Civil society plays an integral part in all democracies, especially in building and strengthening democracy. First, what is civil society? Resounding sociologist Larry Diamond, defines civil society as a complex and interconnected network that entails a “range of organized groups/institutions independent of the state.” These groups have respect for the law, for the rights of other groups, and for the rights of individuals. Other conditions must be met to be part of civil society. In a democracy, they are voluntary, self-generating and self-reliant establishments like non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks, and independent mass media.
Civil society groups are primarily responsible for acting as an information relay system for both governments and citizens, holding governments accountable while simultaneously advocating for justifiable policies in favor of the public. However, in recent years, coupled with the rise of internal country conflict, governments have been actively repressing civil society through a multitude of ways, with the intent of reducing their legitimacy and effectiveness. Between 2014 and 2016, over sixty countries restricted citizens’ freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to receive funding. But, why?
Worldwide, governments are “closing space” for civil society–a term for environments where restrictions hinder the ability of civil society and political actors to assemble and operate. Social movements and civil society organizations often become subject to intimidation, defamation, and criminalization in the event they address hot topics or release information about corrupt government matters. In response to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement of his third term in 2015, independent civil society groups and media in Burundi were relentlessly attacked, and their members killed, jailed, and threatened due to activists who were perceived as being critical of the government. Such violence has dissolved and silenced numerous civil groups, leaving them filled with fear of retaliation by authorities, all while the government escapes accountability.
More subtly, governments are notorious for manipulating laws that interfere with the right to freedom of association and expression, designing them to restrict the creation and administration of civil society organizations. These bullying techniques prevent NGOs from carrying out crucial work. Amnesty Official reported that in 2019, almost forty pieces of legislation were enacted all around the world to silence and prevent assembly without reason. These laws implemented treacherous registration processes for organizations. Many of which monitored their work, restricted their sources to foreign funding and, in extreme cases, shutting them down if they did not comply with the unreasonable requirements imposed on the organizations. In 2018, Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior rejected 18 international NGO registration applications, and dismissed their subsequent appeals for unknown reasons.
Furthermore, civil society groups have found themselves dependent on corporate funding, which gives these hegemonic corporations the power to skew and influence the authentic nature of NGOs in their favor. This is considered “dependency syndrome” in which civil society organizations are too dependent on external resources, like funding, which brings along great restrictions and thereby, distrust, harassment, and intimidation. As a result, NGOs experience constituency deficits as they find themselves tending more to the corporations and not to the intended population in need. Their independence is undermined and their ability to engage in fruitful internal decision making is hampered. This lessens their accountability to communities and causes a ripple effect as constituents begin to perceive civil society groups as corrupt and illegitimate.
Governments also use technology to restrict political space and undermine NGOs credibility in both international and domestic arenas. Smear campaigns are implemented against civil society groups to deter the reputation of such causes due to the fear that increased transparency would reveal ill-gotten gains of corrupt government officials. In other words, it is a method of premeditated damage control in anticipation of exposure. In February of 2022, journalists and activists in Hungary found themselves being smeared in the media just two months ago. A leading pro-government newspaper agency, in connection with Hungary’s government, was responsible for poisoning political and public debate by twisting information about the journalists and taking them out of context to discredit their voices and demonize their efforts.
The ability for numerous governments, especially democratic ones, to vilify civil society and their efforts should offend all who value basic human rights and the concept of open, democratic societies. Without an active civil society empowered to hold a government accountable, political and social developments will be unsustainable. So, what can be done to reopen civic space in light of active government repression? The USAID provides a three-pronged approach to support civil societies and respond to closing space–prevention, adaptation, and continued support. Prevention entails identifying where risks and opportunities lie to better detect and prevent future nefarious government efforts. Adaptation is necessary under changing conditions to also find ways around government restrictions, like seeking assistance programs and/or reincorporating the agency as a for-profit enterprise until governments re-establish the rights of groups. Lastly, continued persistent support is required in the face of ongoing repression, especially within constituents and substantial political figures. Diplomatic pressures must be applied and leveraged during such politically tense times to ensure civil societies flourish in highly challenging environments. However, is this approach enough to save such an integral part of democracy? Concrete action is needed, bad.