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Vital for the OGP, Civil Society Needs Sharper Tools to Defend Civic Space

A few weeks ago on 28 August Mozambican journalist and publisher Paulo Machava was shot dead while jogging.


Machava was involved in a campaign supporting an economist and two reporters who are facing national security and defamation charges. Their case arose from an open letter written in 2013, which criticised the former president, Armando Guebuza. Shocking as it is that a journalist should be gunned down for simply doing his job, many cases like this have little or no chance of registering in the international news media.

On one level, this is understandable. With so much news out there and only so much time to take it all in, individual human rights abuses will always be subject to the vagaries of the 24-hour news cycle. The problem is that, in all parts of the world, cases like Machava’s are now happening more regularly and with more impunity. This is the reality of closing civic space.

Last year, CIVICUS documented serious violations of civic space – which includes the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly – in at least 96 countries. That documentation was based on information received from our members, monitoring of the news media and reports from other human rights organisations and civil society groups. 

But what about the countless abuses that go unreported or don’t make the editors’ cut?

That does not mean that current monitoring is ineffective. On the contrary, all approaches have a part to play. But we need to recognise that much more can be done to accurately describe the reality of closing civic space.

To allow civil society to respond to this trend, we urgently need a tool that casts a much wider net and captures a greater volume of data on the conditions for civil society in a timely fashion. Unless that is done, hundreds of civic space violations will continue to fly below the radar each year, while international pressure will potentially be ill-informed or applied only after it is too late. Governments and non-state actors, such as unscrupulous business entities and extremist groups, are becoming unceasingly smarter at finding ways to stifle progressive civil society voices, so we need to get better at reacting, responding and setting out our own, fact-based narratives.

For some time now, CIVICUS has been concerned about this gap in our understanding of civic space. More often than not, the tools at the disposal of policy makers, the media and international civil society only offer a snapshot of a single point in time. One report or media statement a year isn’t going to stop intractable human rights abuses. Civic space isn’t a static space, and international civil society needs to keep up with those on the front line contesting it.

To address these problems, CIVICUS is working on two new – hopefully sharper – tools that we think will make a difference. In part, both of these rely on technology that allows us to interact with civil society in all parts of the world, at scales and speeds never before seen.

The Civic Space Monitor (CSM) aims to provide accurate, verified and up-to-the-minute information on civic space in every country in the world.  We hope civil society, the media and governments will use this information to better understand and respond to the daily reality faced by thousands of civil society organisations and activists.

The CSM is different in two main ways. First, it will be constantly updated and so, unlike nearly all current measures of the health of civil society and democracy, it will act as a one-stop shop for the latest information on civic space. Secondly, it triangulates several sources of information – democracy indexes, human rights reports, verified media reports and – most crucially – up-to-date information obtained directly from activists in each country.

Initially, that information from the ground will be gathered through regular interactions with a small group of activists. Ultimately, however, our second tool, the new Civic Pulse methodology, will be used to periodically take the temperature of civil society and assess the likelihood of transformative social change.

With our reach as a leading global alliance, we want to engage our networks and work with our partners to identify “opinion panels” in as many countries as possible. These panels comprising of between 300 and 500 civil society leaders will be asked the same questions, every quarter, eventually building up an accurate picture of the trajectory of conditions for civil society over time. The Civic Pulse will provide essential and regular data, in real time and at scale. Over time we want to have opinion panels in as many countries as possible, improving our ability to react and respond effectively. 

These new tools – The Civic Space Monitor and Civic Pulse, are dynamic, iterative, and complementary. They are being created collaboratively with our membership and will be subject to constant review, adjustment and improvement. Their ultimate success will however depend on how this information is used by civil society, the media and governments.

In order to turn the tide of closing civic space, many more people will have to realise the scale and implications of the problem and fight back accordingly. Hopefully, having access to reliable real-time information on civic space will allow them to do just that.



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