COVID-19 shrinks civic space

A glimpse of enough Is Enough campaign in Kathmandu. Photo: MONIKA DEUPALA

Civil society around the world faces serious restrictions on its freedom to express and engage in activism to defend human rights following the COVID-19 pandemic, a report by Forus International and the Asia Development Alliance (ADA) has concluded.

Titled ‘Realising the Potential of Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda’ was published last week with 18 civic space cases studies from countries, including Nepal. It highlights how the pandemic has exacerbated and deepened existing problems faced by civil society organisations (CSOs) by constricting their work environment.

“Civic space was already under pressure before the pandemic,” said Sarah Strack of Forus. “A vibrant and independent civil society is vital to fulfil its role in the implementation of SDGs. Progress will be correlated to the extent to which meaningful civic space will be secured at local, national, regional and international levels.”

The report says the SDGs (the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030) will be severely affected by state responses to the coronavirus crisis, and the pressure on non-governmental actors.

A key trend in almost all of the case studies included in the report is unwarranted state restriction on civic space -- on the freedom of expression, assembly and association of civil society in many countries around the world.

Says Philip Alston, former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights: “The responses to COVID-19 in many countries has only made the situation worse as governments have opportunistically used the pandemic as a justification to further clamp down on civil society.”

Targeting free speech can take various forms. In Cambodia, several journalists have been arrested or threatened because of their reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. A blogger on the Pacific island of Samoa was jailed for seven weeks for allegedly defaming the Prime Minister. CSOs and independent media groups have been ‘muted' in many countries from Nepal to Colombia.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in its 18th annual report released earlier this year on the World Press Freedom day also said that the pandemic has worsened the lack of safety for journalists in South Asia as controls on media freedom were tightened across the region.

The Internet and social media has been especially targeted by authorities to curtail dissent, but civil society organisations around the world have used virtual spaces to become more vocal and exchange information to efficiently defend offline space. One example of this is Nepal’s Enough Is Enough campaign that first started on social media.

Thousands of youth took to streets demanding better response to the pandemic with some of them participating in a hunger strike that lasted 12 days before an agreement was reached earlier this month  However, some activists resumed their hunger strike in Kathmandu on Sunday.

A global campaign involving Forus International and concerned stakeholders will call for new civic space indicators to be developed that will measure the efforts of UN Member States to protect fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and national human rights laws.

Nepal’s treatment of civil society and their advocacy will be crucial as the country prepares for a second term at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) amidst poor record on transitional justice at home.

For the social recovery from the COVID-19 crisis to be sustainable and resilient, a return to business as usual must be avoided, stated the report. It further explains that the building back better narrative and plans must be comprehensive, covering all policy areas and creating more space for civil society in the development, implementation and monitoring.

Says Forus International: “We believe progressive governments, international and regional institutions, philanthropic organisations and civil society now need to take bold steps to counter the shrinking of civic space and to develop global partnerships to tackle the issue.”