Civic freedoms under threat in Europe and Central Asia: two countries downgraded and no major improvements across others

London, 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.

The CIVICUS Monitor has today released People Power Under Attack 2019, a new report showing that there have been no major improvements in civic and political rights in the 54 countries in Europe and Central Asia in the past year. In fact, CIVICUS is concerned by the fact that civic space is deteriorating in two countries: Malta and Serbia, which have both been downgraded. The only country in the region which has improved its rating is Moldova, which has moved from obstructed to narrowed.

Although the EU remains the region of the world with the largest number of countries with open civic space, the conditions for civil society continue to deteriorate. A worrying trend is emerging: even in countries where people are usually able to exercise their political and democratic freedoms without hindrance, excessive use of force is being used to disrupt protesters.

“Governments in Europe need to sit up and take notice of this data. This region is usually seen as a beacon for democratic and political rights but the fact that two European countries have been downgraded is alarming,” said Dominic Perera, Research Advisor at CIVICUS. “Also, within the region of Europe and Central Asia there are still seven countries where civic freedoms are utterly repressed.”

The report, which is based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration, shows that basic freedoms are backsliding across the globe. In the past year, twice as many people are living in countries where civic freedoms and democratic rights are violated. In Europe and Central Asia, 13 countries feature in the worst categories for civic space rating (3 are categorised as closed; 4 repressed and 6 obstructed). What this means is that a quarter of people in this region are living in countries where governments do not respect the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Civic space ratings for two European countries have fallen: Serbia has fallen from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ while Malta has dropped from ‘open to ‘narrowed.’ In Malta, the killing of prominent anti-corruption investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 has created an environment that is becoming increasingly hostile to journalists, especially those reporting on corruption. The government has also started to harass and intimidate activists and those advocating for justice. In Serbia, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2019 to protest against the President and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. In response, the government took a number of authoritarian steps to restrict the work of journalists, civil society groups and opposition voices.

Within Europe, although 21 countries are rated as ‘open’, the freedoms of speech, association and peaceful assembly across the region are dwindling. Some governments are restricting freedoms by attempting to silence those who challenge the authorities, and there are many instances in the past year where excessive use of force has been used to dispel peaceful protesters. In France, for example, the police used disproportionate force against peaceful protesters in the Gilets Jaunes, or ‘Yellow Vest’ movement, who were demonstrating against inequality.

A major threat to civic space in the EU is the rise of right-wing and far-right parties. In Estonia, the freedom and independence of the press is under scrutiny after the Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) started to publicly vilify the media. The Hungarian government continues to trample upon democratic and political rights; it has introduced more regressive legislation and has attacked activists and critics.

Outside of the EU, civic space conditions are much worse. Russia continues its crackdown on freedom of speech, and has introduced a law which criminalizes “disrespect” of authorities. As in previous years, the Russian authorities have rounded up human rights defenders, activists and protesters, who have then been detained or convicted.

In Central Asia and the Caucasus human rights improvements have generally been slow. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan - the two countries with the worst civic space rating - are in these regions. In Kazakhstan, although President Nursultan Nazarbayev was replaced after three decades in power, his predecessor has not enacted any positive reforms. Indeed, during the election period, human rights in Kazakhstan reached a new low as several thousand peaceful protesters were detained, access to social media was blocked and the work of journalists was obstructed.

According to the CIVICUS Monitor, censorship is the most frequent violation used by authorities in these regions to control the public narrative and stifle debate. In some countries, such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, access to specific online content is blocked. In other countries, conservative governments try to influence public discourse by refusing to broadcast so-called controversial content, such as shows about gender or LGBTQI issues.

Despite the slide of political and democratic freedoms across Europe and Central Asia, civil society is fighting back. Advocacy by civil society organisations in Lithuania has encouraged the government to promise that it will establish a National NGO Fund. Also in the past year, the Monitor has documented 11 cases where human rights defenders have been released, including within repressed countries such as Turkey and Azerbaijan.

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.

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