CIVICUS Monitor Ratings Changes between March and November 2018

Improving:

Canada - narrowed to open

While inequality, injustice, and threats to freedom exist, especially for indigenous, immigrant and other marginalised communities, most Canadians are able to associate, protest and freely express opinions. More work remains to be done to counter contemporary forces that threaten free speech rights, especially on campuses and online, and to address corporate-backed measures that suppress green activists. Government institutions are however mostly transparent and there have been several recent instances in which protest and direct action have led to meaningful change. In one recent example, indigenous and environmental groups, who have been protesting against the Trans Mountain Pipeline project for several years, claimed a victory in their campaign to halt the project when a Canadian court overturned the government’s approval of the project.

Ecuador - obstructed to narrowed

In April 2017, Ecuador elected Lenin Moreno as its new President. As soon as he took power, Moreno announced a commitment to respect civic space freedoms and stated that there would be progress made with regard to those who have been persecuted for freely expressing their opinions. Thus far, Moreno has granted several pardons. Regarding freedom of expression, local organisation Fundamedios documented 297 attacks on freedom of expression in Ecuador during 2017, a 40 percent decrease compared to 491 cases reported in 2016. Although there are still serious human rights challenges, including restrictive legislation including the Organic Law of Communication, positive steps have been taken in recent months to improve freedom of expression in Ecuador.

Ethiopia - closed to repressed

In Ethiopia, the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association have been systematically undermined and suppressed by a combination of legislative and extra-legal limitations. However, since Dr. Ahmed Abiy became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in late March 2018, his leadership has spearheaded a wave of reforms which have opened civic and democratic space in the country. In early June 2018, the government lifted the state of emergency imposed in February. Several political prisoners - including journalists, bloggers, activists, academics and opposition leaders - were released between April and June 2018, while mobile internet services that had been blocked for months were restored in early April 2018. Between July and October, the government signed peace agreements with opposition movements and removed them from a contentious list of banned terrorist groups maintained by the previous government, allowing them to return to Ethiopia after years of exile in Eritrea. On 9th July 2018, Prime Minister Ahmed signed a historic declaration to end the "state of war" with Eritrea which has long contributed to the repression of basic human rights and freedoms in Eritrea.

Liberia - repressed to obstructed

In January 2018, George Weah was sworn in as the President of Liberia, taking over from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. For the first time since 1944, Liberians witnessed a peaceful transition from one democratically elected leader to another. In terms of civic space, Weah has made firm commitments to encourage and support the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. On 3rd July 2018, the Liberian House of Representatives approved a bill repealing certain sections of Liberia’s Penal Law of 1978, decriminalising criminal libel against the president, sedition and criminal malevolence.

Lithuania - narrowed to open

Civil society is free to form, organise and assemble in Lithuania, while free speech is mostly respected. There is strong state and regulatory support for NGOs and the government has sought ways to increase and improve NGO participation in policy-making decisions, including through the signing of a memorandum of understanding between CSOs and cabinet. Recently, the prime minister showed support for the creation of a new fund to support NGOs. A vibrant media exits, especially online, but there are concerns about societal discrimination against LGBTI groups and people. Access to "Russian propaganda" has also been restricted and security laws are sometimes used to restrict access to certain state information. Protests are common in Lithuania, and are mostly peaceful.

Somalia - closed to repressed

Challenges on free expression such as the continued crackdown on free expression and independent media have been rampant with reports of cases of arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, harassment and intimidation of journalists by security agents. However, positive developments have been reported in the country such the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission, and ending the practice of public executions in Mogadishu. The courts have also been seen to exercise independence in protecting civic space, as seen in recent judgments that have overturned decisions to ban local newspapers which are critical of the government.

The Gambia - repressed to obstructed

In 2017, after 22 years of authoritarian rule under President Yahya Jammeh, the Gambia experienced a transition after Adam Barrow won the elections in December 2016. Under Barrow, there has been an unprecedented openness compared with Jammeh, and commitments were made to repeal some of repressive laws and to ensure respect for human rights and accountability for past human rights abuses. A committee on media law reform was set up to review legislation and to assist in drafting a new media law. The Supreme Court has declared some of Gambia's laws and provisions criminalising freedom of expression unconstitutional, but upheld elements of the law on sedition. In October 2018, a 11-member Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission was sworn in to probe human rights violations committed under the Jammeh regime. In practice, civic space concerns still exists, as several protesters have been killed through excessive use of force by security officers, while journalists are subjected to occasional attacks.

Worsening:

Austria - open to narrowed

Protests against the new ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government took place in January 2018, in the face of a heavy police presence, helicopters and water cannon. Since then, the new administration has steadfastly refused to engage in structured dialogue with civil society in a range of sectors. Instead, leaders have made a number of derogatory remarks about non-governmental organisations. More recently, the environment minister introduced amendments which will significantly limit consultation with many NGOs working to protect the environment in Austria. Funding to NGOs in many sectors has also been drastically reduced. Freedom of expression has also come under attack this year, with government ministers denigrating journalists and the media. Also in 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor reported worrying moves by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to weaken Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF. Meanwhile, a law passed in 2017 by the former SPÖ-led government coalition is restricting the freedom of peaceful assembly, by increasing the notice period required for protests to 48 hours.

Azerbaijan - repressed to closed

The legal framework regarding freedom of association in Azerbaijan made it extremely difficult for independent NGOs to operate in the country, for example, current legislation seriously restricts access to foreign funding for NGOs. Organisations and HRDs have also been targeted by criminal investigations and persecution, including intrusive inspections and raids on NGOs; the freezing and blocking of their bank accounts; criminal investigations of NGOs and their leaders; and travel bans, arrests and politically motivated convictions targeting NGO leaders. Azerbaijan’s Law on Assemblies allows for banning assemblies near government buildings and transportation routes and for prohibiting “political” protests during events of “state importance”. Police frequently disperse protests using excessive force and detain protesters. The media and free speech climate in Azerbaijan is extremely repressive, as the authorities have cracked down on independent media, including by blocking their websites, initiating tax evasion investigations and raiding their offices.

Gabon - obstructed to repressed

Civic space is under severe pressure in Gabon. The media regulator regularly suspends media outlets: in August 2018, the HAC suspended France 24 from broadcasting in the country for one year, later reduced to three months, for airing a documentary critical of president Bongo and suspended the newspapers Echos du Nord and La Loupe for a period of one months. Protests and strikes are often banned and protesters arbitrarily arrested. In March 2017, authorities suspended the activities of trade union Conasysed. Members of the political opposition, journalists and trade union leaders often face restrictions and are regularly arrested and prosecuted.

Italy - open to narrowed

Civic space in Italy has come under pressure in recent years in part due to increased political polarisation connected to the rise of populist, right-wing political parties. The current coalition government involving the League party and Five Star Movement has in particular pursued a hard line against migration into the country, as well as civil society organisations providing humanitarian support to refugees and migrants. Reports by Amnesty and the Trans National Institute describe the criminalisation of solidarity by CSOs in Italy in recent months. Pressure was particularly strong on Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs. Journalists and academics were prevented from reporting on migration centres. Coupled with this are the pre-existing pressures on freedom of expression, in large part due to the threats faced by some journalists who seek to expose corruption and criminal activity in public life in Italy. Journalists have received both death threats as well threats of physical violence.

Kuwait - obstructed to repressed

Restrictions on the freedom of expression have been a consistent trend in Kuwait in recent years. Authorities have routinely targeted, threatened, arrested and prosecuted human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers for their online human rights work. CSOs have also been targeted as some face dissolution by authorities because of their online and offline work and expression. Concerns have also been raised over the drafting of new laws and use of courts to restrict online expression. Common trends by authorities around peaceful assembly include threats, harassment and smear campaigns against protesters. Arrests and prosecution of peaceful protestors are also common.

Latvia* - open to narrowed

Concerning developments include amendments to the laws governing CSOs adopted by the Latvian parliament in November 2017. These changes aim to ensure that CSOs comply with "national security interests" and they also give greater powers to the authorities to ask for detailed reports, prohibit public activities and freeze bank accounts of organisations. Authorities now have the power to shut down organisations in certain circumstances. This closure of space is also being experienced through a denial of access to government ministries and attempts by the government to curtail funding to the sector. These developments have occurred in tandem with a spike in damaging public narratives about so-called 'Sorosites' - members of civil society which are allegedly funded by Hungarian philanthropist George Soros and are intent on importing foreign values and destablising the state.

Nauru - narrowed to obstructed

The situation for freedom of expression in Nauru continues to regress. There is no independent media on the island and Nauru imposes a non-refundable visa fee of around USD 6,000 on foreign journalists entering the country which hampers independent scrutiny of Nauru’s policies and practices. This is especially true of the Australian-run refugee detention centres on the island, where there have been widespread reports of abuse. In June 2018, a new contempt of court law was introduced that makes it a crime to criticise any party in a legal case. In September 2018, the Nauru government barred the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) from entering into the country, to cover a regional forum while in October 2018, Nauru’s government ordered Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to stop work there immediately and leave the island. Social media has also been blocked and peaceful protesters have been jailed.

Nicaragua* - obstructed to repressed

Widespread protests began in Nicaragua on 18th April 2018, after the government proposed amendments to the social security system that would have seen an increase in contributions made by workers and employers and a reduction in pensions paid to retired workers. Although the amendments were revoked a few days later, protests continued as protesters called for justice and the President's resignation. The government's reaction to the protests was a harsh crackdown with excessive force and violence. According the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) 325 individuals have been killed, hundreds remain in detention,180 people have disappeared and 14 are still missing since the crisis started. Systematic harassment against human rights defenders and social leaders in Nicaragua is continuing. The authorities are accusing these activists of terrorism, organised crime, and similar offences. On 18th September 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures to protect the rights of more than a hundred people "who are at serious and urgent risk of irreparable harm to their human rights".

Papua New Guinea - narrowed to obstructed

Media freedom continues to deteriorate in Papua New Guinea where journalists are subjected to restrictions and harassment for their reporting, including on the Australia-run refugee detention center on Manus Island. Some journalists also faced physical assaults while covering the 2017 elections or have been directly threatened by officials forcing them to self-censor. There has also been a lack of accountability for police violence against student protesters. Land. environmental and anti-corruption activists have faced threats and arrest for opposing development projects or extractive industries. In addition, WHRDs encounter gender-related risks for their activism.

Senegal - narrowed to obstructed

Protests have at times been arbitrarily banned, met with excessive violence by security forces and protesters have been arbitrarily detained. One student died in May 2018, when security forces used live ammunition in clashes between protesters and security forces. Press offensesm including criminal defamation, continue to be criminalised in the 2017 Press Code. There have been incidents of arbitrary arrests of artists and social media users on charges such as "offending the head of state" and "spreading false news".

Tanzania - obstructed to repressed

Tanzania has experienced an increased intolerance by the state to human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers, while anti-LGBT rhetoric continues to be advanced by authorities. Human rights defenders face threats of arbitrary arrests and detentions because of their work, as LGBT activists bear the brunt of the crackdown. CSOs have faced threats of de-registration as the government embarked on a "verification process" for all NGOs in the country. Restrictions on expression have also forced human rights bloggers to shut down their sites as government introduced stringent laws to regulate internet use, while traditional newspaper outlets have faced bans for publishing content which is perceived to be critical of the president and the government. Members of the public have not been spared as they also face arrests for using social media to express their personal views against the president.

*Latvia and Nicaragua’s ratings were changed prior to this current ratings update in November 2018.