Claiming Civic Space: Five Things Civil Society Should Do

June 15, 2023

#4 – Winning the Battle of Narratives

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 analyze these global trends while outlining strategies for Civil Society to push back and expand citizens’ rights and engagement in the public sphere.

In our past three blogs, we discussed various ways that civic space has been increasingly closed: the use of counter-terrorism measures against civil society, attacks on freedom of expression, and digital repression. Along with these tactics, authoritarian regimes have sought to weaken civil society’s legitimacy by discrediting civil society’s work and fostering the public’s distrust in democratic governance.

Through online disinformation campaigns and stigmatization efforts, authoritarian regimes have built negative narratives that make the public disillusioned about democratic institutions and human rights. Such narratives also target individual civil society activists. CSOs are often ill-equipped to counter negative narratives and build their own narratives that support democracy and human rights.

We need to fight this “battle of narratives” wisely. First, civil society needs to enhance its communications and outreach efforts with average citizens. With tailored messages, CSOs should mobilize their networks of influencers who can amplify and project their messages to the public. Second, CSOs should harness the power of telling real stories from real people. Human interest stories touch the hearts of the audiences and better connect with citizens’ emotions and realities. With carefully tailored messages, CSOs should develop, disseminate, and target different audiences with clear, well-coordinated messages. Finally, public debates can be encouraged to facilitate the exchange of different perspectives to identify common ground and mitigate the growing polarization in society.