No Free Speech
The democratic processes are under attack all around the world. This is not just arbitrary arrests and violence against those who express their opinions or defend the right to free speech. The emergence of digital media platforms has been heralded as a boost for democracy, activism and widening access to information. It has also seemingly distributed power to users and those not directly in the political system who can engage directly with mass audiences. However, the rise of algorithms and clickbait content has polarized public debate, disinformation and misinformation. The public trust in both traditional and social media alike is eroding.
There is also a rise in the use (abuse) of legislation to crackdown on legitimate and peaceful expression, such at the National Security Law passed by China on Hong Kong in July 2020. Those who protest the curtailment of their democratic rights are arrested. In Hong Kong protestors holding blank pieces of paper in silence were arrested. In Thailand a ban on gatherings of more than 4 persons in Bangkok was announced 15th October 2020 in attempt to silence protest calling for political reform and democratic rule.
In Tanzania, with elections due on 28th October 2020, attacks also come through cancelling the licences of human rights organisations, preventing them from becoming election observers, revoking the licences of news outlets and arresting at least 17 opposition politicians and critics. News outlets are not allowed to report on Covid-19 which the Tanzanian President says does not exist in the country. The Cybercrimes Act 2015 is used to prosecute individuals for online posts and internet-based publications as well as to charge excessive fees for licences to publish blogs on the internet.
“It’s no coincidence that the Tanzanian government has increased its repression of the opposition, activists’ groups, and the media so close to the elections,” said Oryem Nyeko, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of upholding the right to free expression at this critical time, authorities have instead adopted measures that raise concerns about the elections being free and fair.”
Most Gulf States have enacted or updated their cybercrime laws as part of their efforts to address the increasing threat of cybercrime. However, most of these laws actually neglect to deal with the real issue and focus on limiting freedom of expression. Several human rights defenders and activists, as well as other social media users, have been prosecuted under these laws, deported or jailed for online comments, for blogging or for posting pictures .
Governments not only restrict information but they use misinformation often via social media to mislead citizens. There is “unembarrassed profligacy of lies” in the USA Presidential election campaign. Those in power have attempted to sabotage the postal vote system and made public statements to undermine trust in the voting system. Also the foreign government blatant interference in elections through social media manipulation and illegal access to personal data (a tactic also used by internal political parties) is becoming the norm.
No Parliamentary Scrutiny
In Hong Kong the new National Security law established the Committee for Safeguarding National Security which has no democratic or legal scrutiny. This means the public cannot use legal procedures as a check against abuse of power and breaches of Hong Kong’s legal obligations, including human rights obligations under international and domestic law. This is just one high profile case. Open Democracy reported the alarming statistic that 2 billion people had shut or limited parliaments.
Under cover of the pandemic some Governments, such as in Hungary, have grabbed excessive powers. Others have shut Parliaments and reduce the scrutinising activities of committees. Even before Covid-19, the UK Government has been increasingly using statutory instruments rather than the full parliamentary process to change the law. These have very little oversight, especially when the Government used the urgency procedure to give statutory instruments immediate effect. The bypassing of debate often leads to make mistakes. Before Exit Day, when the UK left the EU, 97 statutory instruments were laid in Parliament to fix mistakes of earlier legislation.
Civil society under serious attack in 153 out of 195 countries globally
It is not only in Tanzania that NGOs find themselves restricted by Governments. Across Europe there has been a move to reduce the participation of NGOs in the political process. Consultation with civic groups, in particular youth organisations, has been bypassed according to a Council of Europe Youth Forum Report. The curtailment of funding has also reduced the ability of community groups, NGOs and those representing minorities to engage in consultation and policy making. In some countries populist governments were able to introduce restrictions on many NGOs, apparently with the silent consent of society.
Around the world the space for civic and democratic action has been facing an unprecedented crackdown, commonly labelled the “shrinking space”, with civil society under serious attack in 153 out of 195 countries globally according to the EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights). It is in these countries where human rights and their defenders are most at risk. Whilst the right to assembly has been limited for public health reasons, in numerous countries this has been disproportionate, with restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press included.
Adding to the pre-existing challenges to democracy the coronavirus pandemic is being used as a pretext to limit democratic and civic space, as well as the respect for the rule of law and of international commitments. Whilst in emergency circumstances, international human rights law allows the limitation of certain human rights if the measures are necessary, proportionate, temporary in nature, and non-discriminatory, many restrictions have been excessive.
Winners and Losers: Some NGOs get squeezed but not others
Civic space is diverse and whilst some NGOs and community organisations face restrictions, others are expanding. Some parts of civil society get protected, and even subsidized, while others get smeared, harassed and stigmatized. Elite clubs and lobby groups with their land, money and connections can spread their message. There are also external forces at work in countries. “Elites take their cues, and get rewards, from foreign banks, extractive corporations, tax havens and accounting firms, donor agencies and others in the ‘international community.”
The labour rights movement, which has brought about hard won social protection in Europe and North America, has been boxed in by trade deals and development aid especially in Africa. Globally, austerity and corporate interests have slashed workers’ rights and those who champion them are suppressed. The social media, surveillance and anti-terrorism laws are adding to the wrecking of the spaces for an independent, authentic and democratic civic life.
Written by Gill Peace, our Operations Manager