Fundamental freedoms at risk in some Pacific countries as Australia’s civic space rating is downgraded

Suva, 4 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 the state of civic space globally. In the Pacific, while civic space in more than half of the 12 countries remains open, restrictions to democratic and civic freedoms persist in a number of other countries. The CIVICUS Monitor is alarmed by the fact that Australia has had its civic space rating downgraded from open to narrowed. In practice, this means that over the year civic rights, including freedom of expression and press freedom, are sliding in this key democracy.

A number of governments in the Pacific region are trying to limit civic rights through restricting the role of the media and silencing journalists. At the same time criminal defamation laws are being deployed against government critics and opposition voices. CIVICUS Monitor research also shows that there are ongoing reports on the harassment of human rights defenders.

“At first glance civic space in the Pacific may seem relatively positive. However civil society groups have been concerned about controls on press freedom in countries like Fiji and Nauru as well as attempts to censor negative media coverage in Papua New Guinea. Even open countries like Samoa and Tonga are resorting to criminal defamation laws to silence criticism,” said Josef Benedict, civic space researcher for the CIVICUS Monitor.

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. Within the Pacific region, the story is slightly more positive: eight countries are rated ‘open’ and three as ‘narrowed’. However, Nauru, Papua New Guinea and Fiji are still sitting in the ‘obstructed’ category.

The most alarming deterioration in civic space is occurring in Australia, which has been downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed.’ Freedom of the press is particularly under threat in Australia: raids on the media occurred in 2019, as did the intimidation of journalists reporting on plans to expand government surveillance. Whistleblowers are also being targeted when they expose government wrongdoing and are being prosecuted under the Intelligence Services Act. Increased surveillance of tech companies is also raising concern – the government passed new legislation which will force IT companies to hand over user information even if it is encrypted.

“New laws in Australia are creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression especially for journalists and whistleblowers seeking to expose issues of public interest. Other new legislation seems to give the government inappropriate powers to allow for unjustified encroachments on Australians’ right to privacy,” said Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS UN Adviser.

The CIVICUS Monitor report shows that censorship was documented in five countries in the Pacific in the past year. In Fiji, The Media Industry Development Act has created a chilling effect for media and press freedom while in Nauru the government has restricted media freedom, imposing excessive visa fees on journalists and hampering independent scrutiny of its policies and practices

Restrictive laws have also been used to target opposition voices and disrupt protests. Criminal defamation laws have been used in Vanuatu and Samoa to silence criticism. While in Fiji, the Public Order (Amendment) Act 2012 has been used to restrict marches and disperse peaceful protests by workers.

Harassing activists and journalists is another violation documented in the Pacific. Ahead of the visit of the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ visit to Fiji in May 2019, women rights defender Shamima Ali was harassed by the police, demanding information about the nature of her planned discussions with the UN Secretary General. In Papua New Guinea journalists have faced harassment for negative media coverage of the country.

On a bright note, enthusiasm for the global climate strikes swept across the Pacific region with climate change activists taking to the streets to lend their support to this worldwide movement. In April 2019, the latest press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) showed that Tonga had improved its ranking by six places to 45 out of 180 countries

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.

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

Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher (Pacific)

Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS UN Adviser (Australia)