Civic space fuels tensions across Asia Pacific Region, CIVICUS Monitor reveals

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6th December 2023 – (Hong Kong) A new report by the CIVICUS Monitor reveals an unprecedented erosion of civic space globally, with 30.6% of the world’s population now living in countries with closed civic space, the highest percentage since tracking began in 2017.

The 2023 People Power Under Attack report, released Wednesday, found just 2.1% of people live in open countries, down sharply from 4% six years ago. These alarming findings expose a worldwide civic space emergency requiring urgent collective action.

“We are witnessing a global crackdown on civic space,” said lead researcher Marianna Belalba Barreto. “The world is nearing a tipping point where repression becomes the norm rather than the exception. Governments must act swiftly to reverse this trend before it’s too late.”

The CIVICUS Monitor assesses civic space in 198 countries based on data from civil society, research teams, indices and in-house experts. Countries are categorized as open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed or closed according to the state of freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

This year saw seven countries downgrade their civic space ratings. Venezuela and Bangladesh joined the closed category amid intensifying crackdowns on activists and journalists. Democratic backsliding was also observed, with Germany dropping from open to narrowed due to restrictions on environmental protests. Bosnia and Herzegovina declined to obstructed, the 12th European downgrade since 2018.

One of the most concerning shifts occurred in Senegal, previously a stable democracy, now rated repressed after sustained persecution of dissenting voices ahead of February 2023 elections.

Only one country in Asia, Taiwan, remains open – a status it has held since CIVICUS Monitor started its ratings in 2017. The island nation stands alone as a beacon for fundamental freedoms amid growing authoritarianism across the region.

In Hong Kong, the crackdown under National Security Law continues unabated.

In nearby Malaysia and Singapore, fundamental freedoms remain restricted but criticism is tolerated within limits. The CIVICUS report notes increases in censorship under new Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, including instances where local news sites were temporarily blocked by internet providers. Singapore also blocked a critical regional news site under its anti-falsehoods law.

However, outspoken bloggers and opposition figures in both countries have mostly avoided lengthy jail terms faced by dissidents elsewhere in Asia. The Malaysian government’s recent push to promote ‘rehabilitation’ rather than prosecution for LGBTQ people, though controversial, also contrasts with neighbours that criminalize same-sex relations.

CIVICUS Monitor data shows Asia governments frequently use intimidation tactics to discourage activism and dissent. Examples over the past year include Taliban authorities in Afghanistan raiding the homes of women human rights defenders and Indian security agencies harassing civil society groups.

Bangladesh’s decline highlights intensifying assaults on opponents. The report details fabricated legal cases against thousands of opposition supporters along with the arrest and torture of journalists. A new digital security law retains many problematic clauses of its predecessor used to jail online critics.

Sri Lanka also continues on a negative trajectory witnessing protests dispersed with teargas and the intimidation of minority Tamils advocating accountability for past abuses. Core civil society freedoms remain at risk even after the Rajapaksa family’s exit from power.

The CIVICUS report emphasises that “assaults on journalists and media not only stifle individual voices, they are assaults on the very foundation of open societies.” This concern is particularly apt for Asia, home to expansive restrictions on free expression along with sophisticated state censorship regimes aimed at controlling the information citizens can access.

Looking ahead, the battle for civic space will remain crucial in shaping Asia’s future. Progress rests on states broadening respect for civil liberties rather than intensifying crackdowns. Supporting calls from below for rights and freedoms against the tide of deepening repression is vital. Bolder solidarity for besieged activists in Asia’s closed settings can inspire wider ripples of opening.

Data shows authorities worldwide disproportionately target freedom of expression, accounting for half of all violations. These ranged from attacks on media outlets to arrests of journalists and censorship.

Intimidation emerged as the number one tactic used to curb civic freedoms, reported in over 100 countries. Alongside journalists, human rights defenders and activists were frequent targets. Assaults on media are in effect assaults on democracy’s foundations.

Despite these negative patterns, the report highlights areas of progress. Civic space in Timor-Leste rose to narrowed from obstructed, reflecting the country’s commitment to core freedoms. Four other countries saw slight improvements, though conditions remain challenging overall.

The report also documents encouraging bright spots where states made tentative moves to open civic space. For instance, Fiji repealed restrictive media legislation while Kenya’s courts affirmed the right of LGBTQI+ people to associate freely. Even Tajikistan, rated closed, created a national human rights strategy with civil society input. However, these remain disconnected from dominant global trends of repression.

“These acts of civic resistance provide hope that current declines can be reversed,” said Barreto. “But the onus is on governments to foster respect for peaceful assembly, association and expression as guaranteed under international law.”