Navigating the civic space during a pandemic

As countries worldwide tread into year two of Covid-19, the virus has also brought in new restrictions to fundamental freedoms as governments reacted by implementing lockdowns and emergency measures. However, these interventions restricted the abilities of civic organisations across the world.

Three organisations shared the results of studies and trends on the impact of the pandemic during a ‘Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid’ webinar hosted by the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA).

Rosie McGee, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, said the institute conducted a study from June to December 2020 in Mozambique, Nigeria and Pakistan. The Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid: Synthesis Report research explored how the pandemic brought the suspension of many fundamental freedoms in the name of the public good, providing cover for a deepening of authoritarian tendencies but also spurring widespread civic activism on issues suddenly all the more important, ranging from emergency relief to economic impacts. The research was grounded in a close review of global trends.

McGee noted that the results from each country showed a narrowing civic space trend during the various levels of Covid-19 restrictions as these countries combine democratic institutions with autocratic ruling practices. She said that the pandemic restricted freedom of assembly, and the restrictions implemented resulted in human rights abuses. 

“These moves to suppress and silence dissent were seen online as well as in offline spaces in Pakistan. Women journalists critical of government’s handling of the pandemic were subject to online harassment and trolling on social media with the involvement of the ruling party,” McGee said. 

She added that the pandemic resulted in civic organisations collaborating due to a lack of funding, as the funding was redirected towards the pandemic. The consequence thereof resulted in increasing sustainability pressure on advocacy organisations, particularly those facing funding problems before the pandemic. McGee said a “spate of demonstrations and marches in defence of basic livelihoods were seen everywhere”, adding that “Covid-19 seems to have simultaneously magnified and intensified the need for a vibrant, assertive civil society.”

Nicola Nixon, director of governance and Sumaya Saluja, inclusive governance advisor from the Asia Foundation, conducted a study in seven Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Timor-Leste. Nixon said that civic spaces in Southeast Asia are restricted, and most governments use a range of tactics to limit activities within civic spaces. Nixon explained that “governments have used the pandemic response mechanisms to further silence, dissent, and go their basic freedoms. Saluja said that, “despite the pandemic, there is space for innovation and collective action, particularly online.”

She added that “the pandemic also seems to have expanded the number of organisations involved in the delivery of basic services and why these services are all the more critical right now.” The Asia Foundation and the Institute of Development Studies findings were very similar despite their studies focusing on different countries and continents. Koketso Moeti, Executive Director at said that “the pandemic has without a doubt underscored the essential nature of digital connectivity, but also that digital technologies are here to stay”.  She added that “the civic space has been reconfigured by the growth of the digital sphere”. Moeti shared a presentation on how digital technologies were restricted by governments, which impacted civic organisations that usually mobilised online. She said there was an increase in surveillance by the government and private actors. Moeti explained that governments introduced a “vague law” that criminalised speech that criticised the government’s response to the pandemic. These laws were used to silence civic organisations, and in countries such as Egypt, people were imprisoned for their criticism.  

“The pandemic ultimately has shown us how critical digital technologies are but they are also committable weapons in the hands of those defending injustices,” she said. 

Moeti warned, “our actions right now, as the pandemic continues to unfold will determine what will happen post-pandemic with these technologies.”

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