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Actions to Protect and Enhance Civic Space

In support of Open Renewal, the Co-Chairs of OGP, the Republic of Korea and Maria Baron of Directorio Legislativo, have launched a global call-to-action for all OGP members in 2021 to use their new and existing action plans to make ambitious commitments that address core challenges. This includes anti-corruption, civic space and participation, and digital governance where they can share their expertise and experience. Read their letter to the community here.

2021 is a landmark year as the global open government movement finds itself confronting challenges the COVID-19 pandemic both exposed and exacerbated. In their 2020 report, CIVICUS, a global alliance focused on strengthening civic action and civic space, noted that “87 percent of the world’s population now live in countries rated as ‘closed,’ ‘repressed,’ or ‘obstructed.’” Even before the pandemic, Freedom House reported 14 years of continuous decline in the protection of global political and civic rights. 

Challenges respecting and ensuring fundamental freedoms have been observed in countries across the income spectrum. Trends include crackdowns on peaceful protest, constraints on online expression, societal problems treated as national security threats, and deployment of new technologies to invade privacy and constrain civic action. Increasingly recognized as a global issue imperative, the United Nations Secretary General cited “public participation and civic space” as a priority area within his 2020 human rights call-to-action. 

Citizens should be able to express themselves freely, to organize in groups for a common purpose, and to gather together to make their voices heard: the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly that CIVICUS refers to as “civic space.” Citizens must also have the ability to define, shape, and monitor government policies and programs, and should be protected from unwarranted intrusions into their personal spheres; these rights to public participation and privacy are critical components of civic space, too. An open civic space enables civil society and a wide range of actors to fulfill their roles and act autonomously in pursuit of democracy, inclusive participation, good governance, and human rights. Moreover, research by the B Team shows that “countries with higher degrees of respect for civic rights experience higher economic growth rates as well as higher levels of human development.”

While the OGP Global Report states that  OGP countries have seen less of a decline in eroding civic space relative to non-OGP countries, they are not an exception to the trend. Even in OGP countries, pre-existing challenges have only been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen the deployment of expansive emergency powers that may be kept in place even after the crisis improves. These developments are a threat to democracies and the values OGP members have committed to upholding. 

Civic space commitments within OGP have been few in number and limited in ambition. With 104 civic space commitments made by 42 member countries as of 2020, only 51 percent of these were considered “ambitious” while just 14 percent showed strong results in opening up government, based on assessment by OGP’s Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM).

The open government community needs to support members to co-create more transformative commitments that enhance and strengthen civic space. Ambitious civic space commitments can address key constraints on civil society: safeguarding free expression and addressing threats to journalists, bloggers, and activists; making it easier for citizens to organize and act as groups; lifting constraints on peaceful protests and gatherings; and opening policy-making processes to public inputs and accountability. Strong commitments can also leverage government and community support to provide the resources, opportunities, and spaces needed to foster a vibrant civil society. Impactful commitments can bring government and civil society together to build inclusive solutions to difficult problems related to fulfilling these rights, including challenges with surveillance, artificial intelligence, and platform regulation, among others.

As OGP completes 10 years, the OGP Co-Chairs – the Government of the Republic of Korea and Maria Baron, Executive Director of Directorio Legislativo — have issued a call-to-action in line with their vision to strengthen civic space and democratic participation. Enhancing and protecting civic space is vital to achieving OGP’s bold goals of accelerating economic recovery, tackling systemic inequalities, and building resilient and citizen-centered democracies. An open civic space is also a critical foundation for the path toward an Open Response, Recovery and Renewal. 

OGP can serve as an important link between global summit discussions and national implementation. Civic space cuts across a number of critical issues, including conversations related to democracy, climate, and pandemic recovery. OGP governments and civil society organizations can champion civic space during global meetings such as the G7 Summit, UNGASS Conference, G20 Forum, the proposed Summit for Democracy to be convened by the United States, and the OGP Global Summit providing sustained momentum needed for action.

Below are examples of policy options taken from both OGP action plans and the ICNL COVID-19 Freedom Tracker. This is not intended to be a cumulative list, but rather an illustrative resource when drafting, reviewing, or enhancing action plans; and these policy actions may be implemented at both the national and local government levels, depending on mandate and country context.

Freedom of Expression

Commitments that advance the protection of rights of citizens, journalists, and civil society organizations to have equal access to information and have the freedom to express their beliefs, thoughts, and ideas without fear of censorship or reprisal. 

  • Develop or reinforce legal frameworks to ensure that the rights of activists, journalists, and independent media are protected. Ensure that limits to freedom of expression for the purpose of pursuing legitimate aims, such as tackling corruption and cybersecurity, are legal and proportionate; ensure that emergency powers that temporarily restrict these rights are subject to limitations in accordance with international law and legislative oversight; and set out strong protections for investigations and prosecutions for violence against journalists and other civil society actors, to ensure access to justice. These should: include gender-sensitive/responsive protocols; create mechanisms that allow for independent and public-funded media platforms and avoid concentration of media ownership; and challenge or introduce amendments to draconian laws that may stifle a citizen’s right to dissent. 
    • Croatia committed to  developing a legislative framework to make the ownership of editorial boards of newspapers more transparent and responsive. In addition, the commitment would require publication of tenders and contracts for awardees of public airwaves licenses. 
    • Mongolia committed to drafting  a new law on media freedom and amended its law on national broadcasting to protect the rights of their journalists and ensure that media is free from the political influence of government, and that their finances are independent from government.
    • More recommendations can be accessed in OGP’s Global Report on Defending Activists and Journalists.
  • To help tackle disinformation and strengthen access to information frameworks, with legal safeguards against rollbacks during times of crisis: designate specific units within government that can immediately respond to misinformation trends by promoting the dissemination of accurate information, while avoiding punitive measures that could lead to censorship; and state agencies should refrain from conducting propaganda campaigns and promote legal safeguards to protect the space for independent media and civil society to monitor and flag state-led disinformation campaigns.
    • The United Kingdom developed practical guidelines on the use of social media as a mainstream channel to engage with citizens and the private sector. 
    • New Zealand’s ombudsman encouraged ministries to publish information about their arrangements for dealing with official information requests during the pandemic, and particularly any unavoidable delays.
    • Portugal and Italy have used online platforms and social media to disseminate timely and relevant information about the virus and government efforts to address it.  
    • Provide legal remedies or increased access to justice for citizens and journalists to protect them from harassment or unjust actions. 
    • Luxembourg committed to strengthen the capacities of networks and organizations in defense of human rights in developing countries. 
    • Indonesia advanced regulations that guaranteed and allowed legal aid organizations to provide assistance to communities so that people may receive equal access to justice under the law.

Freedom of Association

Improve and strengthen legal frameworks that allow citizens and civil society organizations to form and operate. Their right to organize and collectively engage in public and political spheres must be protected in pursuing shared objectives. The OGP Global Report on the Freedom of Association highlights challenges and opportunities to protect the freedom of association, some of which are listed below.

  • Simplify legal requirements and reduce restrictive measures that impede the establishment and operation of organizations and associations.
    • Norway and Ukraine committed to ease procedures for establishing associations and simplified reporting requirements for civil society organizations.
    • Bulgaria transformed its CSO registration procedure from court registration to administrative registration and established an electronic CSO Registry.
    • Canada published information on the regulation of charities and tax rules in a timely manner.
  • Establish mechanisms that ensure  women and traditionally marginalized groups can freely come together and influence public policy. 
    • The city of Austin in the United States created an equity assessment tool to gather feedback and measure expected benefits of city initiatives on marginalized communities.
    • The Philippines will use civic technology to encourage citizens and CSOs to participate in monitoring the implementation of government projects, as well as allocating a portion of the national and local budget to support civil society activities in governance initiatives.
  • Implement sustainable financing models for civil society organizations and facilitate CSO access to tax benefits, state contracts, and other sources of funding, including measures restricting access to cross-border funding.
    • Lithuania and Latvia established an NGO fund to strengthen the institutional capacities of civil society organizations to participate in government decision making.
    • Ukraine committed to amend its laws on Charitable Activities and Charities and the Budget Code, allowing charitable organizations to receive financial support for performing state policy tasks and providing social services.
  • Introduce mechanisms that promote public transparency on funding of NGOs. NGO accountability is also seen as a key issue linked to freedom of association, as is the funding provided by governments to NGOs. 
    • Sweden installed mechanisms that increased aid transparency at the global level by publishing aid information in accordance with the Busan commitment to a common standard.  
    • Sierra Leone published funds from development partners, NGOs, INGOs, and CSOs. They will also hold district meetings to disclose detailed activity level budgets.
    • The Global Standard for CSO Accountability is a reference standard that can be adopted and implemented by CSOs to strengthen their accountability practices by encouraging continuous two-way dialogue with stakeholders.

Freedom of Assembly

Protect the citizens’ right to assemble in public or private spaces to express, espouse, and advocate collective interests at the national and local government levels. This includes the freedom to dissent, protest, and demand accountability without fear of punishment. Some of these are reflected below.

  • Engage the justice system in order to protect fundamental rights and liberties by: increasing people’s access to justice, decriminalizing assembly activities, and applying proportionate penalties for violations, among others. 
    • Indonesia committed to conduct and use research to design roadmaps on restorative justice related to the right to information, the right to expression, and the right to assemble.
  • Regulate the role of the police and increase their accountability during the conduct of citizen assemblies by introducing oversight mechanisms and introducing laws that limit the excessive use of force.
    • In the wake of protests, civil society and government in Nigeria co-created a commitment that, among other things, seeks to co-create a guide on peaceful protests with the Nigerian police (in line with international legal frameworks) and organize citizen-police dialogues, working with independent bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission. 
  • Guarantee unobstructed access to social platforms and the broader web at all times to allow mobilizing, sharing, and creating content.
    • Italy promoted its Charter of Internet Rights, which was approved by the legislature in 2015. This commitment sought to increase the public and officials’ understanding of the links between on and offline rights, including basic civil liberties such as assembly. 
  • Limit restrictions that require citizens to seek permits or notify agencies of planned assemblies.
    • Ukraine developed a draft law on “Organising and Conducting Peaceful Events.”  
  • Create stronger frameworks that protect the freedom of assembly in a multi-level approach, from the local, state, and national/federal levels.
    • The United States’ Police Data Initiative encourages accountability between law enforcement agencies and communities by publishing information in open data formats that can be used to jointly solve problems and inspire innovation.
  • More examples can be found in the OGP Global Report on Freedom of Assembly.

Cross-Cutting Recommendations

The following may serve as useful pointers when co-creating ambitious civic space commitments:

  • Engage and convene relevant implementing agencies in OGP co-creation processes, especially those that have the mandate over issues relevant to civic rights. While these differ based on country or local context and issue specificity, these could typically include a civil society liaison point in the office of the head of government, tax authorities, ministries of justice, digital governance, gender, human rights, among others.
  • Broker and strengthen relationships with a broad coalition of civil society partners, working across different issue areas. Diversity and inclusivity are key to developing commitments that respond to the needs of the community and advance civic space priorities.
  • Engage relevant members and staff in parliament to raise awareness of intended co-creation commitments and to help build cross-party support for any required legislative action.  
  • Identify policy entry points for civic space across issue areas, from justice to digital governance, taxation to civic participation, depending on country or local context. Intersectionality across individual action plan commitments can complement one another to build a stronger, enabling environment for civic space to thrive.
  • Use OGP action plans to ensure time-bound implementation for any civil society strategies. While several OGP members have civil society strategies, they often remain on paper, without any accountability for implementation or involvement of civil society. Embedding this in the OGP action plan could ensure that shared milestones are tracked by both government and civil society partners as co-commitment holders and implementers. 
  • Strengthen and support more systemic participation of civil society, with special attention to women’s groups and the youth in government decision-making processes.
Open Government Partnership