeping powers and suspended constitutional rights. He also removed and arrested two Supreme Court judges.

 

India: Democracy threatened by growing attacks on civil society 

According to the policy brief, published by CIVICUS in November 2017, although civil society in India has been playing essential roles ever since the country's struggle for independence, the space for civil society - civic space - is increasingly being contested.

 

People Power Under Attack

CIVICUS Monitor Ratings Update October 2017

Updated ratings from the CIVICUS Monitor, released 4 October 2017, provide further evidence that the space for civil society - civic space - continues to close around the world. The findings show that this phenomenon extends to a wide range of countries - from established democracies like Belgium and the Netherlands, to economic powerhouse China and conflict ridden Yemen. The report outlines how civic space ratings worsened in eight countries, improved in two and remained unchanged in 185 countries. These changes are based on a review of quantitative and qualitative data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression undertaken between July and September 2017.

Some highlights:

  • 108 countries are now in the CIVICUS Monitor’s ‘obstructed’, ‘repressed’ and ‘closed’ categories, an increase of two from April 2017, which indicate serious restrictions of civic space.
  • Just 22 countries now occupy the ‘open’ category, down from 26 in April. This means that just 2%  of the world’s population live in a country with ‘open’ civic space. This analysis also shows that more than three billion people live in countries with serious to extreme restrictions on fundamental civic freedoms.
  • Only 13 of 28 European Union (EU) member states now have ‘open’ civic space, an uncomfortable statistic for the leaders of a union founded on the values of democracy and human rights.
  • Journalists are especially vulnerable to violations of their civic freedoms, between June 2016 and September 2017, the CIVICUS Monitor published a total of 184 reports involving attacks of one kind or another on journalists.

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Peers and Partners: Empowering Children to take Civic Action

STC PaperWhile threats against civic space are well documented around the world, little is said on how civic space trends are being experienced by children, and how children’s rights and abilities to be active agents for change in their countries and communities are being affected. The report aims to fill that gap by bringing children’s voices to the debate, as well as those of concerned adult civil society activists. The report presents findings from a study conducted in 2016 combining online consultations and face-to-face group discussions with a total of 1,606 children, aged between eight and 17, from 60 countries, and from an online survey carried out with 488 respondents from adult-led civil society from 98 countries.

Among other findings, the research reveals that:

  • The challenges faced by civil society in general are accentuated for children who seek to engage in civic action and influence public decision-making.
  • Children have the right and the desire to be involved in decision-making, but their potential and ability to contribute to society is being obstructed in many countries.
  • State and intergovernmental institutions must prioritise the creation of spaces and opportunities for children to participate in processes that make decisions on issues that affect them.
  • Adult-led civil society should work to broker new connections between children and policy-makers, and help facilitate meaningful and ethical opportunities for children to participate.

The brief calls for policy-makers to support children’s civic rights, recognise the benefits of enabling children to exercise their civic rights and their right to participate, and act to unlock these benefits. Improved participation will ultimately lead to better informed and more effective policy.

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Report: Civil Society Rights and the Extractive Industries

People’s rights to organise, speak out and take action are being extensively violated in a large number of member countries of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The CIVICUS Monitor, a new online tool to track and compare civic freedoms on a global scale, shows that the space for civil society - civic space - is currently seriously restricted in 38 of 51 EITI countries, as of May 2017. 

Civil society organisations (CS0s) and human rights defenders in most EITI member countries face serious obstacles, including threats to their personal safety, denial of the right to protest, surveillance and censorship, as a direct result of their nonviolent activism. The fact that civil society’s fundamental rights are seriously violated in so many EITI countries is alarming, given that the EITI seeks to promote “accountability by government to all citizens” and explicitly recognises the “important and relevant contributions” of non-governmental organisations.  The level of restrictions revealed by this report presents a direct challenge to the viability of the EITI and raises serious questions about member states that are routinely failing to protect CSOs and in many cases treating them as adversaries.

The EITI should recognise the threat the violations documented in this report offer to its credibility and viability as an international multi-stakeholder initiative. It should respond by taking increased steps to ensure that the protection of CSOs and activists becomes a priority in all its member countries.

CIVICUS recommends that EITI:

  • Enhances its requirements for multi-stakeholder engagement in a way that contributes to the creation of a more robust civic space. In doing so, EITI should ensure that CSOs enjoy the “full, free, active and effective engagement” they are meant to have within country-level multi-stakeholder groups;
  • Ensures that all member governments engage fully and meaningfully with CSOs and implement the recommendations made in the review of multi-stakeholder groups carried out by MSI Integrity in 2015;
  • Applies existing requirements more strictly and consistently to make sure that conditions for meaningful civil society participation are met in member countries;
  • Promotes an early validation process against the EITI Standard - the requirements that apply to all EITI member countries - for all those countries in which civic space is seriously restricted;
  • Prescribes corrective actions to governments of countries where there are serious civic space restrictions and closely monitors their progress in implementing recommendations; and
  • Credibly applies or threatens to apply sanctions, including suspension, towards countries failing to make discernible progress in upholding fundamental civil society rights

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New Report: Civic Space in the Americas

People’s rights to organise, speak out and take action are being extensively violated in a large number of countries in the Americas. This is according to new research by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, the Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC), the Charity and Security Network, the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (REDLAD) and the Rendir Cuentas initiative. Our findings are based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a new research collaboration to track and compare civic freedoms on a global scale.

 

Keeping up the pressure: enhancing the sustainability of protest movements

The report explores key factors that contribute to or undermine the sustainability of contemporary protest movements. The research examines these issues in three countries: Bahrain, Chile and Uganda, drawing from a series of surveys of and interviews with leaders of contemporary protest movements.

The report’s key findings show that in the face of domestic restrictions on dissent there is a lack of adequate support for the right to protest from a range of international stakeholders, including other protest movements, foreign states, United Nation bodies and international civil society organisations. This study concludes that such support is essential for enhancing the sustainability of national protest movements.

Additional key findings include:

  • Irrespective of their state’s overall level of respect for core civil society freedoms, the states covered by the research are failing to facilitate the right to peaceful assembly.
  • The major ways in which states undermine the sustainability of protest movements are the excessive use of force, the arbitrary arrest of protesters and the imposition of legal restrictions on the freedom of assembly. 

  • As networking with domestic civil society allies, including with unions, faith groups and other civil society groups, is important for enhancing the sustainability of protest movements in each country, domestic CSOs should play a larger role in mobilizing support for protest movements. 

  • The sustainability of protest movements would be enhanced if legal and extra-legal restrictions on the right to the freedom of assembly are removed or eased.
  • Protest movement leaders believe that they and their movements have capacity development needs that are currently not being.

Download the full report in English 

 

People power under attack: findings from the CIVICUS Monitor

According to new findings from the CIVICUS Monitor, just three percent of  people live in countries where space for civic activism - or civic space- is truly open. The first ever analysis of civic space covering all UN Member States shows people in 106 countries face serious threats when organising, speaking out and taking peaceful action to improve their societies. These rights are guaranteed by most national constitutions and enshrined in international  law. 

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Addressing Civic Space Restrictions in Uganda: What Role for the UPR?

This policy action brief, prepared by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), examines a range of restrictions on civil society’s fundamental rights recently experienced in Uganda. In particular, these have included a series of break-ins on the premises of civil society organisations (CSOs), in which CSO information has been stolen; attacks on the media, which have included physical attacks on journalists and the closure of private radio stations; the introduction of restrictive legislation, including on CSO operations, the media and the freedom of assembly; and increased restriction of peaceful assemblies, including through the use of excessive force to break up protests.

 

BRIEF REPORT: WIDENING SPACE BY YOUNG HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS

 

On 21 November 2016, CIVICUS together with Amnesty  International, Defence  for  Children  International,  KidsRights and World Vision convened a side event- Widening Space by Young Human Rights Defenders. The event allowed young human rights defenders to share their local realities and the ways in which they contribute to the protection and promotion of human rights, in their communities and globally. This report summarises key insights, discussions, and outcomes from the event. 

Read the report in English

 

THREATS TO CIVIC SPACE IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN

If citizens are to have strong opportunities to take part in the making of decisions that affect their lives, there needs to be space for civil society to function, flourish and play a full range of roles. The space for civil society – civic space – rests on the realisation of three fundamental rights: the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. If these three rights are respected, citizens can exercise dissent, propose solutions and contribute meaningfully to democratic governance.

The importance of civic space is recognised in international law, which compels governments to respect, facilitate and protect the three fundamental civil society rights. The role of civil society has also been recognised in a number of recent landmark international agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, this survey of civic space in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) offers compelling evidence that civil society rights are not being realised. On the positive side, core freedoms of association, assembly and expression are constitutionally recognised in most LAC countries, and mechanisms for civil society participation are increasingly being institutionalised in the region. But against this, legal and administrative barriers to the creation, functioning, communication and resourcing of civil society organisations (CSOs) have either been maintained or  recently introduced in numerous LAC countries. These constrain the freedom of association.

Alongside legal and administrative barriers, restrictions on the effective exercise of  the  freedom  of  association  take  various  forms, including  increased  scrutiny and surveillance; moves to close CSOs forcibly; smear campaigns; arrests, imprisonment, and miscarriages of justice; and the intimidation and targeted assassination of activists and human rights defenders (HRDs). Such measures disproportionally affect the work of CSOs, HRDs and journalists that engage in advocacy,  seek to hold governments to account, and work to expose poor governance and realise the rights of excluded people.

Many LAC countries have also witnessed an increase in the state’s coercive power to maintain public order, which impinges on the freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws have been passed or proposed in several countries that privilege the free circulation of traffic over the right of people to join together in public space to express dissent, and that allow for the more authoritarian policing of protests. 
More often than not, protests have been violently suppressed. This has come in response to an upsurge of citizens’ protests in response to entrenched issues of inequality, corruption and abuses of political power.Further, despite a continuing trend  towards  the adoption  of legislation on the right  to  access  information,  conditions  for  the  exercise  of  the  freedom  of  expression have deteriorated in several LAC countries. Judicial persecution and violence against journalists, as well as against CSOs and activists using the media, are among the most troubling limitations on the freedom of expression. Related issues that impact on the space for expression include conflicts between governments and critical media, and increasing concentration of media ownership.

Finally, two pressing and connected issues further affect the quality of civic space in LAC: government corruption and the influence of predatory business interests. A key concern here is the existence in many LAC countries of extensive corruption networks that link business interests, public officials and elements of the security forces, particularly at the local level. These structures of corruption cause widespread violations of the human rights of communities affected by their activities, and of CSOs and activists that work to uphold the rights of those communities. Affected populations include those whose livelihoods and environments are threatened by the advance of extractive industries, agribusiness and large-scale construction projects.

 

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Against all odds: The perils of fighting for natural resource

Many countries worldwide rely on the exploitation of natural resources as an important source of economic activity and public income. Yet when people in those countries legitimately want a say in the stewardship of their collective natural endowment, they often experience pushback from political and corporate entities seeking to defend their own interests. In response, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Publish What You Pay coalition have collaborated on this report to highlight the vital work being done by activists and their organisations for natural resource justice. In doing so, we want to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who fight tirelessly for the equitable management of natural wealth. We want to make their stories known and create even stronger webs of solidarity.

This work comes at a price for activists, including members of CIVICUS and the PWYP movement. For many of them, harassment has become a constant companion. Authoritarian and corrupt elements in states and the private sector have attempted to silence those questioning the unscrupulous exploitation of natural resources. Their methods include arbitrary arrests, illegal surveillance, disproportionate fines, various forms of intimidation and threats, unjustified travel bans, unwarranted raids on offices and violent attacks.

This report shows that shrinking civic space is a reality in most, if not all, resource-rich countries, from Australia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Azerbaijan to Canada. In shining the spotlight on the grave human rights violations taking place in some of the world’s most remote locations, we believe this report can be useful to those engaged in struggles for justice and equity around the world. These include UN and regional special experts, multilateral institutions, development banks, academic institutions, the media, and civil society activists and organisations. We are seeking out allies in sympathetic governments and private sector entities willing to work with initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Open Government Partnership.

Download the report: English | Spanish

 

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