Defending civic space around the globe

In this interview, AFSC’s Libby Chase explores how governments and authorities are increasingly trying to silence civil society—including online.

By Libby Chase

Q: What is “civic space” and what is happening to it?  

A: “Civic space” refers to the environment or arena where individuals and groups interact to exercise their rights and responsibilities. It includes the freedom to express opinions, assemble peacefully, associate with others, and participate in decision-making processes without interference or repression from governmental or non-state actors. It’s the space where civil society advocates for social, political, and economic change. 

But today, governments and authorities around the world are increasingly restricting civic space. We’re seeing fundamental freedoms and rights being eroded, contributing to the 18th year of a decline in global democracy. In many countries, individuals are less able to speak, move, and assemble freely without repercussions.  

Checks and balances are essential for a functioning society. By silencing civil society, leaders push forward their agendas without consequence. That paves the way for unchecked power, which leads to civic and human rights abuses. Marginalized groups in particular are most vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation, and injustice. A silenced civil society also erodes trust of institutions, leading to increased polarization and social fragmentation.   

Government and non-state actors use a variety of tactics to repress its people and civil society. That includes intimidating, censoring, and detaining journalists; using excessive force against protesters; and harassing, detaining, and prosecuting human rights defenders and other activists. 

Q: How is AFSC’s Civic Space Global Initiative working on this issue?  

In 2020, AFSC created the Under the Mask project in response to the global trend toward right-wing governance and shrinking civic space and freedoms, which accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. AFSC’s Civic Space Global Initiative is a transition from that project. This initiative continues to directly address the challenges posed by authoritarian governance and support communities across regions to effectively protect and expand their civic space. 

Q: The Civic Space Global Initiative recently released a series of reports on “digital safety” in Europe, Africa, and Latin America. What is digital safety and why is it important?  

A: Digital safety refers to measures taken to safeguard against online threats, such as hacking, phishing, malware, identify theft, and data breaches. Digital safety measures may include communicating via encrypted messaging apps, using secure password managers, using of VPNs, and exercising caution when operating online.  

Digital safety is crucial in protecting against digital authoritarianism—or governments’ efforts to control citizens’ online activities to surveil, influence, and exert control over civil society. The rapid and widespread sharing of information made possible by digital platforms has significantly benefited civil society in recent years. Activists and journalists can now quickly document and share instances of human rights abuses, ensuring that violations previously hidden from public view can reach millions worldwide.  

Not surprisingly, both governments and corporations implicated in human rights violations have actively sought to restrict digital information sharing. This may involve censoring or blocking social media platforms, controlling access to certain digital platforms, or hacking into the devices of human rights defenders. In instances where governments cannot control the dissemination of information, they resort to instilling fear by cracking down on those who expose human rights abuses.  

These oppressive strategies pose a growing threat to human-rights centered internet governance. They also contradict governments’ responsibilities to safeguard individuals’ rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly. AFSC committed to this research to more closely examine the impact of digital authoritarianism on civil society, as technology is rapidly growing and evolving. 

Q: What did these reports find?  

A: The reports reveal common challenges in digital communication and varied approaches to address them across Europe, Africa, and Latin America. Government surveillance practices, including monitoring online activities and adopting broad cybercrime laws, are extensive across regions. Restrictions on freedom of expression—such as media censorship, intimidation, and arrests of activists and journalists expressing dissent—contribute to environments hostile to free speech.  

The digital divide worsens gaps in access to digital infrastructure and technology, with marginalized communities facing barriers to access digital technologies. Other challenges experienced across regions are internet blackouts and use of spyware technology, such as Pegasus. 

Civil society must be equipped to protect against and withstand these rising threats, which threaten not only online but physical safety. Through this research and learning about other organizations involved in this area, we have pinpointed the emerging issues around digital authoritarianism in Europe, Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean and put forward some recommendations for AFSC to take forward and share.  

Q: What are those recommendations? 

A: Recommendations include comprehensive mapping of digital organizations, helps in understanding who is involved and how they can collaborate. It also includes advocating for infrastructure development and digital literacy, so more people can access the internet and its resources while protecting themselves against online threats.  

We also recommend encryption and digital safety training for civil society members, particularly those most at risk, such as journalists and human rights defenders. In Latin America, we highlight the importance of building trust in technology, simplifying technical jargon, and incorporating feminist approaches into digital security. These efforts aim to enhance digital communication infrastructure, policy, and rights, ensuring a more accessible, secure, and equitable digital future across Africa, Europe, and Latin America.  

Q: Why is it critical that we pay attention to this issue? 

A: Globally, we are increasingly reliant on digital technologies in almost every aspect of our lives. For most of us, the technology itself—let alone the extent of the evolving threats—is hard to fully comprehend, let alone mitigate. We are vulnerable in the face of issues such as privacy concerns, rising cybercrime threats, state surveillance leading to harassment and arrest, and the targeting of journalists, activists, and civil society actors.  

These issues aren’t going away. Until there is national and/or international legal framework for the use of these technologies by governments and corporations, the everyday user is left to simply practice good “digital hygiene” and do what they can to maintain a high level of digital safety and security. 

Through our efforts, we hope to raise awareness of these issues and support communities around the world in protecting and expanding their civic space. Please contact civicspace@afsc.org with any questions, queries or comments. 

More resources:  

Global Findings 2023 - Civicus Monitor: CIVICUS tracks the state of freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression in 198 countries and territories.  

Access Now: Resources and information concerning digital security in North America, including guides, reports, and tools concerning freedom of expression, AI, data protection, surveillance, content governance, and transparency.