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Author: Olga Komarova | 6. March 2019

On March 4th and 5th, Global Focus held an international conference titled “Claiming Civic Space Together – Joint strategies to ensure development and humanitarian action” in Copenhagen, Denmark.

About 300 stakeholders from civil society, various public authorities, and the private sector gathered to share their experiences of diverse forms of civic space restrictions as well as to identify strategies that ensure the promotion and the establishment of civic space on a global stage. As a starting point, the event addressed better including civic space within the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule – the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (FOAA), and keynote speaker at the conference – shed light on the key role of civil society in the implementation of the SDGs. He stressed that the creation of a proper and reliable environment that enables civil society organisations (CSOs) to tackle obstacles and hold meaningful consultations are a prerequisite to ensure the participation of CSOs in SDG reporting processes.

Mr. Nyaletsossi Voule will present a report to the Human Rights Council relating to the links between the rights to FOAA and the implementation of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Therefore, an interactive discussion took place in order to enable stakeholders to voice their recommendations. Mainly, it showed the need for:

  • The creation of a positive narrative on CSO contributions towards public authorities.
  • The development of considerable documentation and data, providing enough proof to review the progress of the SDGs.
  • The possibility for CSOs to assess a state’s participation in a Voluntary National Review (VNR) and the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF).
  • The rights for CSOs to be protected in conflict countries.
  • The engagement of community media who enable local and marginalised voices to be heard. It highlights the principle of “leaving no one behind” in which the 2030 Agenda is committed to addressing.

To bring new perspectives to the report, a call for inputs, which has been extended to 14 March, can be found here.

During these two days, thematic sessions were held with speakers with diverse backgrounds (media professionals, human rights defenders, government officials, and more), which aimed to illustrate the restrictions faced by the diverse sectors represented.

One session, “#MediaToo: How online technologies are used to restrict freedom of expression and independent media and how we respond,” organised by International Media Support (IMS), exposed some threats to independent media and freedom of expression. These included online censorship, such as blocking content, online assault methods, or trolling. Such intimidation attempts leave the way open for disinformation and, as emphasised by Daniel Arnaudo, senior program manager at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), “the weaponisation of information.”

After noticing that Mada Masr, an Egyptian independent media outlet, had been blocked by the Egyptian government, Mr. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, reporter and editor with the organisation, shared his advice to the audience about how to counter these kinds of online restrictions, including

  • Act as if the blocking does not exist – find a way to publish content and make it as visible as possible.
  • Contest the blocking in court.
  • Utilise social media channels, such as by creating a hashtag – e.g. #UnblockMada.
  • Write articles using Google Docs or another cloud-based word processor, and provide the link on social media.

In the context of the implementation of the SDGs, the #MediaToo session was followed by a discussion seeking to devise a joint counterstrategy aimed at securing a response from civil society in case of such restrictions. The recommendations gleaned included:

  • Adopt a proactive and multidisciplinary approach, most notably by building a coalition of actors across the world. The media sector should also collaborate with other sectors to promote the SDGs over all.
  • The long-term solution is to support critical thinking and to encourage media literacy. As disinformation cannot be stopped immediately, it is advised to work directly with the recipients of the information. An informed audience with access to information can hold decision-makers accountable, and that is an important condition needed to achieve the SDGs.
  • Set up systems and innovative tools, such as Rappler (a social news network tracking online forms of manipulation), in order to counter disinformation or restrictions. In the current context, fact-checking is an important part of journalism that cannot be understated as well.
  • Organise data security training programmes and establish immediate response mechanisms.
  • Support ethics and accountable media.

Based on the thematic sessions’ recommendations, the conference closed by setting up common guidelines meant to target and reverse the currently observed trend of a shrinking civic space. It mainly highlighted the following solutions:

  • The necessity of building bridges and coalitions between different sectors while acknowledging their respective restrictions.
  • The development of response mechanisms for when restrictions or complaints occur.
  • The importance of going local and acting in close relation with communities, such as indigenous populations, in order to ensure the principle of leave no one behind is realised.
  • Holding the sector accountable and having “a watchdog for the watchdog.”
  • Ensure Right to Information (RTI) laws and policies can enable CSOs to document and report on a specific issue. Therefore, SDG 16.10, which aims “to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements,” plays a crucial role in the overall process of securing a civic space.

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