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Civic Space: Defending Activists and Journalists

ARCHIVAL – For Historical Reference




On 19 September 2018, our team held a public consultation on how to represent the theme of defending defenders in OGP’s upcoming flagship report. (For more background and justification, see here.) Our aim was to present our preliminary research and to hear what we were missing, who we should talk to, and how we should frame the topic. The goal of this page is to summarize what we learned and to establish another channel for feedback.

What we heard from you:

What would be useful from us

  • Highlight that every country should make commitments around open data on killings and harassment (it should not be the responsibility of CSOs to collect info)
    • Highlight gaps in data coverage in OGP countries, and why they exist
    • Look into data-gathering process (particularly for sexual harassment / assault), which can be sensitive and should not be a tick-the-box process
  • Measure engagement with companies, as many threats come from them, especially as it relates to natural resources
  • Set minimum standards for civic space in OGP countries
  • Measure government support, i.e. highest level of government to express support for these principles, to help activists gauge political situations and political will
  • Identify access to justice commitments that are relevant to defending defenders
  • Compare OGP and non-OGP countries compare data-wise regarding protection of journalists and human rights defenders
  • Identify norms and regulations that indirectly protect civic space


  • Global Witness’ work on killings of environmental activists is commonly cited
  • OHCHR tracks killings of journalists and activists using sources such as Frontline Defenders, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, and Global Witness
  • Business and Human Rights Resource Centre data focuses on defenders working for corporate accountability, business, and human rights using sources such as Global Witness, Frontline Defenders, CIVICUS, Amnesty International, and OMCT
  • Regional datasets such as UDEFEGUA, IM-Defensoras, FORUM-ASIA, Somos Defensores, LabourStart, Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (with sub-regional networks), Defend Defenders, African Coalition on Corporate Accountability, and Aliansi Jurnalis Independen (AJI) Indonesia
  • View of defenders on the ground is a good way to assess the situation as data will not provide a complete picture, which goes beyond killings and includes smear campaigns, digital surveillance, and harassment, much of which is not reported
  • World Press Freedom Index by RSF if looking at journalists

Important issues for us to consider:

Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs)

  • Greenpeace and EarthRights International are working with E-Law, CIVICUS and others to research this issue, track stigmatization, and build a dataset
  • SLAPPs use the civil system and civil lawsuits to harass journalists and activists
  • SLAPPS are often used in combination with other tactics, depending on which instruments are available in a given jurisdiction
  • Any vaguely written law relating to expression can be used by corporations or governments to silence speech (defamation is the most common reason for SLAPPs)
  • SLAPPs are effective because they keep cases in court for a long time

Definition of defenders

  • Communities should also be seen as human rights defenders, as advocated by Protection International

Open data

  • OGP countries could make open data commitments involving the National Police, Ministry of the Interior, and Ministry of Justice (convenor role of OGP is important)
    • The IRM could could reward countries with these kinds of commitments
  • OGP commitments to collect data on number of cases, investigations, resolutions, and dispositions would be good
    • Measuring the amount of time it takes to resolve cases is important

Case studies / examples

  • Criminalization: US states are passing anti-protest laws, e.g. around pipelines
  • Daphne Caruana Galizia: Maltese anti-corruption blogger who had 47 libel suits pending against her at the time of her assassination
  • United States: Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), designed to address mafia activity, sometimes used to stigmatize defenders
  • Paraguay: OGP commitment on monitoring productivity of Economic Crimes Unit
    • Commitments 19-22 in the 4th NAP deal with open justice
    • Proposed law to explicitly protect journalists

Who else should we consult?

  • Article 19; International Federation of Journalists; SocialTIC (and other Mexican CSOs on illegal digital surveillance); VUKA! Coalition for Civic Action; Frontline Defenders; Global Witness; CODEHUPY; TEDIC; groups with digital experience

How we plan to address / incorporate your feedback:

  • In terms of data, we will reach out to stakeholders mentioned on the call to identify the coverage of existing datasets and begin the process of building an indicator for our purposes.
  • In terms of the framing, two of the main issues we heard about were SLAPPs and the need for open data:
    • As it relates to open data, we will attempt to assemble a list of indicators that countries should be collecting. We will also try to assess the current gaps in data coverage.
    • As for SLAPPs, we want to look into citizen-triggered complaints and resolution mechanisms related to harassment and stigmatization more broadly. This may take the form of commissioned research by partners.
  • As part of our next phase of research, we will reach out to additional stakeholders, as suggested in the call, to gain new insights and hear other perspectives on this topic.

What’s next?

  • We will update our approach and framing, which is currently in the “Thematic Strawmen” document linked above.
  • We welcome your feedback below (in the public comment box) or to our email at We are going to close comments on Wednesday, 31 October. If you would like to talk to us again, please reach out to the email above to schedule a phone call.
  • For the areas that require further research, we will commission research by partners to help inform the final report.

Thank you to everyone who participated in the consultations during the live sessions and in writing!  

Open Government Partnership