Australia’s civic space rating downgraded as freedom of speech threatened

Sydney, 4th December 2019

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.

Australia has today had its civic space rating downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The downgrade to narrowed means that that while the state allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, violations of these rights also take place. The rating changed after a thorough assessment of the state of civic freedoms in the country and comes after a year of regular monitoring. CIVICUS is extremely concerned about incursions on free speech, the increasing use of surveillance and crackdown on protesters.

There are serious concerns that the government is trying to muzzle criticism. In the last year, press freedom has been threatened after police raids on the media. The Australian Federal Police raided the offices of Australia’s independent public broadcaster The ABC after it broadcast a report about unlawful killings by members of the Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan. Journalists at the Sunday Telegraph and News Corp had their homes raided by police after they reported on government plans to expand surveillance to spy on Australians.

CIVICUS is also worried about attempts to silence whistleblowers who reveal government wrongdoing. In August 2019, two men were arrested under the Intelligence Services Act for revealing secret information about the bugging of Timor-Leste government buildings by Australia in 2004. The men face jail terms if convicted.

"Increasingly we’re seeing a climate of intimidation aimed at discouraging dissent. Australians have always enjoyed a healthy scepticism of unchecked power, yet more recently it seems like the only people getting punished for government wrongdoing in Australia are the people who courageously reveal it.” said Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS Advocacy Officer.”

Anti-encryption laws rammed through late last year raised global alarm bells as the federal government seized new powers to force tech companies to hand over people’s information – even if it is encrypted, raising concerns on the right to privacy. The new powers enabled authorities to delete or alter data on computers when searching premises using an arrest warrant.

Environmental and climate activism in Australia has also come under fire over the past year, even as Australian students have led some of the biggest peaceful climate protests in the world.

“Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly used his speeches in recent months to chip away at the rights of environmental movements rather than engaging with their concerns. He has criticised students for skipping school to join the climate strikes while downplaying their fears that bushfires and other climate impacts are already disrupting their education. Australians have a right to peaceful assembly, association and expression in our democracy - rights that our leaders have a duty to uphold, even if they disagree with the message. Australians are not used to being told to keep quiet when it comes to talking about the issues that matter to us - and we shouldn't have to be afraid of the consequences of speaking out,” said Rowlands.

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.

Australia is now rated NARROWED on the CIVICUS Monitor.

Visit Australia’s homepage for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates.

Read the new Global Report: People Power Under Attack 2019

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

Lyndal Rowlands, Advocacy Officer, CIVICUS 
Josef Benedict, CIVIC Space Research Officer, CIVICUS