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Media: The freedom from fear

May 1 2013




In the last year, across the world, 30 per cent of internet users have faced increased restrictions on accessing content. The Association for Progressive Communications estimates that over 45 states have imposed some kind of online restrictions.

Other countries are leaving internet access open but are monitoring for dissent and using social media to create ‘Autocracy 2.0’: allowing freedom of expression online but rounding up, jailing and physically attacking people who dare to disagree. The acid test of internet freedom, says the APC, is whether people can express their sexuality online.

The APC’s assessment is part of a major annual stocktake in The State of Civil Society 2013,published this week by the global federation of civil society organisations, CIVCIUS. The new report catalogues a litany of threats: from outright violence against civic leaders, to legal restrictions on civil society organisations and dramatic funding cuts.

Lack of progress

The report shows things are getting worse. It says that the euphoria and optimism of the Arab Spring has been lost amid the chaos, corruption and clampdowns on civil society that have ensued in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The report argues that the most liberating tools for social activism – online and social media – is under threat from new restrictions that clampdown on the ability of citizens to mobilise or hold governments to account.

The report shows that in some countries, such as Bahrain, Cambodia and Ethiopia, activists have been imprisoned for criticising the government. In Azerbaijan, Canada, Malaysia and Russia, regressive laws place new barriers to the right to peaceful assembly.

In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, new laws give the state power to declare a civil society organization unlawful. While Bangladesh and Russia are the latest countries wanting to restrict foreign funding of local civil society organisations.

In several wealthy international donor countries, such as Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand, funding for civil society organisations that support international development has been cut. In Canada, the right-wing Harper government, who pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Agreement at the end of 2011, has targeted funding cuts on green groups and NGOs campaigning on climate change issues.

The importance of civil society

It is in this context that the UK will host the G8 in July. And it is in this context that Britain’s prime minister is co-charing the High Level Panel which will recommend post-2015 development goals to the UN at the end of next month. Cameron has repeatedly spoken of ‘a golden thread’ guiding his view of development, but been criticised by MPs over just what he means.

With the UK announcing today that it will end direct aid to South Africa, there has never been a greater need for civil society to shine a light on the governments and business practices in countries who are generating vast wealth, but which also play host to the most inequality in the world. India, another country that Britain will no longer support via government-to-government budget support, is another state combining the GDP growth rate of an economic powerhouse with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world.

Without transparency and accountability, the fight against global poverty will be fatally undermined by corruption and waste.

The G8’s global development strategy has to put the enabling environment for civil society at the heart of other ambitions, so that citizens feel empowered to shape the societies around them rather than live in fear of reprisals. Because the freedom from want is nothing without the freedom from fear.

Originally published by Left Foot Forward 

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