censorship

 

  • BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’

    CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.

    Can you tell us about your background and work?

    I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.

    What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?

    Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.

    Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.

    As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.

    Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.

    What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?

    People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.

    Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.

    Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.

    The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.

    Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.

    Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.

    Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.

    Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.

    Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.

    According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.

    Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.

    What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?

    In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.

    Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.

    What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?

    One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.

    Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?

    Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.

    We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.

    There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.

    Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Bangladesh: Open Letter to Prime Minister about controversial digital security bill

    Conditions for human rights defenders and journalists in Bangladesh are dire, and appear to be worsening according to the CIVICUS Monitor. A declining respect for democracy has precipitated the closure of civic space through a systematic clampdown on independent dissent. This intensifying crackdown on civil society has led to a de facto ban on public meetings, mass arrests of activists and reports of abductions and torture. Civil society actors documenting human rights violations perpetrated by the government are particularly vulnerable to harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest.

    The authorities in Bangladesh continue to target civil society, most recently through draconian legislation designed to undermine the sector's independence. In  October 2016, parliament passed an amendment to the widely-criticised Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill (FDRB). The law strengthens the government's power to revoke CSO licenses for a variety of offences, including defamation, involvement in subversive activities and terrorist financing. The Digital Security Bill placed in Parliament is yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression in Bangladesh and impede independent journalism. See full details of the Security bill in a joint leter below to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh:

    H.E. Sheikh Hasina Wazed
    Prime Minister of Bangladesh
    c/o Md. Nojibur Rahman
    Principal Secretary to the HPM
    Prime Minister’s Office
    Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215
    Bangladesh

    Dear Prime Minister,

    Open Letter: Proposed Digital Security Bill will restrict free expression and promote self-censorship in Bangladesh

    FORUM-ASIA, the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) are writing to you, as civil society organisations, to express our grave concern about the implications of the proposed Digital Security Bill 2018 on the right to freedom of expression of the citizens of Bangladesh. 

    We understand that the draft bill was presented before the parliament and was sent to a Standing Committee on 9 April 2018 and is expected to be reviewed over the next four weeks. 

    We believe the 2018 Digital Security Bill contains provisions that are overly broad and vague, and that impose disproportionate sentences and prescribe lengthy prison sentences for violators. The bill, if adopted, will exacerbate a range of legal restrictions that will impinge on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in the Constitution and the country’s obligations under international law, in particular the ICCPR, which was ratified by Bangladesh in 2000.
    We are particularly concerned about the follow aspects of the bill: 

    • The bill proposes to empower low ranking police officers with wide discretionary powers to conduct investigations, searches and seizures without applying normative digital evidentiary standards and without judicial oversight. 
    • The bill lacks a precise definition of what is considered a cybercrime and criminalises the use of electronic devices to “cause deterioration to law and order”, harm "religious sentiments”, cause incitement "against another person or organization”, and carry out “acts of defamation” - all of which have been incorporated from section 57 of the ICT Act. The bill simply splits these offences into four separate sections (21, 25, 28 and 29) with punishment ranging from three to 10 years' jail term. 
    • There are concerns around the inclusion of the crime of “carrying out negative propaganda" against the Liberation War (1971 War of Independence) or the ‘Father of the Nation’ (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president) that carries a maximum sentence of up to 14 years' in jail or a fine of up to Tk 50 lakh (60,000 USD) or both. These provisions are in contravention of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
    • Section 32 of the draft bill related to "espionage” could be used against journalists, online activists and lawyers who investigate and expose controversy or illegality within the government. 
    • The bill also stipulates some crimes are “non-bailable” and authorises security agencies to search or arrest anyone without any warrant if a police officer believes that an offense under the law has been committed or there is a possibility of crimes. Such provision often encourages abuse of power by law enforcement officers and promotes self-censorship.

    We are concerned that, according to reports, although the draft bill is currently under consideration in parliament, cases filed under section 57 of the ICT Act will continue to be investigated and if necessary, prosecuted.

    Section 57 of the ICT Act violates the right to freedom of expression by both criminalising legitimate forms of expression and through its vague wording that allows the authorities to arbitrarily and abusively apply the law. Scores of journalists have been arrested under section 57 of the Act for their reporting; around 700 cases have been filed under this Section since 2013. The provision has also been described as a “de facto blasphemy law”, as it criminalises several forms of online expression including anyone who “causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief”.

    In 2017, the Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations raised concerns about the arrest of journalists, “secular bloggers” and human rights defenders under the ICT Act and called for the government to “repeal or revise the [ICT law] with a view to bringing it into conformity with the State party’s obligations under the Covenant, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 34 (2011) on the freedoms of opinion and expression”.

    We are also highly concerned by the government's lack of meaningful consultation regarding the bill with key stakeholders including journalists, civil society and the human rights community. We urge the government of Bangladesh to prioritise a collective review of the proposed Digital Security Bill to bring it in line with international human rights law and standards and to repeal Section 57 of the ICT Act. The government must ensure that any future legislative proposals that have implications for the media or civil society are developed in full consultation with all stakeholders.

    Freedom of expression is of critical importance to hold those in power accountable. There should be no limitations on the freedom of expression and personal opinion, particularly those that systematically violate democratic spaces and practices.

    It is crucial that the government takes steps to develop an enabling environment for freedom of expression in line with international standards and end its willful misuse of restrictive legislation to subvert free speech.

    The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) works towards the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights in Asia. Established in 1984, the Hong Kong based organisation is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, 2014.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa it is a membership alliance with more than 4,000 members in more than 175 countries.

    FORUM-ASIA is a regional human rights group with 58 member organisations in 19 countries across Asia. FORUM-ASIA has offices in Bangkok, Jakarta, Geneva and Kathmandu. FORUM-ASIA addresses key areas of human rights violations in the region, including freedoms of expression, assembly and association, human rights defenders, and democratization.

    For further details, contact: 


    AHRC, bangladeshATahrc.asia 
    CIVICUS, josef.benedictATcivicus.org
    FORUM-ASIA, sasiaATforum-asia.org

     

  • Censorship and surveillance could be the biggest rights challenges post Covid-19

    By Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS & Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Researcher

    Significant public attention in relation to Covid-19 has focused on the economic dimensions of the virus resulting in joblessness and deprivation on a monumental scale. But something else is severely under threat — civic space — basically the right to freely organise, participate and communicate in public life.

    Over the past few months, while health and economic concerns have taken public stage, insidious power grabs have been taking place, prompting the United Nation’s special expert on the right to privacy to warn that “dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat”.

    Read on Mail & Guardian

     

  • CIVICUS urges Iran to stop persecuting human rights defenders and implement Universal Periodic Review recommendations

    Johannesburg. 22 June 2010. Earlier this month, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and a number of civil society groups censured Iran at the UN Human Rights Council for outright refusal to accept key recommendations made during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 

    Iran rejected 45 of the 188 recommendations made to it by diplomatic delegations of different states and took back 20 recommendations to Tehran for further review. Notably, the rejected recommendations included "end to severe restrictions on the rights to free expression, association and assembly" (United States) and the "end to the detention and trials of writers solely for the practice of their right to freedom of expression" (Slovenia).

     

  • Sri Lanka: A year after Presidential elections, civic freedoms under increasing assault

    A year on from the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President of Sri Lanka, global civil society alliance CIVICUS is extremely concerned about the country’s regression in civic freedoms. Research undertaken by the CIVICUS Monitor – which rates civic space in Sri Lanka as ‘obstructed’ – shows a worrying pattern of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association, often with impunity. Human rights defenders, journalists and critics who speak out are facing increasing levels of surveillance, judicial harassment and threats. At the same time, the Rajapaska administration has reneged on both domestic and international human rights commitments, leaving the country on a precipice of a human rights downward spiral.

    A crackdown on fundamental freedoms

    As civic space has been squeezed tighter under the Rajapaksa administration, human rights lawyers, activists and academics have been targeted with arrests, intimidation and threats for speaking up. Prominent human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has been held in detention for more than seven months under the country’s repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) without charge or any credible evidence being put before a court. His trial has been postponed to February 2021. In May 2020, lawyer Achala Seneviratne, who is representing the families in a case where 11 youth disappeared in which Navy officers are implicated, received death threats on social media. In June 2020, lawyer Swasthika Arulingam was arrested and detained for several hours in Colombo for attempting to enquire about the detention of Black Lives Matter protestors. 

    In September 2020, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres raised concerns over the Sri Lankan government’s intimidation of human rights activists in his annual report on reprisals. The report stated that the UN had “received continued allegations of surveillance of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and families of victims of violations, including repeated visits by police and intelligence services, questioning organisations about their staff and activities related to the UN”.

    Amidst other such warning signs of a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation are increasing acts of intimidation against journalists. In the first few months after the elections, unidentified people physically attacked journalists several times, and issued death threats against reporters perceived as critical of the government. Security officials have also searched media offices. Many have resorted to self-censorship and fear covering sensitive issues – a virtually all-encompassing brief, including the army, human rights violations, missing peoples, land-grabbing, political corruption, and the Rajapaksa family themselves. In a number of cases, authorities have openly surveilled journalists, using official vehicles for maximum intimidation. 

    Protesters, too, have been intimidated and subject to surveillance. Even families of the disappeared, participating in rallies in the northern and north-eastern districts to obtain answers about the fate of their loved ones in the final stages of the civil war in 2009 and its aftermath, have been  interrogated by military personnel, often at odd and intrusive times. Surveillance of such families was noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in his May 2020 report.

    Increasing state control over civil society 

    Numerous civilian institutions, including the NGO Secretariat, which regulates non-governmental groups, have been placed under the control of the Defence Ministry. Independent NGOs are increasingly under threat as the administration have sought to restrict them. A number of NGOs, particularly those in the war-affected Northern and Eastern provinces of the country, reported visits from intelligence officers who sought details of staff, programmes and funding. The UN has reported on concerns from civil society organisations, especially in the north and east of the country, of being denied the right to for groups working on politically sensitive issues, such as LGBTQI+ rights, disappearances, land rights and transitional justice. These refusals typically come in verbal form, without any documentation, reasons or avenue for appeal.

    President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reneged on the Sri Lanka government’s  commitment to repeal the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with legislation that respects its international human rights obligations. The PTA has been used to arbitrarily detain suspects for months and often years without charge or trial. In 2017, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism found that the law “has fostered the endemic and systematic use of torture. 

    Sri Lanka’s international commitments

    In February 2020, Sri Lanka announced that it was withdrawing from its commitments to the UN Human Rights Council. The country had cosponsored a landmark resolution in 2015 to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights, renewing these commitments in further UNHRC resolutions in 2017 and 2019. There are real risks that ongoing failure to date to secure any accountability or justice for victims of human rights abuses and violations during the decades-long conflict will continue. Coupled with violations of civic space and democratic freedoms ratcheting up in the country, now would be a disastrous time for international attention to fall from Sri Lanka. 

    A resolution on the human rights Council’s role in preventing human rights crises, adopted in October this year, reaffirmed that CSOs and human rights defenders have a role to play in preventing human rights emergencies, by providing information on early warning signs and on patterns of human rights violations. Attacks against such actors serve as early warning signs in and of themselves, underscoring the need for ongoing Council scrutiny at a time when all the human rights patterns documented by civil society groups and the UN itself point to hard-fought democratic gains being progressively rolled back. 

    We therefore urge the government of Sri Lanka to undertake the following as a matter of urgency: 

    • Put an end the harassment, stigmatisation, intimidation, unlawful surveillance and arrest of human rights defenders, journalists and groups seeking truth and justice for victims of the civil war and ensure that they can freely express their opinions and dissent without fear of reprisals.
    • Ensure that journalists may work freely and without fear of retribution for expressing critical opinions or covering topics that the government may find sensitive.
    • Release human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and replace it with counterterrorism legislation that respects international legal standards.
    • Ensure a safe and enabling environment for activists in which they can organize, assemble, receive and share information.

    We further urge the international community to ensure a robust response to Sri Lanka’s human rights violations and its attempts to undermine UN mechanisms, including at the Human Rights Council. We call on the Council to establish an international accountability mechanism which would deliver truth and justice to victims of the conflict, and to take steps to protect those human rights defenders and activists on the ground, including those documented above, who face attacks and threats for speaking out. The attempted silencing of these voices could prove the early warning ahead of an impending human rights emergency.

     

  • State of civil society in Equatorial Guinea: An interview with CEID

    Spanish

    CIVICUS speaks to Alfredo Okenve, board member in charge of the International Cooperation and Good Governance Programmes of the Centre for Development Studies and Initiatives (CEID). Since 2012 Okenve coordinates the network of national CSOs in Equatorial Guinea. Trained as a physicist, he is a human rights defender and social activist with more than 20 years’ experience in consulting and management of development and civil society projects in Equatorial Guinea. He has worked as a professor of Mathematics and Physics and held a managerial position at the National University of Equatorial Guinea.

    1. The government of Equatorial Guinea is among the worst human rights abusers in the world. How would you describe the environment for civil society activity in the country?
    Civil society is still fledgling in Equatorial Guinea. It dates back to the nineties, and it faces internal difficulties such as a lack of tradition and experience in development and human rights work. It does not have much institutional support either - neither external nor domestic. However, the greatest among its current challenges lies with Equatorial Guinea’s government system. The ruling regime does not uphold any fundamental right, including the right to freedom of association enshrined in our Constitution. The environment is unfavourable, even hostile, to civil society work in every respect (the law, actual practices, lack of respect for human rights, funding, etc.). And it is particularly so for independent groups such as our NGO. There is a long list of legally recognised organisations in the country, but this basically serves the government to show that it respects the right to free association. In practice, however, the Ministry of the Interior stigmatises those organisations that want to work for the country’s development without following its orders, by arbitrarily attributing them uncivil actions. It has even suspended by decree the activities of NGOs like CEID, our organisation, or AGECDEA, another organisation dedicated to the “dangerous” task of providing solidary support to the elderly.
    The situation has not improved in spite of the many civil society initiatives directed at the government to foster dialogue, improve the environment for civil society and promote human rights and the fight against poverty. On the contrary, in recent years Equatorial Guinea has been increasingly militarised, as if we were living under a state of siege.

    2. What are the obstacles limiting the freedom of association in Equatorial Guinea? How have they affected you and your organisation?
    Domestic laws and administrative practices are very restrictive. On one hand, the process for the legalisation of an organisation is long and full of obstacles. For example, it requires the organisation’s promoters to submit to the Ministry of the Interior an affidavit certifying that it will submit to its control on a quarterly basis, plus a favourable report from the Ministry of the area in which the organisation wishes to work, and another report from the governor or provincial government delegate. It also requires them to formalise the constitution of the entity before a notary public, who in turn must obtain an authorisation from the Ministry of the Interior to validate this act. No legally constituted association is allowed to receive any donation, whether local or foreign, private or public, above a hundred US dollars without prior authorisation from the Interior Minister. Another example: no legally constituted organisation, that is, no organisation that has been allowed by the government to function, can deal directly with a beneficiary community without an additional authorisation or credential; this is not what the law says, but it is “customary”.

    Additionally the government routinely threatens the members of those organisations that are considered to be “enemies of the fatherland”, that is, those that are not aligned politically with the government. Last December, the governor of the Litoral province, where our headquarters are located, gathered all regional and provincial authorities and urged them not to interact with our NGO since their Ministry is in charge of the third sector, and the Minister had decreed our suspension.
    Personally, as a professor and staff of the National University, I have not received my salary and have been arbitrarily and illegally banned from doing my job since June 2010, despite a shortage of teachers –all because of my condition as a social leader, human rights defender and good governance activist. What they are trying to do is condemn me to social exclusion and thereby send a warning to forcefully discourage civil society.
    From 2015 on, the country’s CSOs have submitted to the government joint proposals to reform the laws of associations, indicating the limitations that the current law imposes on our social work; we have also raised the need for a national forum or conference on the role of civil society in the country. We have not yet received any official response.

    3. Equatorial Guinea has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in Africa, and online censorship is routine. How do you manage to get your work done when the freedom of expression and information is so restricted?
    Internet access remains a problem for us, either because of the low technology level or the lack of telematics capabilities of the country, or because of blockages imposed on critical websites or social networks such as Facebook or Twitter –coupled with electricity supply problems in most of the country.
    Internally, we have no choice other than try to bypass and endure these obstacles, but it is indeed difficult and it restricts our work capacity. At the organisational level, we have adopted the strategy of opening spaces for information and coordination among our country’s civil society organisations, notably the National Coordination of CSOs, a platform and meeting point for the solidarity action of civil society.

    4. Are protests allowed in Equatorial Guinea? How are citizens treated when the try to protest?
    Our Constitution recognises the right to strike and demonstrate. The written rules state that a notification to the government authorities would suffice to exercise this right. In practice, however, the only demonstrations that are allowed and that are actually taking place in our country are those of support and praise to the President of the Republic and his policies –that is to say, those that are summoned by the government or the PDGE (Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea), the ruling party. Anyone promoting a demonstration against the government policies or any other form of expression, even the mere distribution of information leaflets in the streets, generally ends up under interrogation, tortured, imprisoned and/or dismissed from their jobs. Any claim or remedy that is filed with the competent authority in this regard is either denied or ignored. I think the situation is similar to that of closed regimes such as North Korea’s.

    5. What are CEID’s aims? How does the organisation do its work within this context?
    CEID is a not-for-profit, non-denominational and independent organisation. It began to form in 1996, at a time when our country was, despite its plentiful resources, among the most underdeveloped countries in Africa. It originated out of the concerns of a group of young graduates from several European universities (mostly Spanish and Russian), coming from fields as diverse as International Cooperation, Journalism, Economics, Engineering and Medicine. All of us wanted to contribute from civil society to improve the living conditions and the prospects for development of their fellow citizens, and were convinced that fostering a responsible, conscious, participative and enabled citizenry was of the utmost importance. And we shared the idea that the only real form of development is human, inclusive, sustainable and integral development. We wanted to dedicate our time to volunteer but professional work to fight against poverty and marginalisation through research and cooperation. The NGO was set up in Malabo in April 1997, and only by the end of 1998 did we obtain the authorisation to operate in the country.

    We started working to identify the development problems of our country, analysing possible solutions from civil society. As a result, we set out at the grassroots level with two important programmes: the Civil Society Strengthening Programme and the Local Community Development Programme. A large part of our interventions were designed around these programmes. But we found out that international funding was in retreat because Guinea had become, thanks to its fossil fuel production, a middle-income country –even though our government had no intention or will to use any of that income to fund development through non-governmental entities. The ruling regime, which is totalitarian and based on monolithic thinking, never liked the sight of actors out of its orbit venturing on the national stage. There were plenty of attempts to co-opt our leaders, with diverse degrees of success. For all of these reasons, two years after we were granted legal personality we went through a crisis that led us to total hibernation lasting for about six years. We resumed our activities in 2007-2008, and now our priorities include human rights and good governance, issues that were prohibited to us by law until 2006. We also found some timid international support.
    In sum, our work has focused on the introduction of new information technologies in education, local community and rural development, good governance and, above all, the strengthening of civil society. Since its inception five years ago, CEID leads the National Coordinating Network of Civil Society Organisations. We have also done consultancy work with international development and cooperation organisations and programmes.

    We have a Board of Directors that is renewed every three years, and we gather in members’ assemblies every 18 months. Our headquarters are located in Bata, the country’s second capital. We cover our operating expenses and minor projects with the fees paid by our members-partners and the odd consultancy job; for development projects of a certain magnitude, of which we have already executed (or are in the process of implementing) fourteen, we seek external funds. So far all of these funds have come from the few international cooperation agencies that are still active in the country, or from occasional consortia with extractive industries fulfilling their commitment to corporate social responsibility. We have never received a single dollar from the State of Guinea.

    Most CEID members are public servants and our dedication to NGO work is voluntary. This leaves us in a situation of great vulnerability, as we appear as easy prey for harassment, threats and blackmail. Nevertheless, we try to find courage in the conviction that we are doing something that is very necessary and, generally speaking, unprecedented. So far we have managed not to deviate from our ideas.
    Unfortunately, we don’t have any self-protection strategy in place. The constant restrictions we face, plus the challenge of overcoming them while working on the ground in order to fulfil our commitments have left us no time or capacity to establish much-needed contingency policies. We therefore just try to always work within the legal framework and to appeal to the legality of all our actions.

    As we lack the capacity to directly execute many of our initiatives, we usually submit them as suggestions to the institutions that are in a position or whose job it is to implement them. That is why we are always encouraging meetings and advocacy with government institutions such as those in the good governance sector (human rights, transparency) and in social sectors such as education, health and children’s care. We take a similar stance towards other NGOs that we have been providing training to. In 2011 we founded the Coordinating Network along with sectorial sub-networks to join efforts and promote collective initiatives. CEID plays a very active part in the tripartite EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) National Commission, created in 2007, in representation of civil society. It is a challenge for Guinean civil society to have its own space recognised and for NGOs to be treated as development actors in their own right.

    6. What can domestic actors do to promote respect for human rights and a healthy civic space in Equatorial Guinea?
    We believe that the steps that we are already taking are the right ones and we need to work to improve them, because they are based on participatory strategies. Despite the obstacles and restrictions faced by Guinean civil society, we struggle to conquer spaces. Lobbying, advocacy and perseverance are as necessary as increased cohesion and solidarity. An example of the steps we have taken is the creation, within the Coordinating Network, of sectorial groups and specifically one for Human Rights and Transparency. On the same line of action, through the national information media CEID has been able to keep over the past four years a one-hour weekly radio space from which to promote respect for human rights, social involvement and public spiritedness. Likewise, we have proposed to the Ministry of Education the introduction of the subject of civic and social education within the national school curriculum.

    7. How can external actors, including regional organisations and international solidarity movements, support civil society in Equatorial Guinea?
    Civil society organisations in Equatorial Guinea need not just financial but also human, technical and institutional support from regional and international organisations. We need management tools and training on issues related to the development of civic spaces in restrictive environments, and to the role of civil society in the struggle for the rule of law and against poverty. We need to be wrapped up in solidarity and not be left alone; we need international actors to integrate us into their sub-regional, regional and global networks and to advocate for us with their governments, which maintain relations with Equatorial Guinea, so they put pressure on ours to provide a favourable environment for civil society.

    Civic space in Equatorial Guinea is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with CEID through their website or visit their Facebook page.