JOHANNESBURG — Restrictions on the freedoms of civil society groups are hindering development around the world, says South Africa-based CIVICUS, a group dedicated to strengthening citizen action. In a report issued Monday, the international advocacy group said those restrictions include limited access to information, lower tolerance of protests and even systematic targeting of rights campaigners.
In recent years, a new front has opened in the global struggle for freedom of expression: the Internet.
The power of the Internet was evident in the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings that saw the overthrow of the entrenched leadership in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
But, advocates say, more and more governments have tightened their grip on the Internet, one of many restrictions CIVICUS documented in this year’s report.
The report released Monday found that about one-third of Internet users around the world experience some level of government restriction. That includes users in advanced nations like China.
The CIVICUS also noted that old-fashioned repressive tactics still exist. In the last year, the group documented the killing of 75 trade unionists around the world, some 800 documented attacks on writers, arrests of government critics, and regressive laws limiting activists’ work.
The South Africa-based group advocates for citizen participation around the world. Secretary General Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah said that without free participation from all sectors of society, development is not possible.
“I think what our report shows is the freedom from want is not achievable unless you have the freedom from fear. That you can’t have economic freedoms without the political freedoms,’ Sriskandarajah said. “And civil society across the world, particularly in developing countries, plays this important function of delivering services, holding government to account, giving citizens voice.
“All those things that are fundamental to the development project, and often get missed out when there’s this economistic focus on dollars, and on aid. And that’s why we’re calling in this report for an enabling environment for civil society to underpin the new set of development goals the international community is busy agreeing on,” the secretary general added.
In Africa, Internet restrictions seem to be less of a concern, but that’s because so few Africans have Internet access. According to the U.N.’s telecommunications arm, Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in Internet access rates and speeds.
But that is not for lack of desire. Last year, several African nations joined the growing group of countries where there are more mobile phone subscriptions than there are people.
Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications, said Internet access may not be a human right in itself, but it is a part of the package. She recommended that African nations push telecoms companies to make their rates more affordable.
“I think what we have to acknowledge is that in today’s world, without access to the Internet, your ability to express your fundamental human rights is severely curtailed,” Esterhuysen remarked. “So how in today’s world can you actually enjoy the right to free speech without access to the Internet? The way we look at it is it’s an enabler, and therefore the obligation of states to ensure that there is affordable and free – if you’re poor – access, becomes as important as the obligation to uphold other human rights.”
But Esterhuysen added that with the rise of Internet recruitment by extremist groups, governments should have a right to monitor Internet activity — as long as they observe their own laws and due process.
“Civil society organizations need to take the issue of security on board. We also cannot dismiss it as just governments being nasty and trying to silence critical voices,” she noted. “There are real security issues, and there is a need for any state that is trying to protect its citizens or in the course of law enforcement, to monitor what people do on the Internet.”
Activists say it comes down to the age-old balance between freedom and responsibility. When both governments and their citizens respect both ideals, both win.