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The fettered freedom

Space for independent voices and impartial civil society is shrinking at an alarming pace in several countries

The fettered freedom
Human rights defenders are being intimidated.

Civil liberties are under attack in several countries. Dissenting opinions are being muzzled and divergent views are being insinuated as treachery. Intolerance to disagreement is attaining new peaks in several countries.

Human rights defenders and those who amplify demand for rights of people are facing traumatic conditions. Obsessed with controlling society through iron-fist, many governments disdain civil society for its propensity of challenging extra-constitutional and undemocratic measures of governments. Sense of insecurity among rapacious ruling elite is triggered by the valour of defiant voices that refuse to stay indifferent to their unlawful tactics. Such voices are being gagged through frightening tactics.

Human rights defenders are being systematically stalked, intimidated, demonised, abducted and tortured specially in fragile countries where governments are either completely dysfunctional or enjoy full immunity to exercise such repressive measures. Security, writ of law, religious sentiments, accountability and supreme national interests are some of the most frequently used excuses to silence civil society voices. Human rights defenders and civil society actors are vilified as foreign agents and perpetrators of anti-state acts. These techniques are being commonly practiced in several countries and space for independent voices and impartial civil society is shrinking at an alarming pace.

Social sector funding has been asphyxiated in the name of scrutiny and controlling terror financing. Despite reservations, aid community and national civil society welcomed the move with a hope the government will introduce a diligent yet a transparent process to sift law evading entities operating in the garb of civil society and provide space to credible civil society organisations to ameliorate lives of disadvantaged masses. Unfortunately, the government could not develop a credible institutional mechanism of scrutiny and created a labyrinth of barricades.

Absence of clear direction and facilitation mechanism has created multiple layers of authorities at various administrative tiers and subjective perceptions are allowed to determine the fate of civil society organisations’ work with no avenues of grievances’ redress. Legal lacunas and ambiguities have allowed arbitrary exercise of authority by various functionaries.  Even if one gives benefit of doubt on intensions, lack of political will, institutional capacity, seriousness and realisation of the damage being inflicted on the society are starkly evident. All this is widening the trust deficit between the duty-bearers and the right-holders.

Suppressing civil liberties under democratic dispensations is an anathema to the very ethos of democracy. Civil liberties form the bedrock for democracy.

The torment is not confined to the funded NGOs’ functioning but constitutional right to freedom of expression is also being denied through retrogressive policies, legislation and extra-legal coercive actions. Lack of coordination among government bodies has created a chaotic situation. The government could have done regulation in a decent and orderly manner through a meaningful engagement with civil society and funding organisations. The process could be streamlined by setting out clear guidelines for effective utilisation of aid money.

Allowing rights-based organisation to strengthen public oversight on government affairs will bridge the gap between citizens and the state. This, in turn would fortify relationship between the two and lead towards a stable state that is owned and respected by people. Additionally, respect to freedom of expression and tolerance to divergent opinions are imperatives of various international commitments to which Pakistan is a signatory. Most importantly, primacy of this obligation is guaranteed by the constitution.

This pesky paranoia is no more confined to the third world countries that have been chronically reeling under despotic regimes but the phenomenon has now engulfed parts of the world hitherto considered as cloistered islands of human freedom. Civil liberties are under invasion by the state functionaries as well as the so called supra-state actors in several countries.

In 2011, CIVICUS, a global alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society, undertook a survey of civil society organisations in 33 countries. 87 per cent of them identified national or internal factors constraining their funding. Darin Christensen and Jeremy Weinstein find that out of 98 countries for which comprehensive data are available, 12 countries prohibit and 39 countries now restrict foreign financing of domestic NGOs.

Several countries have introduced strictures to control civil society groups. There are striking similarities in legislative and regulatory curbs applied against non-governmental organisations in various countries. These governments mainly target rights-based groups working with political approach. These governments despise rights-based groups striving to strengthen accountability of governments through active engagement of a vigilant and organised citizenry.

In Uzbekistan, the government dissolved more than 300 local NGOs and forced the remaining ones to join the government-controlled National Association of Nongovernmental Noncommercial Organisations. Uzbek NGOs seeking to receive foreign funding need to obtain approval from the Commission under the Cabinet of Ministers.

In 2008, Jordan enacted a new law of societies that requires any NGO seeking to receive foreign funding to obtain approval from the Jordanian cabinet and inform officials of the funding source, amount, and intended purpose.

The Ethiopian legislature in 2009 drastically restricted the political space for civil society by enacting the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which defines all NGOs receiving more than 10 per cent of their funding from foreign sources as “foreign charities” and prohibits them from political activities or those related to human rights or rule of law.

The Venezuelan National Assembly in December 2010 passed the Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination, which explicitly prohibits NGOs that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving any income from foreign sources and imposes fines on organisations that invite foreigners whose opinions “offend the institutions of state or top officials.”

The Algerian National Assembly in 2012 adopted a new Law on Association that not only allows broad governmental discretion in the NGO registration process and limits the areas in which NGOs can be active, but also precludes Algerian NGOs from receiving foreign funding outside of “official cooperation relationships,” a term that is not clearly defined by the law.

In August 2010, the Indian Parliament passed the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act aimed at prohibiting foreign contributions and hospitality “for any activities detrimental to the national interest and for matters connected therewith.” The Act does not define what constitutes such activities, thus leaving room for considerable government discretion. Besides imposing additional administrative burdens on NGOs receiving external assistance, it prohibits foreign funding for any “organisations of a political nature” as defined by the central government. As a consequence, the foreign funding permission of up to 4,000 small NGOs has been revoked and licenses of approx. 10,000 have been revoked. The Modi government has been berating human rights activism as “anti-national”.

In Kyrgyzstan, where civil society has traditionally been strong, a draft “Foreign Agents Law” was introduced in the parliament in September 2013. The law requires all foreign-funded NGOs that plan to carry out political activities to register as “foreign agents” and face additional administrative burdens. In 2012, Russia passed a law that requires all foreign-supported NGOs that engage in “political activities” to register and identify as “foreign agents” and face additional tax burdens. In Malaysia, both the government and the state-controlled media have demonized foreign-funded NGOs as treacherous and destabilising forces.

Suppressing civil liberties under democratic dispensations is an anathema to the very ethos of democracy. Civil liberties form the bedrock for democracy and characterise a civilised state in the modern world. Fettering civil liberties would have deleterious repercussions for the future of democracy.

Rapid rise of the right-leaning groups in Europe and USA is yet another setback to civil liberties. Flagship report of Freedom House on the state of global political rights and civil liberties “Freedom in the World-2015” presents a bleak picture. For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom House’s annual report showed an overall decline. The report ominously concludes that “acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government — and of an international system built on democratic ideals — is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.”

Naseer Memon

naseer memon
Naseer Memon is a human rights activist and civil society professional. He may be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • Dr Irshad Memon , Karachi

    Well explained. Seems our own picture. Bravo, Naseer Memon! The subject needing more deliberations. Something about what went wrong by so-called left as they did lose the field almost won by them, during past two decades. Phenomenon we call civil society has shown little capacity of self review and criticism, I am of the opinion. Hoping this write-up would have some sequels on intrinsic etiology of malaise on the part of combating intelligentsia in various boundaries of word.

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