Ratings Update October 2017

Signs of Encouragement

Despite the overwhelming number of reports detailing violations of civic freedoms, the CIVICUS Monitor is also tracking the continued resilience and mobilisation of civil society groups all around the world. As of 21 September 2017, the Monitor had documented 42 reports where this activism led to positive civic space developments.

Recent examples include Uzbekistan, where CSOs have tentatively welcomed the government’s willingness to allow international human rights organisations to visit, showing a possible change of attitude towards international scrutiny and increased access to information on government policies. In Mali, the Touche pas à ma Constitution (Don’t Touch my Constitution) campaign successfully forced the government to backtrack and suspend a planned referendum which could have expanded the powers of the president. In Jordan, sustained campaigning by civic groups resulted in key legal improvements to protect women’s rights and the rights of workers to strike and stage sit-ins. Finally, in Macedonia, the election of a new coalition government has been cautiously welcomed, as it aims to implement policies which, if successful, would foster democratic reforms, while also creating a more positive and enabling environment for a robust civil society.

Ratings changes by country

Belgium↓Open to Narrowed

Belgium’s downgrade from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ is mainly influenced by the impact of the government’s response to terrorist attacks in Belgium and France during 2015 and 2016. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, Belgium's new laws, enacted in response to the attacks, "raise serious human rights concerns and in some cases the police operations have resulted in apparent abuse including beatings or other excessive use of force. The report also concludes that “at least six of the government’s newly adopted laws and regulations threaten fundamental rights." This includes "a broad measure criminalizing indirect incitement to terrorism [which] could stifle freedom of expression".

Belgium’s civic space laws, while generally enabling, already contained a number of flaws that had influenced the country’s placement towards the lower end of the ‘open’ category on the CIVICUS Monitor. There has also been at least one incident in recent years indicating that Belgian courts may narrowly interpret the freedom of expression. Criminal defamation also remains on the statute books, and a conviction for slander can result in a custodial sentence of up to one year. Although the constitution makes clear that Belgians have the right to assemble peacefully and without arms, subsidiary legislation places significant restrictions on the full exercise of this right, by granting local authorities and the police powers to approve gatherings in advance and supervise the exercise of these rights. In Brussels, for example, by-laws impose specific time and place restrictions on when and where assemblies can be permitted. Where spontaneous protests occur, participants can be quickly removed and arrested.

Benin↓Narrowed to Obstructed

Benin’s downgrade is influenced by "unwarranted restrictions and suspension of independent media outlets by the national media regulator" and denials of permission to protest peacefully, including a blanket ban on student protests imposed in October 2016. The government has banned the activities of student associations, and this ban continues in force, despite a court order declaring the ban null and void. A submission to Benin’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017 by CIVICUS and Groupe d’Action pour le Progrès et la Paix details a number of threats and acts of intimidation against individual human rights defenders in Benin. The media also face the constant threat of suspension or sanction from the state regulator, which regularly censors media houses on the grounds of the protection of public order. Media houses have also been suspended without notice

The Ministry of the Interior, Security and Decentralisation (MISD) oversees the registration process for CSOs, and CSOs have criticised its lengthy registration processes, although these have generally been attributed to bureaucratic inefficiency, rather than political motivations. Despite the absence of legal obstacles, societal attitudes towards the LGBTI community prevent groups demanding LGBTI rights from operating openly.

Cabo Verde↓Open to Narrowed

Civil society in Cabo Verde has developed in recent decades and is generally well regarded by the public and the state. There are, however, issues related to CSOs being co-opted for political purposes. This can result in interference with the freedom of association and the independent operation and governance of CSOs. A 2016 West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) report states that the "manipulation and instrumentalisation" of civil society by the state and political parties is particularly prevalent during election time. The report also states that civil society in Cabo Verde is overly dependent on the state for funding, thus compromising its independence. The Union of Journalists has previously criticised aspects of the new Electoral Code, which restrict the media’s ability to report freely on campaigns, candidates and political views for two months before an election takes place.

China↓Repressed to Closed

China’s downgrade to ‘closed’ is a result of the continued escalation of the assault on basic civic freedoms under Xi Jinping. This manifests itself both in legislation and targeted attacks on individuals and groups, either through the courts or the enforced disappearance of activists and human rights defenders. Since 2014, a series of restrictive new laws on national security, anti-terrorism and CSOs have been passed, coinciding with a sustained escalation in the detention of dissidents. The latest of these is China’s new National Intelligence Law, which came into force in June 2017 and gives authorities “sweeping powers to monitor and investigate foreign and domestic individuals and institutions.” The Law on the Management of Overseas NGO Activities, which allows the police to control CSOs' funding sources, staffing and activities, came into force on 1 January 2017.

Apart from new laws, China has since 2015 relentlessly pursued its critics through mass arrests of lawyers and activists, the shutdown of websites promoting peaceful dialogue and the deployment of security forces, including the use of riot police to prevent a demonstration on poor air quality in Chengdu city. Following the death in July 2017 of China’s only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, rather than allow Xiaobo’s colleagues and friends to mourn, the authorities tightly controlled his burial at sea to prevent a commemoration, arrested activists after his funeral and orchestrated the subsequent disappearance of his widow, Liu Xia, whom they have held in arbitrary detention since 2010.

Cyprus↓Open to Narrowed

Restrictions on the freedom of expression are the main driver of Cyprus’ move from ‘open to narrowed’. This is reflected in a change in score from the World Press Freedom Index, from 18 in 2016 to 20 in 2017. Reporters Without Borders says "freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed in both parts of the divided island but is threatened by this division. In the north, the presence of more than 30,000 Turkish army soldiers limits coverage of political developments. On the rest of the island, political parties and the Orthodox Church exercise a great deal of influence. The Church controls part of the TV station Mega while the daily newspaper Haravgi and Radio Astra support the communist party (AKEL)."

Compared to Northern Cyprus, the freedom of association is better respected within the are controlled by the Government of Cyprus, although in general terms, the laws of Cyprus make no provision for unregistered or informal CSOs. Protests have been frequent in recent years and most have been peacefully observed by demonstrators and police alike. The media generally come under less state pressure in the territory controlled by the the Government of Cyprus than in Northern Cyprus. The movement of journalists has, on occasion, been impeded due to the long-standing political division between the two parts of Cyprus. Although the Government of Cyprus is planning to introduce a freedom of information law, the draft bill has been severely criticised for placing too many exceptions on what information can be accessed, exempting some public bodies from the law and vaguely defining the criteria for refusing requests. Consequently, journalists and CSOs fear that their role in exercising accountability over the government will be weakened.

El Salvador↓Narrowed to Obstructed

El Salvador’s rating has been downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ due to increased restrictions on civic freedoms, both through problematic laws and activities by state agents. These include a number of physical attacks and threats against journalists and media workers who attempted to cover wrongdoing or corruption. An Organization of American States (OAS) report from 2016 includes information on the use of excessive force - such as teargas and beatings - against peaceful protesters and sometimes against journalists covering protests. The report also details the assassinations of journalists Nicolás Humberto García and Darwin Zelaya as well as the public vilification of parts of the media by public officials. Separately, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) Civic Freedom Monitor, updated in April 2017, documents delays in the registration process for CSOs and "wide discretion for authorities” in deciding what constitutes a lawful protest. The report also documents additional restrictions during election periods and the arbitrary use of terrorism laws against protesters.

The most recent CIVICUS Monitor update from 24 August reports on a potentially problematic new law that could increase controls over media coverage and has wording which is vague and open to interpretation. The update also details a threat against a journalist and the repeated raiding of the home of an environmental rights defender. As an update from July 2017 shows, LGBTI activists also face serious threats and risks as a result of their work.

Netherlands↓Open to Narrowed

The downgrade of the Netherlands from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ is influenced by increasing infringements in protest and expression rights. 2017 CIVICUS Monitor updates have documented a number of threats to and violations of civic freedoms. These include police use of excessive force against peaceful anti-racism protesters and the subsequent impunity of the officers involved. No police officers were prosecuted after the police's prosecution service said that none had acted inappropriately, despite clear video evidence showing white police officers punching a black activist in the face. There was also a rise in hate-inducing and harmful speech during the Dutch presidential election, when far-right candidate Geert Wilders used racist and divisive language as part of his campaign. Other recent incidents include the arrest of peaceful anti-fossil fuel protesters following a demonstration at an art gallery in Amsterdam.

In its 2017 World Press Freedom Report, Reporters Without Borders points to a number of concerning developments, including "violent disruptions of public debates on refugees, [when] journalists were on several occasions throughout the year banned, on security grounds, from visiting such debates or making video or audio tapes of them.” Journalists received death threats for writing about racism while the issue of immigration and race generally have been linked to increased attacks against the media. Meanwhile, the government has made legal changes giving security forces greater powers to decrypt secure communications and carry out surveillance.

Slovenia↑Narrowed to Open

The ratings change for Slovenia is caused by the addition of a second research stream, which was previously absent from our assessment of Slovenia’s civic space. This analysis concludes that there is strong respect in law and practice for the three core civic space freedoms, leading to a revised ‘open’ rating for Slovenia.

Slovenia has an extensive civil society, with relatively high levels of volunteering. There are institutionalised processes to involve CSOs, particularly trade unions, in policy-making in several fields. Registration of CSOs is reported to be simple and inexpensive, and based on clear and fair criteria. There are assessed to be 26,000 registered CSOs, one of the highest global rates per capita. The right to join trade unions and engage in trade union activity is respected, and the Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia has around 300,000 members. The Act on Volunteering was amended in 2015 to remove some key barriers against volunteering. Article 42 of the Constitution also guarantees the freedom of peaceful assembly, with limitations on the grounds of security, public safety and the protection against the spread of infectious diseases.There was a very active protest movement in 2013 when allegations emerged of high-level political corruption involving the then-prime minister, which led to the collapse of the government. While there have been some concerns raised about government stakes in some media, Article 39 of the constitution upholds the freedom of expression, including the right to obtain public information. A 2008 change to the Penal Code that made it harder to publish information in the public interest was overturned in 2015. There are no restrictions on internet access.

Somalia↑Closed to Repressed

Somalia’s positive ratings change is influenced principally by an expansion of space for CSOs to operate in some parts of Somalia, resulting in an improvement in its rating. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017 report states that civil society in Somalia has made “modest gains” and that there are now “functioning universities in Mogadishu and some other cities, and local nongovernmental organizations have been able to conduct a range of activities with international support, depending on security conditions.”

The CIVICUS Monitor has published seven updates on civic space in Somalia since its launch in 2016. Most of these describe the continuing threats facing the freedom of expression, and particularly the hostile environment for Somalia's journalists. There is no doubt that the ongoing conflict with extremist group Al-Shabaab continues to impede civic space severely. However, a relatively active media sector is developing, albeit in difficult circumstances and under the shadow of a problematic media law introduced in January 2016.

Yemen↓Repressed to Closed

Yemen’s downgrade from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ is based on our assessment of reports from 2017 by local, regional and international human rights organisations, which describe the continuing decline in respect for basic freedoms in Yemen. These reports illustrate the extremely challenging conditions for the exercise of any civic freedom, as the war in Yemen has intensified over the past year. A report by the Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights concludes that journalists in Yemen “have to contend with violence affecting all citizens, including bombing by the coalition forces, as well as targeted attacks on the media in an attempt to prevent them from carrying out their work. Dozens of journalists have been arrested and at least 16 remain in prisons of Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and forces loyal to former president Saleh. Others have been tortured or killed in the course of their work."

A series of six updates on the CIVICUS Monitor over the past year confirms this trend, focusing heavily on the deliberate targeting of journalists, many of whom have been killed or kidnapped by the warring parties. The exercise of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association also remains virtually impossible amid the conflict. A Human Rights Watch 2017 report on Yemen also includes descriptions of targeted attacks on humanitarian assistance provided by CSOs, including Doctors without Borders.