PROMOTING AND PROTECTING CIVIC SPACES IN AN ERA OF REPRESSION
Written by Stephanie Effevottu,
Director for Administration, Building Blocks for Peace Foundation
The promotion and protection of civic space are regarded as a crucial prerequisite for inclusive growth, good governance, rule of law, active citizen engagement, and sustainable development. Civic space is seen as the core of open and democratic societies. When the civic space is protected, citizens and civil society groups can meet, advocate, organise, and exercise their fundamental civil rights such as access to information, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression. Social activists, peacebuilders, and human rights defenders will also be free to mobilise citizens for peaceful movements, speak truth to power, and seek for accountability and transparency from their respective governments.
Yet, over the last decades, civic society space across the world has been dwindling dramatically. This is largely because governments around the world are making use of policies, laws, regulations, and institutions to close, restrict, or shrink the public space available for politics, for debates, for groups to meet, and even for freedom of expression. In all of these, young people, women, and girls, and well as minority groups are particularly vulnerable to these shrinking civic spaces. In a 2019 and 2020 report, CIVICUS reported that young people are one of the five groups that are commonly exposed to attacks on fundamental freedoms in civic space.
In this article, we describe what we mean by civic space, the factors responsible for shrinking civic space, indicators of closing civic space, and ways through which young people and other civic space actors can reclaim, defend, and protect the civic space against state repression.
Civic Space: What do we mean?
When we mention civic space, we are referring to the enabling political, social, and legal environment that allows organisations and individuals to operate freely. It denotes their capacity to engage with political and socio-economic processes with any form of interference, thus allowing them to fulfill their true potential as civil society. Open civic space allows citizens to exercise their rights both online and offline without free of attack or reprisal.
Civic space actors cut across formal and informal groups to include civil society organisations, trade unions, grassroots organisations, faith groups, non-governmental organisations, international and national media, social movements, national institutions, associations and community groups, online networks, among others. Some of the roles performed by these actors include representing the needs and priorities of the most excluded communities, monitoring and reviewing how programs and budgets are being implemented, and providing the feedback that governments so actively need in order to ensure that their interventions are truly responsive.
It also entails holding both government representatives and the larger structures that determine policies accountable to serving the needs of the greater public. It is in being able to do these functions freely and effectively that all of society benefits.
Factors responsible for the shrinking civic space
Like most parts of the world, the Nigerian Civic Space has been regarded as being repressed (CIVICUS, 2019). A number of factors are responsible for the shrinking civic space currently being experienced around the world. Foremost among these are declining democratic values, and the rise of targeting political parties and leaders who are intolerant of opposition by citizens, civil society groups, their political opposition, the media, among others. Conflict and political instability also lead to the closure of civic space because inevitably, democratic institutions, as well as rule of law institutions that provide the scaffolding of civic space are eroded in situations of political instability and conflict.
Other drivers behind these shrinking civic spaces include the decline in democratic accountability, undermining of multilateral systems, misuse of emergency laws and other emergency measures, rise in anti-rights groups, consolidation of government power as well as influence of private interests, etc.
What are some of the indicators of closing civic space?
Three fundamental freedoms are essential and crucial to civic space. These are the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. They are a part of customary international law and a part of national constitutions in most countries. There are many indicators of closing civic space, some of which include: divisive hate speech by political leaders, politicisation of law enforcement agencies and the judiciary. Others include the introduction of restrictive laws and regulations that reduce the independence of NGOs and civic society organisations, the introduction of laws that prevent people from organising and mobilising on the streets, and raids on civil society organisations and media outlets. There is also the use of certain constitutional, administrative, and legislative provisions to hamper civic engagement and participation.
In addition to the use of laws and regulations, journalists, activists, and civil society members are constantly at risk of increased scrutiny by the government because of their overt criticism of government particularly on issues of governance, accountability, elections, democratic consolidation, etc. In 2019, Amnesty International released a report, which showed how journalists are being illegally arrested, abducted, detained, and intimidated by state security agencies into retracting or recalling stories. In several instance, media houses have been closed. Peacebuilders, youth activists, independent journalists, humanitarian workers, online activists, and bloggers are frequently subjected to harassment, threats, intimidation, and even arrests often on trumped on charges.
For example, in Nigeria, the NGO regulatory bill is a restrictive bill designed to shrink the civic space for NGO actors. Ibezim-Ohaeri (2021) identified the following as some of the modes of attack posing risk to the civic space in Nigeria: violations of press freedom; attacks on free speech especially on social media; disruption of public protests; suppression of religious/ethnic sentiments; political opposition; terrorism/counterterrorism; crackdown on CSOs using new regulations; blasphemy convictions/ death penalty; partisanship, polarization of social justice advocacy; and financial constraints to CSOs defending the civic space.
The civic space in a country can be said to be shrinking when most of these indicators are noticeable. With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating existing socio-economic and political challenges in most societies, the civic space has come under further pressure. Many governments have used the pandemic as an avenue and excuse to limit speech, control expression, and entrench repression online, in the media, and on the streets.
How can civic space actors reclaim, defend and protect the civic space?
We are currently experiencing a global civic space emergency where less than half of the world’s population live in countries where their right to assembly, organise and speak out are protected. Some ways in which young people, civil society groups, and non-governmental organisations can reclaim, protect, and maintain the civic space in the face of increasing repression include:
1. Advocating for non-violent solutions to civil conflict is one way through which youth groups and civic space actors can contribute to counteracting closing space. Civil society groups can also publicly condemn the brutal arrests and the use of excessive force by security organs in response to protest.
2. Young people can also reclaim the civic space through active participation especially at the local level. We can do this by exercising our civic duty by voting during elections, particularly in local election, as this is where we can most have a say on voting the right candidate to represent us at national or federal level.
3. We can protect and maintain the civic space by forging alliance and building coalition/partnership with other civic society groups. By working with other partners, it become easier for these groups to articulate a common message to multiple audience. It also makes it difficult for the government to ignite state repression.
4. The use of digital technologies is another way young people and civil society groups can work towards opening and expanding the civic space since most of the digital platforms are beyond the control of the state. Social media provides groups with a platform for facilitating meaningful engagement, activism, and mobilisation. Thus, young people can use the various social media platforms at their disposal to challenge political control of the civic space.
Across the world, there is an urgent need for an open, free, safe, and enabling space for people to speak out, organise, mobilise, and take action both online and offline. In fact, the presence of a well-protected civic space is an essential prerequisite for achieving and maintaining sustainable peace, security, and development. To achieve this, we therefore recommend the establishment of safe and inclusive spaces where citizens are free to come together to share their experiences, take active part in community life, and proffer solutions to the common threats and challenges that they face.
Amnesty International (2017), Human Rights Defenders Under Threat — A Shrinking Space for Civil Society, Amnesty International, London, available at www.amnesty.at/media/2457/human-rights-defenders-under-threat.pdf
Amnesty International. (2019). Endangered Voices: Attack on Freedom of Expression in Nigeria. Amnesty International, London.
Boulding, C. (2014). NGOs, Political Protest, and Civil Society. Cambridge University Press.
CIVICUS (2020), Civicus monitor watch list, https://monitor.civicus.org/watch-list/.
CIVICUS. (2019). People Power Under Attack. Retrieved from https://monitor.civicus.org/PeoplePowerUnderAttack2019/
Dahlgren, Peter (2015). ‘The Internet as a Civic Space’. In: S. Coleman & D. Freelon [eds.], Handbook of Digital Politics, pp. 17–34. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Human Rights Watch, Nigeria: End Excessive Force Against Protesters (October 2020). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/22/nigeria-end-excessive-force-against-protesters
Ibezim-Ohaeri, V. (2021). Galvanizing collective action to protect the civic space in Nigeria. Nigeria: Spaces for Change.
Oxfam. Influencing strategy on shrinking and shifting civic space. Oxfam in Nigeria.
United Nations. (2021). If I Disappear: Global Report on Protecting Young People in Civic Space. United Nations: Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth.