Civil society under attack as darkness spreads throughout the globe

Big civil society against trump

The space for civil society is shrinking as reactionary ideas advance throughout the planet, but activists can lead the fight back and turn the tide

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27th February 2019 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

We are facing a dark moment in world history.

Throughout the planet, the space for civil society to operate – to hold to account, to agitate for progressive changed – has receded and continues to shrink.

This has been backed up by two major studies which have revealed empirically the scale of the problem.

In the first, global watchdog Civicus has shown that civil society is under threat and facing attacks in the majority of the world’s countries.

In the second, a UK charity which aims to enable activism has found that the climate for campaigning even in the UK has deteriorated.

A cursory glance at international headlines show a rise of right wing populism, the revival and advance of fascism, the growth of fake news and global cycles of oppression.

However, Civicus has found hard evidence that organisations and activists face harassment and repression in six out of ten nations.

According to its People Power Under Attack report, civil society is under serious attack in 111 out of 196 countries, up from 109 when a previous assessment took place.

The report says that repression of peaceful civic activism is a "widespread crisis for civil society in all parts of the world".

Only 4% of the world live in countries where governments respect the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

However, even in areas which had previously good records of allowing space for citizen activism, such as Germany and Italy, there has been a roll back under the threat of the far right and right wing populism.

This has been the case in the USA, where civil society groups are worried democratic freedoms could be curtailed, not least by a new strain of right-wing thought centred around the Trump administration.

The report states: "As societies fracture under the weight of rising social and economic inequalities and the increasing dominance of political leaders seeking to exploit societal divisions for their gain, civil society is bearing the brunt of a consequent drop in respect for the basic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.”

Researchers assessed countries on a range of areas to calculate the overall level of civic freedom they offered and categorised them as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open.

They concluded that the ratings for nine countries had worsened this year, including Austria, Kuwait, Tanzania and Italy, whereas seven had improved, including Canada, Ethiopia, Lithuania and Somalia.

The study says there are 23 countries with a "closed" civic space, whereas 44 of the 196 received an "open" rating at the opposite end of the scale.

The UK continues to be placed in the "narrowed" category, the report says.

"Countries including France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom have reduced the space for civil society organisations critical of the state and the private sector," it says.

"Very often, the targets of these restrictions are social movements, environmental groups or groups providing support to refugees and migrants."

New research from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK), the charity which promotes campaigning in the UK, shows that 49% of charity campaigners think the environment has got worse for charities over the past year, with only 16% saying it had not.

They said there was a feeling that under the strictures of the controversial Lobbying Act, the "atmosphere of intolerance from Whitehall has grown" and "some charities are increasingly less certain about when, how and how boldly to campaign".

The SMK research found a perception that funding was becoming more difficult to come by, and pointed to negative perceptions of civil society and negative media coverage.

Asked what they thought civil society organisations should do to improve the environment for campaigning, responses included more collaboration between charities and getting the message across that communicating that campaigning is part of a healthy democracy.

One of the biggest black marks against the UK is restrictions contained in the Lobbying Act.

Dubbed the gagging clause, it was introduced in 2014 by the Conservative government and imposes restrictions on the amount of money charities and campaign groups can spend on political activities in the build up to an election.

Civil society actors, including the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, say the act unfairly restricts campaigning and has curtailed charities from speaking out.

Last year Greenpeace was fined £30,000, the first to be charged under the legislation.

For Sue Tibballs, chief executive of SMK, the restrictions imposed by the act are just one of the threats in the UK.

She told TFN: “We rightly worry about activists being prosecuted under terrorism laws for an act of protest. Less dramatic but more insidious is the suffocating bureaucracy of shoddily drafted law and restrictive contract terms, which is having a much wider and more insidious effect – as we know from our research into the impact of the Lobbying Act.

“As a nation, we suffer from an outdated view of charity. We still seem to be stuck in the Victorian era, where some people are deserving, others aren’t and politics is mysteriously unconnected to grinding poverty or the persecution of refugees. The national media has a lot to answer for in this sphere, but we also need more civil society leaders to be loud and proud about their right, and duty, to speak out when they see injustice.”

This was backed by Nick Dearden, the director of campaigning social justice charity Global Justice Now.

Dearden told TFN: “From gagging clauses preventing NGOs from speaking out, to the chilling effect of the Lobbying Act, and the increasing difficulty of getting any information out of ministries, it’s clear that we have a government in Westminster that is terrified of public debate.

“This is a massive problem because without information, without the right to speak, without whistleblowers, you can’t build a thriving democracy.”

Dearden said the situation is so serious that campaigners can’t just sit back and politely ask for the space in which to speak. They have to claim it, he insists.

This is something which is made clear in the Civicus report. The moment in world history may be dark, but as long as there is a push-back there is always the possibility of light – with improvements in countries as diverse as Ecuador, Ethiopia and Malaysia.

In each of these, change has come about because of the tenacity and bravery of those at the grassroots.

As Dearden put it:  “Campaigners themselves have a real responsibility – we can’t just wait for the tide to turn. It is our job to hold any government to account, and it is not up to the government of the day to decide when we can do that and when we can’t.

“The harder we are pushed down, the harder we must push back.”