Claiming Civic Space: Five Things Civil Society Should Do

June 15, 2023

#2 – Supporting Independent Media and Journalists

co-authored by Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and Ryota Jonen, Director of the World Movement for Democracy

In 2022, the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (UNSR on FoAA) and the World Movement for Democracy convened a series of consultations with civil society partners around the world to identify global trends influencing the shrinking of Civic Space. This blog is part of a five-blog series that analyzes these global trends while outlining strategies for Civil Society to push back and expand citizens’ rights and engagement in the public sphere.

In the first blog, we discussed authoritarian efforts for cracking down on civic associations. We also highlighted an opening window of opportunity for democracy advocates to address the adoption of restrictive laws by engaging with global and regional counterterrorism bodies.

In examining and observing the negative trend of closing civic space, we’ve noticed a certain early warning sign that we should pay closer attention to: Attacks on Freedom of Expression. Both V-Dem Democracy Report 2023 and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2023 report, two important publications helping us understand the overall state of democracy worldwide, point out that attacks on freedom of expression (FoE) are often the first sign of declining democracy and shrinking civic space. Alongside the ongoing decline of democracy globally, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP) reported in December 2022 that 363 journalists were in jail last year, the highest number of imprisoned journalists recorded by CJP in 30 years. This increased attack on independent media and journalists has also been noted in a UN Human Rights Council report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

Because independent media and journalists are at the frontlines of defending freedom of expression, civil society activists and human rights defenders need to work more closely and build solidarity with independent journalists. The #HoldTheLine Coalition for a prominent Filipino journalist and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa is an excellent example of such solidarity action. The coalition includes nearly 90 pro-democracy and human rights organizations from many different corners of the world, who came together in solidarity with Ressa whom the Philippine government has been seeking to silence through politically motivated legal charges, such as cyber libel.

The international community is increasingly becoming aware of the urgent need to support independent media. As one of the US-led Summit for Democracy’s deliverables, the International Fund for Public Interest Media was launched in 2021 to help create a sustainable environment for independent media growth and to reduce the impact of disinformation efforts around the world. In addition, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), an international knowledge hub for media support, recently examined how to advance media reforms during political upheavals. CIMA’s report not only emphasizes the importance of strengthening and defending institutions to safeguard press freedom but also calls for building a robust civil society coalition in supporting media reform efforts.

One multilateral platform that is arguably underutilized by civil society for advocacy is the Media Freedom Coalition, consisting of 51 governments from 6 continents. Advocacy through public statements and private diplomatic interventions is clearly stated in its mandate. Democracy advocates and civil society groups should mobilize themselves to engage in platforms like this one whenever crackdowns on independent journalists and media outlets occur.