Hate Speech

 

  • ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They want to stop us because we do make a difference’

    Giada NegriAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Europe with Giada Negri, research and advocacy officer at the European Civic Forum (ECF). The ECF is a network of civil society organisations working on citizenship education, human rights advocacy and the promotion of democracy.

     

    What kind of work does the European Civic Forum do?

    The European Civic Forum (ECF) is a European network that includes over a hundred civil society organisations (CSOs) from all across the European Union and the Balkans. It began in 2005 as an informal network and became official in 2007. This happened at a crucial moment because the Constitutional Treaty – the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe – had just been thrown out as a result of popular votes. It was time to discuss serious issues related to democracy, issues that were transversal to civil society across countries, and the ECF thought it could provide a space for these debates to take place.

    More recently we started working on civic space, as our members and partners began to notice an increased pressure on civil society. The tipping point was the approval of the Anti-Foreign NGO Law in Hungary in 2017. About one-and-a-half years ago the ECF created a platform for civic space, Civic Space Watch, to collect resources, analyses, updates and articles on the state of civic space and civic freedoms in Europe, and to fuel civil society reaction to restrictions. We want civil society to be able to request and receive solidarity across borders, so if there is an attack in one country there is a shared understanding of what is happening and a quick collective reaction against it.

    What would you say are the main current threats against civic space in Europe?

    To understand these threats we have to take step back and look at what CSOs and social movements have been doing over several years – denouncing a system that has proven socially, environmentally and politically unsustainable and filling in the gaps in many areas and in different ways, whether by providing services and proposing practical solutions or by keeping the powerful accountable and keeping on the agenda the values and principles stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Civic space, the space to call out the powerful and to express dissent, has been restricted in an attempt to maintain a system that is not working for all anymore. We see rising illiberalism and the tendency to securitise public discourse and public space at the same time as social policies shrink. The underlying factor is a neoliberal vision of the world that views society as just a collection of individuals put together, and that does not recognise the importance of the value of social justice and the responsibility of public policies to deliver for everybody and to include everybody in the discussion.

    The specific challenges that civil society face are very diverse and differ among countries, as do the main actors that are targeted. But we are seeing some trends emerge across the European continent, so it is important to put them on the European agenda and raise them with European Union (EU) institutions. While some instances of restriction in countries such as Hungary and Poland are being very well covered by the media, other countries are experiencing attacks that are not being sufficiently discussed, such as violent policing and censorship in France or Spain.

    In other countries challenges are more subtle and tend to be ignored. For instance, in February 2019 a German Court ruled that the German branch of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action (ATTAC) should have its public benefit status withdrawn due to its activities being ‘political’. This raises the worry that organisations promoting causes like tax justice might become afraid to speak up against the powerful and denounce policies that don’t work or that work to the benefit of few people because their financial capacity and therefore their continued existence could be at stake.

    Clearly civic space is not being restricted equally for everybody: specific groups are being targeted. Which groups are the most targeted in Europe?

    On the Civic Space Watch we see that those most affected by the introduction or tightening of civic space restrictions have been environmental organisations, groups providing solidarity to migrants and those fighting for inclusion, social sustainability, the rule of law and sexual and reproductive rights. All of these have found themselves at the centre of controversies because they point out systemic failures and injustices. Which issues are the more controversial, and therefore which groups find themselves under the most pressure, varies between countries. But whatever those issues are, the groups working on them and denouncing failures of the system are the most under pressure.

    Do all of these restrictions originate from the state, or are others imposing them as well?

    The state authorities and agencies, at all levels, are still the main actors responsible for civic space restrictions. But we are definitely seeing non-state actors threatening civic space as well. In several countries we have reported non-state groups, including private companies, taking action against the freedom of expression or the freedom of peaceful assembly. More research is needed about these because this is an emerging threat in many contexts – we have had cases reported in France, Portugal, the United Kingdom and so on. Additionally, we are also seeing anti-rights groups that are gaining confidence to act against the rights of certain people.

    European society is becoming increasingly polarised around many issues, which is making it easier for these groups to gain a support that would previously have been thought impossible. They promote a view of rights that creates competition between vulnerable groups or is exclusive of some groups on grounds of identity, culture or sexual orientation. They have become really good at exploiting the fears and anxieties of their audiences, which in turn are the result of policies that have brought competition of all against all into our societies. They are being able to use human rights language and human rights tools, which is also new.

    In Romania, for instance, anti-rights groups gathered thousands of signatures to call a referendum to try to ban same-sex marriage. They used the tools of participatory democracy to try to change the Constitution, which did not specify the gender of the people in a marriage. Although a lot of resources were spent to promote it, this referendum failed. But in the process, anti-rights groups targeted LGBTQI people and activists and there was a rise in hate crime. In contexts like this, I fear for democracy. The fact that these groups are using democratic tools may be used as an excuse for governments to start withdrawing these democratic tools; however, I am convinced that less democracy can’t ever be the answer to these issues.

    Certain extremist groups – specifically neo-fascist ones – are using very confrontational tactics, such as physical attacks against the police, activists, vulnerable groups and CSOs. Thanks to their confrontational strategies they are gaining space in the media, which gives them an audience. European countries have legislation against these kinds of groups, but the authorities are failing to call them out, prosecute them and outlaw them, which confers some legitimacy on them. Around certain issues, such as migration, these groups are increasingly present in the public sphere. As governments also pick up the topic and treat migration as a problem in much the same way, they legitimise anti-migrant groups to the same extent that they criminalise the civil society groups that work to provide support to migrants.

    There is already a lot of knowledge about these extremist groups in individual countries, although less about conservative groups that are not necessarily extremist. But we need to learn more about how they are interconnected, because they clearly are. Connections happen at all levels, from top to bottom. At the highest political level, right-wing populist leaders restricting civic space and targeting marginalised groups are connecting, cooperating and learning from one another. In a highly symbolic gesture, in May 2019 Italy’s far-right Minister of Interior at the time, Matteo Salvini, met with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, where fences had been built to stop the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers coming north through the Balkans. The measures that Salvini proposes are very similar to Orbán’s, and they wanted to show to the world a unified front against migration.

    Anti-rights groups are also connected at the grassroots level. A clear example of this was the World Congress of Families that gathered in March 2019 in Verona, Italy. It was a massive gathering of activists from around the world, united by their rejection of sexual and reproductive rights and their vocal hate for LGBTQI people. But in this case the opposition was also strong and brought activists from all across Europe.

    How is progressive civil society responding to anti-rights groups? And what else should it do to respond more effectively?

    Solidarity is key. Civil society mobilisation in support of threatened groups provides a lot of the psychological strength needed to keep going, and has also brought important, tangible successes. In May 2018 Ireland celebrated a historic referendum that legalised abortion, and civil society mobilised around the right of women to choose not only in Ireland itself but also in other countries, as a way of saying, ‘We stand with you in solidarity, we are united for the same cause, an attack against one of us is an attack against us all’. In Poland, when the government tried to push through even more restrictive legislation of abortion, even though the law that is in place is already among the strictest in the world, civil society repeatedly mobilised. Women protested massively in 2016, in 2017, and keep doing so, not only in Poland but everywhere in Europe. So far, they have been very successful in stopping restrictive legislation.

    I think all rights are connected – economic, political, social, cultural and environmental rights – so if one of them is taken away, the whole universality of rights shrinks as well. Civil society has learned that we must react not just when those rights that we fight for are being threatened, or when it is political or civil rights that are under pressure, but every time any right is under threat. And we should not only point out when democratic mechanisms don’t work; democracy should not merely function, but it should function for everyone, so we should keep pointing out when that is not happening.

    It is also really important that we start telling the stories of our victories, because we are really good at pointing out when there are problems and sometimes it’s just necessary to acknowledge to ourselves, ‘hey, we did that’. We need to celebrate our victories because they are victories for everybody, and also because it boosts our confidence and gives us the strength to keep fighting. That is why the campaign that we started in 2018 around the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that we are carrying out again this year and, we hope, in the years to come, takes the form of a celebration of all the work that civil society has done, trying to show the real, amazing impact of what we do, and the fact that everything would be quite different without us, because of all the human rights victories that would not have happened.

    I think I sometimes made that mistake when I started studying civic space and looking into civic space restrictions: when focusing so much on the restrictions, I lost sight of the fact that those restrictions were being introduced in reaction to our successes. We were being restrained precisely because we were winning, and someone resented it. They want to stop us because we do make a difference.

    Get in touch with the European Civic Forum through itswebsite andFacebook page, andfollow@ForCivicEU and@GiadaNegri on Twitter.

     

  • BRAZIL: ‘Discrimination and hate speech are becoming normalised’

    Dariele SantosAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about migrant workers’ rights with Dariele Santos, the young founder of Instituto Alinha, a social enterprise focused on improving the work and life conditions of migrant workers employed in the fashion industry.

     

    When and why did you decide to create the Alinha Institute?

    When I was in college I had several jobs with which I supplemented my scholarship, and one of those jobs involved research on immigration issues, and more specifically about Latin American immigrants employed in the clothing industry in São Paulo. That’s when I began to speak with migrants and I learned about their precarious life and work conditions, that is, about the reality of the production chain in Brazil’s fashion industry.

    Brazil encompasses all steps in the production chain of this industry, from cotton production to garment manufacturing. The fashion industry is spread throughout the country, but its final link, the manufacturing of clothing, is highly concentrated in São Paulo, employing mostly migrant workers. Production is highly outsourced; clothing brands subcontract with sewing workshops that are involved in the various phases of the manufacturing process. The more workshops that are involved in the process, the more difficult it is to exercise some control and the more labour protections are lost. Many of these workshops are small and family-run, and function in the family's home, with all members of the family working, and getting paid by the piece. People work up to 90 hours per week because they get paid very little for each piece that they produce.

    When I learned the stories of these migrant workers, I began to realise the huge dimensions of the problem, and I also realised how little I had known about it, and how little we know in general about the fashion industry chain: we don't care the least about how the clothes that we wear are made. The problem of the huge inequality and injustice in the fashion industry chain is completely invisible. It is a super-luxury industry that generates a lot of money, but to the same extent, it is a chain of enormous exploitation.

    Along with a friend, I started thinking about starting a social enterprise that would apply technology to solve this problem, and we launched Alinha in 2014.

    What does Alinha do to improve the working conditions of migrant workers?

    The idea is simple: Alinha provides advice to sewing workshop entrepreneurs so that they regularise their businesses and guarantee adequate security and reasonable deadlines and pay, and connects them with clothing manufacturers and designers interested in hiring a workshop, thus ensuring fair conditions for all parties involved.

    More specifically, we begin by visiting the sewing workshops that sign up to receive advice, and we assess their deficits in order to recommend what they should do to get out of informality. We look at areas such as their forms of contracting, their health and safety conditions and their equipment. In our second visit we bring a work safety specialist. These workshops have a lot of fire hazards, because they store large quantities of cloth and tend to have precarious electrical installations; to make things worse, usually many children live in the houses in which the workshops operate. Once the safety assessment has been done, we prepare an action plan aimed at regularising the workshops or aligning them with labour and safety standards - hence our name of Alinha. We do it in plain language and translate the laws for workers. We provide the basics of accounting and help workshop owners calculate the required investment and how it would impact on product prices. Once the improvements have been made and we consider that a workshop has reached a minimum security and formalisation threshold, we upload its details to the Alinha platform so that it can get it in touch with brands and designers. Brands and designers come on our platform because they seek to change the way they produce and are willing to guarantee fair payment terms and deadlines. So we connect them.

    The prices of these products are surely higher than those of products made under conditions of extreme exploitation. Have you managed to convince consumers that it is worth paying more for them?

    We're on it. We know that it is important to connect consumers because they have enormous power in their hands: when choosing the brand they are going to buy, they can make the decision to support one that guarantees fair working conditions. But consumers can't really choose if they don't know which brands have contracts with our aligned workshops. That is why we have a platform where the aligned brands place data that users can check - for example, that they are making a certain number of pieces with such and such workshop, so that after the information has been added to the Alinha platform, the workshop can confirm on the phone that they are indeed making these pieces, earning a certain amount per hour, and working with such and such deadlines. When all the links in the production chain confirm the information, an identification code for the piece is generated to be placed on the garment’s label, so that the final user can track the garment’s history. All information and confirmations are stored in Blockchain, so that there is more security and trust in the information.

    We are also in the process of making a short film that tells the story behind the clothes, based on the story of a Bolivian migrant seamstress. The presentation of an individual’s story seeks to generate connection and empathy: we want the consumer to see a woman who has dreams and hopes similar to their own. We seek to ask the consumer a question: which story would you rather choose, one about exploitation or one about decent work?

    Do you think that the situation of migrants in Brazil has recently worsened?

    The problem of migrants is not recent; it comes from long ago. There are many migrants who have lived here, and worked in terrible conditions, for decades. Migrants who work in sewing workshops in São Paulo are mostly Bolivian, although there are many from countries such as Paraguay and Peru as well. Many of them first emigrated from their countries to Argentina, but when the 2008 financial crisis hit they moved to Brazil. The political and economic conditions back then - the Lula government and a period of strong economic growth - made Brazil a better destination.

    But it is difficult to be a migrant in Brazil. It is the only non-Spanish speaking country in the region, so difficulties in communication and access to information abound. Migrants without legal documentation or formal employment are afraid all the time. The psychological pressure is very strong: people refuse to leave the sewing workshops because they are afraid of being caught and forced to leave. Migrants fear the consequences of demanding their rights.

    While the migrant workers’ exploitation is not a new problem, and migrants’ fear isn’t new either, the situation has recently worsened. The new president, Jair Bolsonaro, represents the far right, and his discourse is extremely xenophobic. He places himself above the laws and above all democratic guarantees. His message to migrant workers is: ‘be thankful for all the good things you have here, and if there is something you don't like, you’d better leave’. The fact that hate speech is coming from so high up is emboldening people who always thought these things, but in the past would not say them and now feel it is legitimate to do so. In this sense, discrimination and hate speech are becoming normalised.

    This situation is replicated in various spheres. It is a dangerous time for activists working on human rights, environmental rights, women's rights, LGBTQI rights, black and indigenous peoples’ rights and migrants’ rights. There is a lot of fear because going against the government poses high risks. This has been clearly seen in the cases of Marielle Franco, the LGBTQI activist and councilwoman from Rio de Janeiro who was murdered in March 2018, and the LGBTQI congressperson and activist Jean Wyllys, who recently left Brazil because of threats against his life.

    Fortunately, not all Brazilians are receptive to Bolsonaro's discourse. We live a situation of high polarisation. While many have indeed moved towards the far right and have adopted nationalist positions, many people are also increasingly convinced that what needs to be done is to guarantee more rights to more people.

    In this context, what can rights-oriented civil society do?

    Civil society moves within narrow margins. Our strategy is to generate a discourse that creates empathy among public opinion rather than a confrontational discourse permanently criticising the president because this would create trouble with a broad sector of society that would immediately reject it as leftist. We are going through tough times: it is not advisable to announce that you fight for human rights because human rights are associated with the left rather than viewed as things that belong to everyone. That is why we find it more productive to focus on real people and their stories, to show the photo of a flesh-and-blood person and ask our audience, 'don’t you think this woman is a hardworking person, who is struggling just like you, and who deserves better working conditions, who deserves to get ahead?'

    It is really quite tragic to have to hide the struggle for human rights because it is not seen as a legitimate cause. Since President Bolsonaro was elected, a lot of activists have had to leave Brazil. Those who have stayed are being forced to choose: if they want to continue doing a direct, head-first kind of activism, they need to be willing to take risks. Nowadays, mine is a sort of diplomatic activism: I sit down to speak with businesspeople and I need to be open to chat with people who don't necessarily think like me or do things the way I think they should be done, but with whom I can achieve some progress.

    What international support does Brazilian civil society need to continue working?

    Although it may not seem obvious at times, because Brazil is considered a medium-high-income country, Brazilian civil society needs all kinds of support to continue working in this hostile environment. In my particular case, I was very fortunate to receive support from the Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator programme, which seeks to accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This programme supports a group of young activists who are using data in innovative ways to address SDGs 1 to 6, that is, to seek solutions to local development challenges related to poverty, hunger, health and well-being, education, gender equality and water and sanitation.

    This support has been super strategic, since it included funding, technical support and connections, and allowed me to acquire new tools. Many more initiatives like this are needed, because Brazilian civil society is shrinking, and not only because of the political climate but also because of the economic crisis that has been going on for several years. According to a recent study, more than 38,000 civil society organisations closed their doors in Brazil between 2013 and 2016, and many of them used to provide basic services to vulnerable populations. The segment of civil society that has suffered the most is the one working on development and human rights advocacy: more than 10,000 organisations that closed down used to work in favour of minorities, such as black people, women, indigenous people and LGBTQI people, and the rights of communities.

    Civic space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Instituto Alinha through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages.

     

  • CHILE: ‘Anti-rights groups become stronger when their narrative emanates from the government’

    hector pujols

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences and actions in the face of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Héctor Pujols, spokesperson for Chile’s National Immigrant Coordination. The Coordination is a network that brings together activists and organisations that work for the defence of the human rights of Chile’s migrant population and advocates for legislative advances and the implementation of inclusive public policies towards migrant communities. 

    Can you tell us what kind of work the National Immigrant Coordination does?

    The Coordination is a network of organisations, migrants’ groups and movements; we think that migrants need their own organisations. The Coordination has existed since 2014, but many organisations that are part of it, especially those of Peruvian immigrants, have been around for 20 to 25 years. Our membership is diverse and includes cultural organisations; thematic ones, dedicated for instance to labour or housing issues; sectoral ones, such as the Secretariat of Immigrant Women; those that are territorial in nature, linked to particular communes; and others that are organised by nationality, and seek to provide spaces and opportunities to Argentine, Ecuadorian, or Peruvian communities.

    One of the Coordination’s main tasks, although not the only one, is political advocacy at the national level to improve the inclusion of the migrant population. We do it by organising ourselves as migrants, and coordinating with other organisations, including unions and civil society organisations of other kinds. 

    What does the Coordination think about the draft Aliens Law currently under debate in the Chilean Senate?

    Historically, at least in contemporary times, Chile has not had a flow of immigration of comparable dimensions to other Latin American countries. The phenomenon increased in the 1990s, with Bolivian and Peruvian immigration flows, but it has been over the past 10 years that it has become more significant, with an increase in the number of immigrants coming from other countries in the region, mainly Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and, more recently, Venezuela.

    In this context, about five or six years ago talk began about the need to update the 1975 Aliens Act, which had been established in the context of the dictatorship and had a national security focus. This law views the migrant as a foreign agent, an ideological agitator, someone who seeks to import the revolution. When this law was made during the dictatorship, the migrant that lawmakers had in mind was the typical one of times of the Popular Unity, Chile’s former leftist ruling party – Argentinians, Cubans and Uruguayans who came to support the leftist government or were seeking safe haven after fleeing other governments that persecuted them.

    The new migratory context is quite different, and there has been broad consensus that the 1975 law does not conform to the current reality. For years the Coordination and other organisations have been demanding a new legal framework that enables the inclusion of the migrant population.

    However, the debate has been complex and over the past year, after President Sebastián Piñera‘s inauguration, the government introduced a very similar bill to the one they had already submitted to Congress in 2013: one that shifts the focus from the foreigner viewed as an external agitator towards the foreigner as an economic asset, whose value depends on how much money they bring in their pockets. A complex debate ensued in which Chile has tried to position itself in the world by adopting a visa system similar to those of countries such as Australia or Canada, without the understanding that the migratory context and the characteristics of immigration in Chile are not the same as in those countries. This bill has already been passed by the House and is now in the Senate.

    We think that, if passed, this law would greatly encourage irregular migration, which is already a big problem in Chile. It would encourage people to arrive as tourists and overstay their visas, with no prospect of regularising their situation even if they get a job. An irregular migratory status negatively affects access to all rights – to health, education and even to decent work. A person who cannot sign an employment contract will work anyway, because they have to make a living, but they will do so in much more precarious conditions. In sum, on the surface the bill adopts civil society discourse on the need to renew the legal framework, but it is fundamentally an anti-rights initiative.

    The exercise of civic freedoms by migrants seems to have intensified. How do migrants view themselves in relationship to their citizenship status?

    I think we do not see the exercise of our rights to organise, mobilise and claim our rights as tied to any citizenship status because the Chilean Constitution equates citizenship with nationality, as a result of which foreigners cannot be citizens. However, the Constitution also establishes that after five years of residence foreigners are allowed to vote. And regardless of length of residence or the rights assigned to us by the Constitution and the laws, in practice we exercise other rights that are related to being a citizen - we organise, mobilise and do political advocacy, even though this is banned by the Aliens Act.

    The Aliens Act lists attacks against the interests of the state and interference with political situations of the state as reasons for expulsion. The ways it is interpreted and enforced are very arbitrary: it always results in the expulsion of people with progressive or critical views, rather that people with far-right political leanings. Not long ago, in 2017, some young Peruvians were expelled for having books on Marxism. The Coordination submitted an amparo petition – an appeal for the protection of basic rights – and won, but the expulsion order had already been executed and they were already out of the country.

    This was not an isolated case; there have been several others. An Italian journalist was expelled because he did visual communications for the mobilisation process of a very important union. A Basque colleague was also expelled because of his involvement with the indigenous Mapuche communities; he was accused of having links with ETA, the Basque terrorist organisation. This was proven false but he was expelled anyway. All this happened under the administration of former President Michelle Bachelet, that is, independently of the incumbent government’s leanings.

    You were in the middle of the discussion of the bill when calls for an anti-migrant mobilisation began. Who were the groups behind this mobilisation?

    These groups were not new. They had already made another call before but it had not resonated as it did this time. These are groups linked to a long-existing far right, the kind of far right that never dies in any country. Although perhaps its presence declines at times, it always remains latent, waiting for the opportunity to resurface. These are groups that defend the dictatorship but know that if they go out to the streets to shout ‘Viva Pinochet’ many people will reject them. So they find different themes that allow them to further their narrative. For instance, they took advantage of the salience of the rejection of so-called gender ideology and joined anti-abortion marches, and now they are working around the issue of immigration.

    Far-right groups are characterised by an extremely simple and exclusionary discourse: the other, the one that’s different, the one coming from outside, the stranger who is not Chilean – they are the enemy, because they are the cause of all the country's ills. These groups come from various places, but they all find protection under the current government’s institutional discourse, which blames everything on immigration. Weeks ago, President Piñera said that the increase in unemployment in Chile was caused by the arrival of migrants, even against his own Minister of Labour’s denials. His former Minister of Health said that the increase in HIV/AIDS in Chile was the migrant population’s fault. This institutional discourse, based on falsehoods, is taking root and is being taken advantage of by far-right groups.

    What explains the fact that this time around they have had more of an appeal than in the past?

    These groups become stronger when their narrative emanates from the government. The proposals put forward by the far right are the same as the government’s: for example, to deny healthcare to people with under two years of residence and to eliminate access to education. The government says, ‘let’s take rights away from immigrants’ and these groups move just one step further and say, ‘let’s kick immigrants out’. The underlying diagnosis is the same in both cases: we are being invaded, they are coming to take our jobs, they are coming to take our social benefits, Chile First.

    Additionally, in this case social media is playing an amplification role. These groups have learned how to use social media. They learned a lot from Brazil’s experience; some actually travelled there to support then-candidate Bolsonaro. The skilful use of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter allows them to reach a wide audience –­ the Chilean who is going through hard times – to whom they offer a simple explanation and a solution: you can't find work; the fault lies with immigrants; the solution is to throw them out.

    You mentioned a curious phenomenon: ultra-nationalist far-right groups that become internationalists, by networking, collaborating and learning from their peers in other countries.

    Yes, there is an ongoing international process in which the Chilean far right learns from what the Argentine far right does, and the Argentinian far right learns from that of Brazil, and so on. The narratives we have heard in Chile are an exact copy of those used by the extreme right in Spain, where the phenomenon of the far-right Vox party emerged almost a year ago. They are an exact copy, even though the Chilean reality is very different. In Spain, the claim that migrants take up all social support was very intense, and in Chile the same discourse was attempted, since it is an international tactic, but not surprisingly it had less of an impact because social support in Chile is very limited. So it is not always working for them; it is a matter of trial and error. But these groups do form a network that is becoming stronger internationally, which is very worrying.

    These groups summoned a mobilisation against immigrants that was scheduled for 12 August 2019, but in the end the march did not materialise. Can you explain what happened?

    The call to the march was spread through social media, and a far-right influencer, a member of one of the organising groups, called on protesters to bear arms to defend themselves against the anti-fascist groups that had summoned a counter-demonstration.

    In Chile it is necessary to request an authorisation to hold a street mobilisation, and in the capital, Santiago, the Municipality is in charge of giving the authorisation. After several conversations, and under pressure from socialorganisations and the Bar Association, which requested that the permit be denied, the Municipality did not authorise the march. There were some isolated incidents caused by about 20 people who attended notwithstanding, but not much else happened.

    The Coordination convened another event on the same day, given that it was complicated for us to support the counter-demonstration held by anti-fascist groups in light of the limitations placed on immigrants’ rights to political participation. On that very same Sunday morning we held an event at the Museum of Memory, a space dedicated to the victims of the dictatorship. The focus of our call was the rejection of hate speech, which today happens to be targeted against immigrants but at other times has been targeted against women or against those who thought differently, and which leads to the practices we experienced under the dictatorship. When you dehumanise a person then you can then torture her, drop her body into the sea or make her disappear. That was our response. Around 150 people attended, which is not that many, but it should be enough to show that we are also part of this country and that we have memory.

    What strategy should adopt the civil society that advocates for the human rights of migrants in the face of anti-rights groups?

    These groups are here to stay, and they have already planned a new demonstration for 7 September 2019. The prevalent narrative focuses on an alleged migrant invasion, so ours is a dispute for common sense, a long-term struggle. We work in a strategic partnership with progressive and democratic movements, but these need to put aside their paternalistic attitude towards the migrant population. We do not want to be treated as helpless people in need of assistance; that is why we are an organisation of migrant persons, not an organisation that defends the rights of migrants. We do not want paternalistic aids; we want equal rights.

    Civic space in Chile is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the National Migrants’ Coordination through itswebsite, read Héctor Pujols’blog or follow@HectorPumo and@MigrantesChile on Twitter.

     

  • CONSPIRACY THEORIES: ‘When social trust has been eroded, people don’t know what to believe’

    Chip BerletAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks about the role that conspiracy theories are playing with Chip Berlet,an investigative journalist and activist who specialises in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the USA.

     

    You have done a lot of work around social and political speech that demonises specific groups in society. You call this the rhetoric of scripted violence. What is scripted violence, and how is it operating in the USA?

    Scripted violence is part of a dynamic process in a society under lots and lots of stress. It starts with stories circulating in a nation that warn of subversion and conspiracies. These stories are called ‘narratives of insecurity’ by Professor Abdelwahab El-Affendi, and he warns that these stories can lead to mass violence and other forms of terrorism. The process continues with ‘scripted violence’, which is when a high-status political or religious leader publicly identifies and demonises a specific group of people alleged to be conspiring to ruin the ideal nation. The result is called ‘stochastic terrorism’. That’s an awkward term, but it just means that the specific terrorist act is unpredictable. Yet the violence has been generated by this three-step process that starts with conspiracy theories.

    Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but now they seem to be more widespread than ever. What role has the internet played in spreading them?

    Conspiracy theories have always been around. Conspiracy theories are improbable explanations alleging a vast conspiracy by evil powerful people and their cronies. Stories circulate that make allegations posing as facts. During moments of societal stress and political change it is often harder for folks to separate what is reality-based, what is political propaganda and what is pure fantasy.

    The internet has been fertile ground for planting misinformation and conspiracy theories because it’s a new medium, and all new forms of mass media go through a phase in which they are easily misinterpreted, and there are as yet not enough safeguards in place, so it’s hard for folks to tell reliable and unreliable content apart. We live in a time in which too many people think stories are real if they are on the internet. When you go to a library, there is the fiction section, and then there’s the rest of the library, where you can find history, science and other material based on facts. But content has not yet been separated that way in the internet age.

    We are going through an adjustment period. We are still learning how to use the medium. In the past, misunderstandings arose when people were using a new medium that they didn’t truly understand. In the USA, the best example of this happened in 1938, when a fictional story about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, was broadcast during a radio programme, and people didn’t realise it was not real news, so some people called the police and went running out into the streets in a panic. Similarly, it is really difficult for the average person to differentiate between what’s a reliable piece of information and what’s just a conspiracy theory recirculated by someone with no training or understanding of the subject they post on. Much worse is when sinister propaganda is spread for political gain. There currently is no mechanism to separate what’s true and what’s fake on the internet, although I hope someday there will be.

    Conspiracy theories abound on both right and left, but these days largely seem to be fuelling far-right movements. Do you see any affinity between conspiracy theories and the extreme right?

    I don’t think it has as much to do with the left or right side of the political spectrum, but rather with fear and instability in a specific society at a specific moment. What would cause relatively normal and average people, wherever they are on the political spectrum, to act out against a claimed enemy? It’s because they believe their society is under attack, and then act accordingly.

    In any healthy society there always are conspiracy theories circulating, but when you hear them from somebody pushing a shopping cart down the street with all their belongings and shouting about an imminent Martian invasion, almost nobody pays any attention. These conspiracy theories are dismissed because they are being circulated by marginal or low-status folks. Most rational people simply reject them.

    In an unhealthy and unstable society, in contrast, people don’t know what to believe, and may latch onto normally farfetched theories to explain why they feel so powerless. When social trust has been eroded and there is so much anger, increasingly less legitimacy is assigned to people who have actual knowledge. Instead, it is transferred to those who will name the evildoers. And some people lack the kind of restraints that most of us luckily have and prevent us from attacking others who are not like us and might seem threatening or dangerous.

    Let’s say I’m an average middle-aged, middle-class white male in the USA, and I’m stressed and anxious because I fear that my status in society is being diminished. And then someone comes and tells me it’s okay to feel that way because there are evil forces at play that are causing this and tells me who is to blame for what is happening to me. According to this narrative, I would be still seated near the top of the social ladder if it weren’t for those people.

    Of course, people who have privilege see it as normal. We are not aware of it. So, when the status quo that has folks like them near the top changes – because previously marginalised groups successfully claim rights for themselves – the privileged don’t see this as the loss of unfair privileges, but as undermining the natural order, the traditional community or the nation itself. They talk about themselves as real ‘producers’ in the society being dragged down by lazy, sinful, or subversive ‘parasites’.

    In other words, conspiracy theories are a reflection of a society that is under stress, and they cause people who would normally be ignored suddenly to have an audience to speak to because they appear to have the answer that everybody else is lacking. People are disoriented: they do not feel connected to a common narrative of a healthy nation. Folks feel that their society, ‘our’ society, is under attack by ‘the others’, whoever they might be. So, if someone comes and tells them the name of the group of ‘others’ who are destroying our idealised community or nation, then common sense will tell us to stop them. Perhaps we need to eliminate them before they attack us – and that’s the narrative storyline of every genocide in history.

    Isn’t it strange that so many ‘others’ in today’s conspiracy theories do not really have the power that they are attributed: they are usually already vulnerable groups whose rights are being attacked?

    There is an interesting dynamic storyline in many conspiracy theories about the sinister people below working with certain traitorous powerful people above. Conspiracy theories, especially in the middle class, tend to identify a group of evil people down below on the socio-economic spectrum when defining who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the nation. So, a lot of the problems are blamed on these people down below in the ‘lower’ class who are portrayed as lazy and ‘picking the pockets’ of the middle class by draining tax dollars. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, wrote a book about this called Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.

    But the middle-class conspiracy theorists generally also blame a sector of the ruling elites who are portrayed as traitors. So if you look, let’s say, at the US political scene today, the narrative during the Trump administration blames some people who are down below and who are portrayed as lazy, sinful, or subversive. These folks are breaking the rules or taking advantage. But some people listed as conspirators are high-status: such as those rich, Democratic Party bureaucrats who are depicted as the ones pulling the strings, as in a puppet show. Sometimes those spreading the conspiracy theories use a graphic of a huge mechanical vice squeezing the middle class from above and below.

    Is there anything that progressive civil society could do to counter these regressive trends?

    There sure is. Democratic civil society has historically developed mechanisms to face these challenges. Historically, religious leaders and journalists have played a very important role in making these kinds of claims become judged unacceptable. But the influence of both of these actors has now collapsed. Religious figures have been losing their status everywhere except in religious authoritarian countries. The internet is undermining the influence of major news organisations, and the cost of producing good journalism has become very high relative to the cost of posting a rumour on the internet. So, democracies need to develop new safeguards and mechanisms to counter these trends.

    In the age of the internet, these mechanisms have not yet been developed. But although we are going through a very unstable and stressful period, the situation is not hopeless. The history of democracy is a sort of cycle in which at some point things stabilise only to fall apart again eventually until resistance builds up and safeguards are put back in place.

    Leaders with some status and legitimacy within democratic civil society need to admit that we are in a really bad place and we’ve got to fix it together, so that the answer comes not from the demagogic and authoritarian political space, but from the democratic one – the demos – and that’s all of us. People need to start talking to their neighbours about the things that are not going well and about how to fix them, because these problems can only be solved collectively. When doing activist training sessions, I tell people to go sit at a bus stop and talk to the first person who sits down next to them. If you can get up the courage to do that, then you certainly can talk to your neighbours and co-workers. Regular people need to start doing just that.

    In the USA, there is a kind of smug, liberal treatment of people who feel that they are being pushed down the ladder. These folks are not ‘deplorables’; they are basically scared people. These are people who had a union job and worked in a machine shop or at building automobiles. They worked for 30 years and now have nothing: their whole world has been shot down while others have become billionaires. They cannot be dismissed as ‘deplorables’. That word slip may have actually cost Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the election. We need to engage these people who are so angry and disoriented in face-to-face conversations. We need to care about them.

    How can these conversations take place when social media, increasingly the means of communication of choice, often operates as an echo chamber that solidifies beliefs and fuels polarisation?

    I know, I’m so old-fashioned. My solution is actually quite low-tech. You know, my wife and I have been political activists for many years, and as students in the 1960s we were involved in the anti-racist civil rights movement. At one point black organisers said: if white people really want to challenge racism against black people they should move into white communities where there is racism and try to turn it around. So in 1977, my wife and I picked up our household and moved to Chicago, Illinois. We lived in an overwhelmingly white Southwest side neighbourhood where there was white racism, but also Nazis, literally guys in Nazi uniforms, kicking black people out of the neighbourhood. A house on our street was firebombed.

    Eventually we became part of a community group, and for the first three years we were out-organised by neo-Nazis. Few things could be more mortifying for a leftist activist in 1970s USA. But in the Southwest side of Chicago there was also a multi-racial group, which we joined. One day some of us who were strategists were invited over to a house for a meeting with a group of black ministers. They sat us down and gave us coffee and tea, cakes and cookies, and then one of them asked, “Do you know why black parents take turns sleeping in your neighbourhood?” We looked at each other; we had no idea. They said, “That’s because when the firebomb explodes one of the adults has to be awake to get the kids out of the house.” It had never occurred to us that black parents had to take turns to stay up all night in their own homes so they could just stay alive. Then another of the ministers said, “Do you think all those white Catholic women want babies to get killed by firebombs?” We said no, and he replied, “Well, there’s your strategy.”

    Our strategy was to start talking to people: first to Catholic women who were horrified to learn what was going on, then getting them to talk to their neighbours and members of their congregations. Eventually some white Catholic priests started talking about what was happening. Five years later, the neighbourhood had become safe for black people to live in.

    It seems we still have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement and their organising tactics. Nowadays it’s so tempting to organise and mobilise online, because it’s so fast, but it’s also so much more difficult to create sustained commitment, isn’t it?

    Yes. I think face-to-face organising is still how you change neighbourhoods, and how neighbourhoods change societies. But of course, you cannot ask young people who are using technology to organise and protest to let go of the internet. You can’t tell people to ignore the technologies that exist. We do have a technology that enables instantaneity. I post constantly on the internet, I have a Facebook page and so on. I think it’s great to use the internet to organise people to confront racism online as well as to organise counter-demonstrations when white supremacists gather. But that’s not enough, in the same way as in the 1960s it wasn’t enough for writers to just write about the evils of racism. Those kinds of articles were published all along, but nothing really changed until people started organising – that is, talking to their neighbours to challenge the status quo.

    Take civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who sat down in the white section of a bus in Alabama. There is the misconception that her act was spontaneous, but it was nothing like that: it was a tactic created by a training centre that had been set up in the south by religious leaders and trade unions. Behind one black woman who refused to give up her seat in the front rows of a bus were 10 years of training and organising at the Highland Center.

    In a way, that’s also what the young climate activists and the members of the new democracy movements are doing. Look at Hong Kong: it is people rising up and saying ‘enough,’ often organising online while also organising and mobilising locally, staying in their neighbourhood, talking to their neighbours, building networks. And internationally we see young people demanding a right to stay alive – just stay alive.

    You need organisation, you need training in strategies and tactics, you need support groups, and you need to talk to your neighbours. That’s how it works; there is no magic formula.

    Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Chip Berlet through hisFacebook profile andAcademia page, follow@cberlet on Twitter, and visit Chip’sonline resources page on these topics.

     

  • ETHIOPIA: ‘Civil society can play a key role in overcoming divisions’

    Yared HailemariamCIVICUS speaks to Yared Hailemariam, Executive Director of theAssociation for Human Rights in Ethiopia, about recent political reforms in Ethiopia, the opening opportunities for civil society and the prospects for further change.

    Can you tell us about your background and how the political reforms introduced in Ethiopia since 2018 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have impacted on you?

    I used to work for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), a civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1991 by people concerned about the human rights situation in Ethiopia at that time. This was just after the removal of the military junta and its replacement by the current ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF). I joined EHRCO as an investigator in 1998, and then came the notorious 2005 elections, which the government rigged and which were followed by violence. There were mass killings in the capital, Addis Ababa, in June 2005, and then my colleagues and I were targeted by security forces and detained several times. One time we were detained for a couple of weeks. After we were released there were more clashes between government security forces and opposition members and supporters. Just before the second round of massacres in November 2005 I left the country to attend a conference in Uganda, and while I was there I found myself in the wanted list, so after that I was in exile.

    I returned home in January 2018 for the first time after 13 years in exile. Currently I’m leading the Europe-based Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, which is an organisation that was working to fill the gap, because Ethiopian civil society was under threat and not able to do any advocacy activities outside the country. They were not able to conduct any research or reach the international community. So some of my colleagues who left the country and I established this association in 2013. We conducted undercover research in Ethiopia, but mostly we have focused on advocacy. I was working mostly at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and with European institutions. We were doing advocacy together with CIVICUS, the Committee to Protect Journalists, DefendDefenders, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch and other partner organisations. But now we are allowed to go back home.

    What are the main differences the political reforms have made for Ethiopian civil society?

    In the last 10 years, civic space in Ethiopia was in a very horrible condition but now, following these reforms, it’s seen a really huge change. Civic space has opened widely.

    The previous law was very restrictive. It targeted civil society working on rights-based issues, but now CSOs are encouraged. The Civil Society Proclamation, a very draconian piece of legislation, has been reformed, and the process was very open and civil society was respected in it. The new draft accommodated all our concerns. The previous law established an agency that monitored the activities of civil society that was very authoritarian and limited the work of civil society, but that institution has also been reformed. In the new agency there’s a presence of civil society and independent representatives, as well as people from the government. I visited the agency. They are very friendly, very open and work really closely with civil society.

    Just a year and a half ago, international human rights organisations were not able to organise any meeting or training activity, or even visit Ethiopia. I’ve now been able to conduct capacity development workshops in Addis Ababa. So, the impression I have is one of huge progress that is very satisfactory for local civil society.

    The opening of civic space in Ethiopia can be also a good example for other countries that had followed the bad practices of Ethiopia.

    How has civil society responded to the changes?

    There is now a lot of activity, including training and workshops, and it’s open to international human rights organisations. They are providing capacity development training and financial and technical support to local civil society, which is also receiving support from donors, embassies and the international community. These opportunities are new. Local civil society can now recover and rehabilitate from its past limitations, and reach the international community, because people can also now travel.

    What are the major challenges that remain for civil society?

    Because of the impact of the previous laws and because CSOs were labelled as enemies of the state they were restricted in their development, and now they have challenge of getting back to attracting skilled professionals. CSOs have opportunities but they don’t have the capacity to explore and exploit all the opportunities that come to their door. That’s the big challenge. I interviewed some CSOs that don’t know how to prepare a proposal to attract donors and don’t know how to do advocacy. I met some donors who told me that they want to provide support to local civil society but there is shortage of skilled people who can prepare proposals and report back to them at the level they require. Now an election is coming in 2020 and many CSOs want to engage with this process, but even prominent CSOs have told me that they don’t know how to approach donors and how to submit good proposals to get grants.

    So there is a huge gap now, and that’s the area where we are trying to support local CSOs to develop skills. There is a need for people from outside. What I’m saying to the international community is that it’s not enough to go there and do training; if they send one or two experts for some months these experts could help strengthen and offer support for some prominent CSOs.

    Given that the reforms are emanating from the prime minister, what are the risks that could hinder further reforms?

    There are potential dangers. Reform is still at the top level. The prime minister promised to reform the country through a democratic transition and to open up the political space. You can feel that there is a change in the country and there is some political willingness at the top level, but at the same time the regime has huge and very complex bureaucratic structures.

    Most government structures, offices and institutions are full of political appointees from parties in the ruling coalition. That makes it really difficult to reform organisations. Even when the central government in Addis Ababa says something or a new law or regulation is adopted, it may not go very deep. Reforms may not go deep through to the bottom of bureaucracy, to the structures. People are starting to complain in public media that the government is saying the right things, reforming the law, appointing new faces to high-ranking positions, but the suffering still continues at the lower level. So, that’s one challenge, and there is still no clear roadmap that shows how the central administration can improve this mess

    People who were appointed because of their political affiliation rather than their talents now feel under threat. They fear they may be moved or replaced. So in some regions we have seen that some movements are trying to shift the direction of reform. Some people linked to the old regime are still in control of their regions and are trying to instigate conflicts. They have money and weapons, so they can manipulate regions to instigate ethnic conflicts.

    The EPRDF is a coalition of four major parties that are now not united like they were before and are publicly disagreeing. There are tensions between the Amhara and Tigray regional governments, and recently a conflict erupted in the border area between the Amhara and Oromia regions. In the past, these groups acted together because they were fully dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the other parties were used as a tool. But now, each of the regional governments considers themselves as effectively a sovereign state so there is competition. Each regional state is recruiting and training militias, such that each region has thousands of fully armed forces.

    There is a fear that the administration in Addis Ababa has failed to control these dynamics of conflicts and tension within the ruling coalition that might affect the unity of the country. We don’t know in which direction it will lead us, but there are clear tensions. There is tension between the ruling party members and the different coalition parties, there is ethnic tension, and in each region there are extremist elements, groups that spread hate speech and advocate the removal of other targeted ethnic groups from their region. Ruling parties are also competing and fighting with the extremist groups in their regions. Because of this, the Addis Ababa administration is failing to reinforce the rule of law.

    In some regions, the instability is such that there are huge and serious debates about the dangers of holding the election. Some parties are requesting that the election be postponed for at least six months because of extreme elements, and the fear that people will be targeted and attacked and wouldn’t be moved from region to region to mobilise their supporters or open offices. Some parties are restricted from moving and are now only able to work in Addis Ababa, and maybe a few more cities where they are given full security. So, many parties have requested a delay. But on the other side, extreme and ethnic-based parties are requesting that the government conducts the election on its planned dates. They have already declared that if the election day changes, even by one day, they will call for a protest, and that might create more problems. So now the Addis Ababa administration faces a dilemma. If the election is conducted on its time, I’m sure that ethnic nationalist extremist parties that are instigating violence will win seats in parliament. These upcoming days, weeks and months will be a very difficult time for Ethiopia.

    What role is hate speech playing in stoking ethnic conflict?

    People are living together and still sharing values. In Addis Ababa you didn’t feel it. People are living their normal lives and going about business as usual. It is the elites and their activists who are using social media to spread hate speech instigating ethnic tension, violence and targeting of certain groups of people. They have followers, and when they call some kind of violent action you immediately see that there is a group on the ground that’s ready to act and attack people.

    In the last year and a half almost three million people were forced into internal displacement. Ethiopia is now in the 10 highest countries in the world for internal displacement. This has happened in the last year and a half because of ethnic conflicts. Hate speech is spreading easily and very quickly through phones and social media, especially Facebook. Some of the calls for ethnic conflicts are coming from outside Ethiopia, including Europe and the USA.

    Now the government is drafting a new law to regulate hate speech, but it’s really hard to tackle.

    How can further political reform be encouraged?

    We all, especially human rights activists and researchers, including from the international community, need to encourage this reform in many ways. We need to support the strengthening of national human rights institutions, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and strengthen the capacity of local civil society.

    Civil society could play a key role in overcoming divisions, given that political parties and some media are ethnically based. Because civil society is neutral, the international community should focus on strengthening its capacity to play a key role in shaping the behaviour of new generations, who are vulnerable to being used by political elites. Civil society could give broad-based civic education to nurture good citizens who understand their responsibilities.

    In short, we need to focus on how to strengthen the capacity of civil society to support the positive achievements and political reforms going on in Ethiopia.

    What are the most urgent support needs of civil society?

    There are many ways to support local civil society, and not only by providing money. As I said earlier, there is now the possibility to receive funding, but people still need skills to apply for and use these grants. So, in addition to financial support, local civil society needs skill training in various aspects, including in advocacy, research methodologies, monitoring and documenting human rights, and they also need to network, and not only at the national level. They need support to connect themselves to the outside world, to the UN Human Rights Council and other international and regional mechanisms. Local civil society is not able to use these processes well, and some don’t know how to engage with these international mechanisms at all. So, they need the guidance and support of the international community.

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

    Get in touch with Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia through itswebsite orFacebook page.

     

     

  • HATE SPEECH: ‘The fact that this is how online platforms are supposed to work is a big part of the problem’

    Brandi Geurkink

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks with Brandi Geurkink, European campaigner at the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit corporation based on the conviction that the internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible to all. The Mozilla Foundation seeks to fuel a movement for a healthy internet by supporting a diverse group offellows working on key internet issues, connecting open internet leaders at events such asMozFest, publishing critical research in theInternet Health Report and rallying citizens aroundadvocacy issues that connect the wellbeing of the internet directly to everyday life.

    The regular internet user possibly identifies Mozilla with Firefox and doesn’t know that there is also a Mozilla Foundation. Can you tell us what the Mozilla Foundation is and what it does?

    I get this question asked a lot. When I told my family I was working for Mozilla, they said, ‘wait, you are not a software professional, what are you doing there?’ What makes Mozilla different from other software developers is that it is a non-profit tech company. Mozilla is the creator of Firefox, which is a web browser, but an open source one. It also has users’ privacy at its core. And all of Mozilla’s work is guided by the Mozilla Manifesto, which provides a set of principles for an open, accessible and safe internet, viewed as a global public resource.

    Profits that come from the Firefox browser are invested into the Mozilla Foundation, which is the Mozilla Corporation’s sole shareholder, and our mission is to build an open and healthy web. Mozilla creates and enables open-source technologies and communities that support the Manifesto’s principles; creates and delivers consumer products that represent the Manifesto’s principles; uses the Mozilla assets – intellectual property such as copyrights and trademarks, infrastructure, funds and reputation – to keep the internet an open platform; promotes models for creating economic value for the public benefit; and promotes the Mozilla Manifesto principles in public discourse and within the internet industry.

    Mozilla promotes an open and healthy web through a variety of activities. For instance, we have a fellowships programme to empower and connect leaders from the internet health movement. This programme supports people doing all sorts of things, from informing debates on how user rights and privacy should be respected online to creating technologies that will enable greater user agency. Mozilla also produces an annual report, the Internet Health Report, and mobilises people in defence of a healthy internet. A lot of this work takes the form of campaigning for corporate accountability; we seek to influence the way in which tech companies are thinking about privacy and user agency within their products and to mobilise consumers so that they demand better behaviour and more control over their online lives.

    How do you define a healthy internet?

    A healthy internet is a place where people can safely and freely communicate and participate. For this to happen, the internet must truly be a global public resource rather than something that’s owned by a few giant tech companies, who are then in control of who participates and how they do it. Some key components of a healthy web are openness, privacy and security. We place a lot of emphasis on digital inclusion, which determines who has access; web literacy, which determines who can succeed online; and decentralisation, which focuses on who controls the web – ideally, many rather than just a few.

    The internet is currently dominated by eight American and Chinese companies: Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, Baidu, Facebook, Microsoft and Tencent. These companies and their subsidiaries dominate all layers of the digital world, from search engines, browsers and social media services to core infrastructure like undersea cables and cloud computing. They built their empires by selling our attention to advertisers, creating new online marketplaces and designing hardware and software that we now cannot do without. Their influence is growing in both our private lives and public spaces.

    What’s wrong about giant tech companies, and why it would be advisable to curb their power?

    A lot of the problems that we see online are not ‘tech’ problems per se – they’re sociopolitical problems that are amplified, and in some cases incentivised, to spread like wildfire and reach more people than ever before. When it comes to disinformation, for instance, a big part of the problem is the business models that guide the major social media platforms that we communicate on. The most successful tech companies have grown the way they have because they have monetised our personal data. They cash in on our attention in the form of ad revenue. When you think about how we use platforms designed for viral advertising as our primary method of social and political discourse – and increasingly our consumption of news – you can start to see why disinformation thrives on platforms like Facebook and Google.

    Another example of the ‘attention economy’ is YouTube, Google’s video platform, which recommends videos to users automatically, often leading us down ‘rabbit holes’ of increasingly more extreme content in order to keep us hooked and watching. When content recommendation algorithms are designed to maximise attention to drive profit, they end up fuelling radical beliefs and often spreading misinformation.

    What can be done about people using the internet to disseminate extremist ideas, hate speech and false information?

    I’m glad that you asked this because there is definitely a risk of censorship and regulation to fix this problem that actually results in violations of fundamental rights and freedoms. Worryingly, we’re seeing ‘fake news laws’ that use this problem as an excuse to limit freedom of speech and crack down on dissent, particularly in countries where civic space is shrinking and press freedom lacking. Mozilla fellow Renee di Resta puts this best when she says that freedom of reach is not the same as freedom of speech. Most of the big internet platforms have rules around what constitutes acceptable speech, which basically take the form of community guidelines. At the same time, platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter give people the ability to amplify their ideas to a huge number of people. This is the ‘freedom of reach’, and increasingly we’re seeing that used to spread ideas that are at odds with the values that underpin peaceful and democratic societies, like equality and human rights.

    I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the business models of major technology platforms create the perfect storm for the manipulation of users. Disinformation and hate speech are content designed to appeal to emotions such as fear, anger and even humour. Combine this with the ability to target specific profiles of people in order to manipulate their ideas, and this becomes the perfect place for this sort of ideas to take hold. Once purveyors of disinformation have gained enough of a following, they can comfortably move offline and mobilise these newly-formed communities, which is something we’re seeing more and more of. It’s this freedom of reach problem that platforms have yet to grapple with, maybe because it’s at odds with the very way that they make money. The challenge is to come up with ideas that improve the mechanisms to eliminate, on one hand, the likelihood of amplification of anti-rights ideas and hate speech, and on the other, the danger of censorship and discrimination against certain types of legitimate discourse.

    There has been a lot of controversy about how social media platforms are, or are not, dealing with misinformation. Do you think fact-checking is the way to go?

    Responsible reporting and factual information are crucial for people to make informed choices, including about who should govern them; that is why fighting misinformation with care for free speech is key. Among the things that can be done about misinformation it is worth mentioning the verification of advertisers, as well as improved monitoring tools to detect bots and check facts. These are things that if implemented correctly would have an impact on these issues, and not just during the time of elections.

    But the critical place where platforms are currently failing to live up to their commitments is around transparency. There must be greater transparency into how people use platforms like Facebook and Google to pay for ads that are intended to manipulate political discourse. At the same time, we must ensure that these companies are open about how content monitoring happens on platforms and that there are redress policies in place for people whose content has been wrongfully removed or deleted. Specific attention should be paid to the situation of fragile democracies, where disinformation can be more harmful because of the absence or limited presence of independent media.

    There have been election campaigns plagued by disinformation tactics in many different places, from India to Brazil. In response to public pressure, Facebook expressed a commitment to provide better transparency around how their platform is used for political advertisement so that sophisticated disinformation campaigns can be detected and understood and ultimately prevented. But the transparency tools that the company has released are largely insufficient. This has been repeatedly verified by independent researchers. There is a big disconnect between what companies say in public regarding what they intend to do or have done to prevent disinformation and the actual tools they put out there to do the job. I think Facebook should focus on creating tools that can actually get the job done.

    And besides what the companies running the social media platforms are or are not doing, there have been independent initiatives that seem to have worked. A tactic that disinformation campaigns use is the repurposing of content, for instance using a photo that was taken in a different place and time or sharing an old article out of context to spread the rumour that something new has just happened when it’s actually something else entirely that has been reported five years ago. In response to this, The Guardian came up with a brilliant solution: when someone shares on Twitter or Facebook an article of theirs that’s over 12 months old a yellow sign will automatically appear on the shared image stating that the article is over 12 months old. The notice also appears when you click on the article. This initiative was a proactive move from The Guardian to empower people to think more critically about what they are seeing. We need many more initiatives like this.

    Are disinformation campaigns also plaguing European politics in the ways that we’ve seen in the USA and Brazil?

    Most definitely, which is why in the lead up to the 2019 European elections four leading internet companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla – signed the European Commission’s Code of Practice on Disinformation pledging to take specific steps to prevent disinformation from manipulating citizens of the European Union. This was basically a voluntary code of conduct, and what we saw when monitoring its implementation ahead of the European elections was that the platforms did not deliver what they promised to the European Commission in terms of detecting and acting against disinformation.

    Fortunately, ahead of the European Parliamentary elections we didn’t see election interference and political propaganda on the scale that has happened in the Philippines, for example, which is an excellent case study if you want to learn about disinformation tactics that were used very successfully. But we still have a big problem with ‘culture war debates’ that create an atmosphere of confusion, opening rifts and undermining trust in democratic processes and traditional institutions. Social media platforms have still not delivered on transparency commitments that are desperately needed to better understand what is happening.

    Civil society identified a case in Poland where pro-government Facebook accounts posed as elderly people or pensioners to spread government propaganda. Before the European elections and following an independent investigation, Facebook took down 77 pages and 230 fake accounts from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK, which had been followed by an estimated 32 million people and generated 67 million interactions over the previous three months alone. These were mostly part of far-right disinformation networks. Among other things, they had spread a video that was seen by 10 million people, supposedly showing migrants in Italy destroying a police car, which was actually from an old movie, and a fake story about migrant taxi drivers raping white women in Poland. A UK-based disinformation network that was uncovered in March 2019 was dedicated to disseminating fake information on topics such as immigration, LGBTQI rights and religious beliefs.

    Of course this is happening all the time, and not only during elections, although elections are moments of particular visibility when a lot more than usual is at stake, so there seems to be a spike in the use of misinformation tactics around elections. This also tends to happen around other, particularly stressful situations, for example a terror attack or more generally any current event that draws people’s attention.

    Why do online dynamics favour the amplification of specific kinds of messages – i.e. messages of hate instead of a narrative of human rights?

    Internet platforms are designed to amplify certain types of content that are created to appeal to deep emotions, because their aim is to keep you on the platform as long as possible and make you want to share that content with friends who will also be retained as long as possible on the platform. The higher the numbers of people online and the longer they stay, the higher the number of ads that will be delivered, and the higher the ad revenue will be. What will naturally happen once these platforms are up and running is that people will develop content with a political purpose, and the dynamics around this content will be exactly the same.

    Some will say that users doing this are abusing internet platforms. I disagree: I think people doing this are using those platforms exactly how they were designed to be used, but for the purpose of spreading an extremist political discourse, and the fact that this is how platforms are supposed to work is indeed a big part of the problem. It does make a difference whether someone is trying to make money from users’ posts or the platform is just a space for people to exchange ideas. We need to understand that if we are not paying for the product, then we are the product. If nobody were trying to make money out of our online interactions, there would be a higher chance of online interactions being more similar to interactions happening anywhere else, with people exchanging ideas more naturally rather than trying to catch each other’s attention by trying to elicit the strongest possible reactions.

    Does it make sense for us to keep trying to use the internet to have reasonable and civilised political conversations, or is it not going to happen?

    I love the internet, and so I think it’s not an entirely hopeless situation. The fact that the attention economy, combined with the growing power of a handful of tech companies, drives the way that we use the internet is really problematic, but at the same time there is a lot of work being done to think through how alternative business models for the internet could look, and increasingly regulators and internet users are realising that the current model is really broken. A fundamental question worth asking is whether it is possible to balance a desire to maximise ad revenue, and therefore people’s time spent on social media, and social responsibility. I think that companies as big as Google or Facebook have a duty to invest in social responsibility even if it has a negative impact on their revenue or it requires a level of transparency and accountability that frightens them. Responsibility implies, among other things, getting people’s consent to use their data to determine what they see online, and provide users’ insights into when and how you’re making choices about what they see.

    You may wonder, ‘why would they do that?’. Well, it’s interesting. The CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, recently published a blog post saying that the spread of harmful content on YouTube is more of a revenue risk for the company because it damages their reputation. I think that there is an element of reputational damage, but the much bigger risk that these companies face is policy-makers cracking down on these platforms and their ability to continue operating as usual without greater accountability. For instance, the European code of practice on disinformation was self-regulatory; we have seen at least in this case that the platforms that committed to the Code didn’t deliver tools that were sufficient to provide greater political ad transparency, and they are still not held accountable for this. Does this example mean that policy-makers will be under greater pressure to regulate the online space by mandating transparency instead of requesting it? These are the sort of conversations that should define new approaches to dealing with harmful content online in order to make sure it remains a positive force in our lives.

    Get in touch with the Mozilla Foundation through itswebsite, andfollow@mozilla and@bgeurkink on Twitter.

     

  • LATVIA: ‘Faced with hatred, we focus on delivering a human rights message’

    Kaspars ZalitisAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Kaspars Zālītis about the challenges faced by LGBTI people in Latvia, and the actions undertaken by civil society to broaden civic space for sexual minorities and therefore to make democracy truly inclusive. Kaspars is the director ofMozaika - Association of LGBT and their friends, currently the only LGBTI rights civil society organisation (CSO) in Latvia. Established in 2006, Mozaika promotes gender equality and anti-discrimination; raises awareness of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions of identity;promotes an understanding of diverse family models and their legal recognition; and advocates for the harmonisation ofLatvian laws with international standards.

    1. What is the current situation of LGBTI rights in Latvia?

    On the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map, which measures each country’s respect for LGBTI rights, Latvia ranks 40th within Europe, and last of all European Union (EU) member countries. In turn, the CIVICUS Monitor has reported several restrictions of civic space in Latvia. CSOs working on controversial topics are being targeted, and civil society has found it increasingly difficult to gain access to policy-makers. Mozaika has tried to lobby politicians and policy-makers for years, but they often prefer to meet in private rather than attract any attention that can lead to attacks from right-wing activists and politicians.

    The political climate is hostile for sexual diversity and for diversity as a whole. ‘Moral upbringing’ amendments introduced into the Education Law in 2015 - which mandate schools to promote ‘family values’ and marriage as part of education - have been implemented through the publication of guidelines that have caused fear among teachers of negative reactions if they touch on any LGBTI issues, and sexual and reproductive rights issues more generally. In 2016, a schoolteacher whose students had requested her to start a Gay-Straight Alliance was asked to refrain from doing so, and another teacher faced calls that he should close all his social media accounts so that students wouldn’t see his ‘LGBT-friendly’ attitudes - in other words, he was asked to hide his sexual orientation. Legislators bashed him on social media and insinuated that he was ‘recruiting’ children.

    In March 2018, parliament was quick to dismiss a Cohabitation Bill that would have granted basic rights to non-married couples, including same-sex ones. It did so on the grounds that couples could access these rights by getting married, even though the Latvian Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage. The initiative had started three years earlier through an online petition that gathered 10,000 signatures, which was why parliament had to consider it.

    2. What is the role of religious groups in this?

    Indeed. The Catholic Church has a lot of influence, and it is taking the lead in fighting the LGBTI community and pushing back against women’s rights. For instance, there has been a lot of disagreement over the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, and parliamentary debate on the issue has been postponed until after parliamentary elections are held in October 2018.

    Church leaders and many public officials oppose ratification of the Istanbul Convention because one of its non-discrimination clauses concerns sexual orientation and gender identity. The Catholic Archbishop is rallying against it and has gathered considerable support among political parties and parliamentarians. He has managed to convince them that ratification is part of the secret agenda of so-called ‘genderists’ – an expression that originated in Russia, a country with a very strong cultural influence in Latvia. Church officials, right-wing activists and politicians and anti-LGBTI and anti-abortion groups depict the Convention as contrary to Latvian traditional values and as being aimed at over-sexualising and ‘converting’ children. These arguments are gaining ground among the public.

    This rhetoric is not the exclusive preserve of the Catholic church: the Lutheran church, which is the largest Protestant church in Latvia, is also taking a lead in fighting us and the Istanbul Convention. This is quite strange, because Lutherans, prevalent in Nordic countries, tend to be more liberal. But in Latvia they even voted against having female priests, following the lead of the Catholic church. Additionally, new religious organisations with direct links with US evangelical groups are emerging. Some of their leaders have been trained in the USA and are quite good at influencing people.

    Although religious leaders and organisations don’t have a direct and institutionalised role in policy-making, given that the Latvian Constitution establishes a separation between church and state, in practice they have a lot of influence. Church-state separation notwithstanding, the state has a religious advisory council, as does the City Council. It is not uncommon for the Catholic Archbishop to meet with the ruling coalition’s leading party, and for the party’s leader to then say that he has ‘consulted’ with the Catholic church and has decided to vote in one way or another. You can see a direct link because all this happens in public.

    We, on the contrary, don’t have access to leading politicians because they are not willing to risk their reputations by meeting us in public. At the most, we can expect to have a private meeting here and there. This has a lot of impact on us, especially as we see the religious right rise all over Europe. Religious organisations and right-wing parties are increasingly organised and coordinated to fight against gender equality and LGBTI rights at the European level, and they are getting a major influx of resources from the USA. They have way more resources than we do, and their message also resonates better with the latent homophobia in Latvian society, which is becoming increasingly vocal. And after the Brexit vote and the Trump victory, they are emboldened. The latest developments in Hungary and Poland are also proof to them that they may be closer to winning.

    3. Has this discourse penetrated the media?

    Most definitely. Our media landscape is quite pluralistic, and the state channel and public broadcaster at least try to provide balanced coverage. But some media outlets are outright hostile towards LGBTI groups, and one of them, a Russian outlet with a major agenda against the rights of women, migrants, refugees and LGBTI people, is clearly leading a crusade against us.

    Vilification of women’s and LGBTI rights groups is also increasingly taking place online. We are now constantly harassed on Facebook. At some point we realised these were not the usual people who used to attack us and we did some research to find out where the attacks were coming from, and found links to evangelical churches.

    Since January 2018, Mozaika has reported over 200 posts that are openly homophobic to social media administrators, and most of them have been taken down and their authors temporarily or permanently blocked. This caused all Mozaika activists to be blocked from accessing certain groups and pages, and we have evidence that a number of secret Facebook and WhatsApp chat groups have been created to follow our activities.

    4. Can you tell us more about the significance of Pride in Latvia and the Baltic Pride that was recently held in the capital, Riga?

    Pride in Latvia is the most visible LGBTI event in the country. It draws widespread social and media attention to our cause, but it also attracts a large number of expressions of hatred and brings to the surface negative attitudes towards the LGBTI community. Pride in Latvia grew from 70 participants who faced 3,000 protesters in 2005, to 5,000 participants at EuroPride 2015, which was held in Riga, and 8,000 in the recent Baltic Pride. In between, it was banned by Riga City Council three times.

    Mozaika applied for permission to hold Baltic Pride in February 2018. Latvian laws state that applications must be submitted no earlier than four months prior to the event and that if there is more than one application for an event to be held at the same time, priority will be given to the first applicant. Mozaika’s representative arrived at Riga City Council an hour before opening to make sure that Baltic Pride was the first applicant, and just seconds after he entered the building Antiglobalists, an anti-rights organisation, arrived to submit another request for an event that would take place at the exact same time and venue, but under the name “Promotion of paedophilia, zoophilia, necrophilia and other perversions.” They wanted to make the statement that if ‘homosexuals’ can promote their ‘perversions’, then they should also be allowed to promote any other perversion they could think of.

    Since it became known in late 2017 that Riga would host Baltic Pride, both Mozaika and Baltic Pride became targets. The leader of the Latvian Green Party-Riga Unit started a //medium.com/@juriskaza/latvian-science-fund-head-asks-to-ban-riga-pride-event-87173b6e2cbe">personal campaign against so-called ‘genderists’. He insisted that Baltic Pride should be banned and set up a Facebook page to ‘inspire’ activists for ‘traditional values’. Starting in January, Baltic Pride organisers received over a hundred personal attacks, warnings or threats. We were insulted, called sick and branded perverts on our Facebook pages on a daily basis. Hate campaigns were launched to convey the idea that Pride is a ‘sex festival’. Countless posts were made showing rainbows and guns, to create fear among potential participants and the LGBTI community and dissuade them from attending. Antiglobalists, Tautas tiesību kustība (National Rights Movement) and activists inspired by right-wing politicians also constantly posted statements to encourage others to stand against Baltic Pride. Sometimes they provided details about our activities, forcing us to restrict them to registered participants to ensure safety. We also had to take unprecedented security measures for Pride events.

    Fortunately, we could find common ground and work closely with the police. Counter-protesters attack and humiliate the police, but we treat them with respect. No public official or security officer supporting us would ever say so publicly, but we have been able to work together behind closed doors. In the end, Baltic Pride was a great success. We would have considered it a success if 2,000 people had attended, but over 8,000 did. There were no major incidents, although at some point eggs and smoke bombs were thrown at participants.

    5. How do you counter the anti-rights message?

    We focus on delivering a human rights message. We never blame the church or call anyone by name - we don’t talk about them. We counter argument with argument, and fiction with facts. If they say that perverts will march, we state the fact that 70 per cent of those ‘perverts’ are straight people with children. Against arguments that ‘naked people’ will march, we simply say we don’t know what Pride they are referring to because we have never had people marching naked in Latvia. When we are called perverts, we thank them for their opinion but insist that we want to have a conversation within a human rights framework. That is, we don’t want to limit anyone’s rights and we want to be able to exercise ours. Compromising and always staying within the confines of a positive message may be personally difficult for many activists, but that is what we are going for, no matter what we hear. We might explode afterwards, but while we meet we listen and stay calm.

    I always meet the Catholic Archbishop at state visits or embassy receptions and we have polite exchanges. I’ve told him I’m non-believer but I know that the message of Jesus is all about love and respect and I don’t see that coming from him – that’s when he leaves the conversation. Within Mozaika there are also religious people, and we have invited churches to have an open and public dialogue, but so far, they have always refused.

    6. What is civil society in Latvia doing to overcome these challenges?

    Civil society uses all the available mechanisms to highlight rights violations in the international arena, including at the EU level, and to try and influence decision-makers and politicians. However, our Minister of Justice, who is openly homophobic and transphobic, ‘does not see’ any restrictions. While we were organising our Pride event, the government was putting a lot of effort into organising celebrations for the centennial of the Latvian state, and often blamed critical CSOs for shaming the country abroad as such an important date approached.

    In this context, Mozaika planned several actions, including a social media campaign (‘I support freedom’) in which public personalities publicly expressed their support for LGBTI rights, and human rights more generally, and demanded that our government ensure that Baltic Pride could take place safely. We aimed to bring in people who are not typically seen as supporters of human rights and LGBTI rights, and then amplify their voices as allies of the LGBTI community. Ultimately, what we wanted to show is that the LGBTI community and its supporters were a lot more numerous and diverse than the handful of activists and the few hundred people who normally show up to our events. We also undertook efforts targeted at international organisations and foreign governments and activists. We asked them to encourage people to participate in Baltic Pride and demand that the authorities guarantee their safety.

    Of course, we continue to monitor, document and report online and offline abuses against LGBTI people, activists and organisations. We take down hate comments and instruct the community to report any attacks that they experience on social media to us so we can work to take down the posts. If prominent hate expressions get out there, we try to respond to them with a counter-message. But we have limited resources, so sometimes we leave them for liberal commentators to deal with, and we focus on using social media to counter the most blatant expressions of hatred, particularly if someone is attacked physically.

    Finally, we are trying to place LGBTI issues and broader diversity issues on the agenda of the campaign for the upcoming October 2018 parliamentary election. We are promoting public debate on these issues, presenting political parties with examples of the rights restrictions that LGBTI people face on a daily basis and asking them to provide policy solutions to create a safe environment for LGBTI people and other minorities. We will consider it a success if three or four political parties include LGBTI issues or other diversity issues on their agenda.

    7. What are your needs and what can donors do to help?

    The one thing we have wanted to do for a long time is a long-term communications campaign – not the kind that individual CSOs put together on their own, but a broader one coordinated by various CSO leaders and activists who provide the substance and set the tone, and that is executed and managed by a professional communications team. The problem is that all CSOs live from project to project and are barely sustainable. Mozaika is able to function thanks to the work of volunteers. So what we need most is resources to ensure sustainability. This includes building capacity, but this has to be done on the basis of the expertise that we already have. We have attended countless training events and seminars, and are tired of going to international meetings just to be told ‘this is the right way to do it’. We need customised approaches to find practical solutions to our specific problems. There is a lot for us to learn from France, Germany, or the USA, but lessons must be customised and they should come alongside the resources to ensure sustainability.

    Civic space in Latvia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Mozaika through their Facebook page or follow @lgbt_mozaika and @KasparZ on Twitter and Instagram.

     

  • MIGRANTS’ RIGHTS: ‘Hate speech is driven by unequal power relations and negative stereotypes’

    martin pairet

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of hate speech in Europe and civil society strategies to counter it with Martin Pairet, Network Manager at European Alternatives, a transnational civil society organisation and citizen movement that promotes democracy, equality and culture beyond the nation-state.

     

    European Alternatives focuses on promoting democracy across borders. How concerned are you about the rise of authoritarian nationalism in Europe?

    European Alternatives works to support democracy across the continent, and our current analysis is that democracy is not really mature enough and that the fundamental rights necessary for democracy to work are not being respected in Europe. The process of degradation of democratic practices and institutions has taken place over a number of years, a decade at least, but has particularly accelerated with the crisis of hospitality that we are currently experiencing in the face of migration. This crisis of hospitality is above all a crisis of European values. We stand for the principle of solidarity and the creation of new forms of transnational community, and we are seeing exactly the opposite – the normalisation of anti-rights movements and parties whose discourse is being amplified by the media, and by social media in particular. This is happening in every country in Europe, and particularly in countries where politicians have a lot to gain through anti-migrant politics, such as France, Germany and Italy.

    Do you see this situation as the result of a deficit of democracy, or as the result of a failure to respect human rights?

    I think it’s a little bit of both. There is in fact a deep democratic deficit, and over the past few years there has been increasing questioning about how decisions are being made at every level – local, national, European and global. People have been demanding more representation and meaningful involvement in decision-making processes, through mechanisms such as citizen-initiated referendums. There are many other examples that we’ve seen over the past few years in Europe, of people organising to supplement the shortcomings of representative institutions and getting involved in decision-making, for instance through citizen assemblies. A lot of people feel their voices are not being heard and therefore feel powerless – they feel that no matter what they do, they won’t be able to change things and they won’t regain control over politics, which means they won’t have a say over the decisions that affect their lives, and they won’t control their futures.

    In this sense, democracy is quite weak, and people are getting increasingly desperate for someone in decision-making positions to really understand their problems and their fears, which the system is not paying attention to and is not able to process. This is the point when nationalism, extremism and hate start to rise, and hate speech becomes appealing. And in this context it becomes very difficult to hear the human rights discourse, because it is not necessarily something that people always respond or relate to, as it is quite abstract. European human rights organisations have been working hard to tackle the humanitarian crisis, but have sometimes undervalued the power of emotions, and of fear in particular, and have therefore not focused on how to address those fears, which has been problematic.

    In your analysis of the ongoing crisis of hospitality you focus on hate speech. How would you define this?

    Hate speech is a complex phenomenon that can’t really fit into a simple definition. In fact, there isn’t an internationally accepted definition of hate speech, and every member state of the European Union (EU) has its own legal definition. The definition used by the Council of Europe includes all forms of expression that spread or amplify xenophobia and various forms of hatred and intolerance. Hate speech is against human rights, so it is a form of anti-rights speech. It is also a social phenomenon that has been amplified by social media within the context of increasingly social power relations also related to the economic and financial crisis and the fact that financial and economic power is concentrated in few hands. But stereotypes also play an important role. I would say that hate speech is driven by both unequal power relations and negative stereotypes.

    In recent years, the normalisation of hate speech has contributed to the radicalisation of people and groups against those seen as ‘the other’: attacks against marginalised groups, including women, LGBTQI people, Roma people, migrants, refugees and minority faith communities, have spread on social media, and the hate narrative gradually translated into actual violence. That’s why we’ve seen a rise in hate crimes.

    One problem, and the reason why it is important to have a clear definition of hate speech, is that while hate speech is a form of anti-rights speech, an attempt to regulate and suppress it may lead to the violation of other rights, and particularly the violation of a fundamental right, the right to the freedom of expression.

    While the rights of women, LGBTQI people, people of colour and indigenous peoples ought to be respected, their right to be treated fairly and respectfully may sometimes collide with the freedom of expression. So it is important to know where to draw the line and how to identify what falls under the freedom of expression and what is hate speech, and what can be done about it. But this is a very dynamic process and definitions are continuously changing, partly because of the rise of new technologies. As new forms of communications arise, we need to ask ourselves whether this or that is still hate speech. Where is the limit? Do certain commentaries or visual communications that we find on media platforms constitute hate speech? The distinction between what’s ironic and what’s serious can be difficult to grasp online.

    Where in Europe is the situation most worrying?

    The problem is taking different forms in different places. One specific example of this worrying situation is in Italy, where there was a significant rise in hate crimes between 2017 and 2018. Because of the use of different data collection methods, it’s difficult to know how much these have increased, but it is evident that they have risen sharply while the far-right was in power.

    In Italy, hate speech has specifically targeted refugees and people of colour. Cécile Kyenge, a black Italian member of the European Parliament, has faced racist attacks for years. When she was appointed as Italy’s first black government minister back in 2013, she received racist insults from the far-right League Party. In 2018, once the League Party’s leader Matteo Salvini had reached power, they brought a defamation case against her, for accusing the party and its leaders of being racists!

    It is very telling that a hate crime happened on the same day that Matteo Salvini was sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister, on 3 June 2018. A 29-year old migrant from Mali was shot dead by a white man who drove by and fired on him with a shotgun. He was killed while collecting scrap metal to build shacks, alongside two other migrants who also suffered injuries. They all lived in a tent city that houses hundreds of poorly paid farm workers. This was clearly an example of hate speech turned into act, as it happened just hours after Matteo Salvini warned that, with him in power, "the good times for illegals are over” and that “Italy cannot be Europe's refugee camp.”

    It does make a difference whether the far right has reached power, which becomes apparent when you compare Italy and Germany. Hate speech has also been on the rise in Germany, but in this case, a new law was passed in late 2017 to regulate hate speech online. This law requires social media platforms to quickly remove hate speech, ‘fake news’ and any illegal material, and it appears to have been quite efficient in reducing online hate speech. In contrast, Italy does not have a similarly strong legal framework and the context is not conducive to a revision of the legal framework either. In sum, the rise of hate speech in Italy is the result of a mix of a regressive political environment and the absence of strong legislation.

    In the cases of Hungary and Poland there have also been strong governmental responses against migrants. These examples are particularly interesting because sometimes there are no migrants in parts of the country, especially in the countryside, but there can still be anti-migrant policies even in places with very few migrants. This has a lot to do with who is in power and what discourse is being delivered from the top and disseminated on social media. And while hate speech can target various particular groups, I think that in the current situation in Europe, it always starts with migrants and refugees, then extends to other marginalised groups. We saw this with Brexit in the UK: the referendum campaign was permeated with an anti-migrant discourse, but various groups of people who were not migrants or refugees became increasingly threatened by exclusionary narratives, which eventually targeted anyone who was different, looked different, or spoke differently.

    Is there any legislation in place at the European level to counter hate speech?

    There is nothing in place specifically against hate speech, but because hate speech is a violation of a whole set of rights, there is a broad set of rules that apply, such as the Framework Decision on combating certain forms of expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law. There is also the Fundamental Rights Agency, an EU-funded agency that collects and analyses data and carries out research on fundamental rights. It provides assistance and expertise at both the European and national levels, including in the areas of non-discrimination, racism, intolerance and hate crime. Finally, there is a Code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online that the European Commission recently agreed with Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, which aims at enabling social media users to express their opinions online freely and without the fear of being attacked out of bias based on race, colour, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, or other characteristics. It also seeks to ensure that EU and national laws on combating hate speech are better enforced in the online environment across the EU. But the process of domesticating European legislation is slow and long, and the EU doesn’t always have sufficient mechanisms in place to hold members states accountable when they are not complying.

    What can civil society do to counter hate speech, besides pushing for legislative change?

    There are many strategies that can be used to counter hate speech effectively. Of course it is important to change legislation to ensure it covers all forms of discrimination and hate speech, but it is also important – and very difficult – to raise awareness. Awareness of their right to equal treatment must be raised, first of all, among the people who are being targeted by hate speech. Even among European citizens, many people don’t know exactly what their rights are. So it is important to share information among civil society and encourage civil society groups to share it further.

    The role of local authorities and state agencies such as the police is also key in ensuring the right to equal treatment and it does make a difference whether or not they act in the face of hate speech. So it is important for civil society to work with these actors so that they are able to recognise hate speech and act against it.

    Additionally, civil society can do better in the area of communication strategies to protect fundamental rights in general. This would require an investment in capacity development, given that the required knowledge is not evenly disseminated. Grassroots actors don’t necessarily have the means to do this kind of work, but it’s this kind of work that often impacts on affected groups the most, as it is key in helping them reach out.

    A lot more investment is needed to counter hate groups online, because online content can have an impact well beyond the context for which it was formulated. According to studies about anti-Semitic speech, people tend to feel threatened by what they see online regardless of how much impact it actually has on their reality, so clearly more investment is needed to counter this effect.

    How is European Alternatives working to counter hate speech?

    We work to connect groups that are working on similar issues and to fill the capacity gap. We’ve done this quite successfully through a series of training activities on Countering Hate Speech and Far-Right Radicalism in Central and Eastern Europe. It is important to bring together activists and citizens from different countries, because it is quite hard for people to understand that these are not isolated phenomena that are happening in their communities, but rather that a lot of communities are experiencing the same, and there is a range of solutions that have been tried in various local contexts to tackle it. It’s very important for these exchanges to continue, because we’ve seen it’s working: we see organisations collaborating across borders and exchanging experiences in ways that they can adapt to tackle hate speech in their own contexts.

    It is also key to invest in civic education and human rights education as much as possible. We do this through an online course on Countering Hate Speech in Europe, which is based on online dialogue maintained with our partners. The videos are open source and are available on our YouTube channel. We have a playlist called ‘Countering Hate Speech’, so they can be watched in sequence. The course offers participants the opportunity to access expert content developed by European Alternatives and to put their own experiences, values and perspectives to the forefront while engaging with peers through a Virtual Exchange. At the end of the course, participants even learn how to plan and organise an Action Day Against Hate Speech.

    Through these activities, we try to reach out to a high number of young people. Dialogue among individuals and among communities is key because on social media there are fewer and fewer spaces where people can have a real conversation in a safe environment. And dialogue is quite effective for raising awareness and thinking strategies through collectively.

    I think the reason why we keep at this is because we think there cannot be a well-functioning democracy when people are not respected in the first place. Respect for our shared humanity is a precondition for any democratic reform to work.

    Get in touch with European Alternatives through itswebsite andFacebook page, orfollow@EuroAlter and@MartPirate on Twitter.

     

  • ONLINE CIVIC SPACE: ‘We shouldn’t expect tech giants to solve the problems that they have created’

    Marek TuszynskiAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Marek Tuszynski, co-founder and creative director of Tactical Tech, aBerlin-based international civil society organisation that engages with citizens and civil society to explore the impacts of technologyon society and individual autonomy. Founded in 2003, in a context where optimism about technology prevailed but focus was lacking on what specifically it could do for civil society, Tactical Tech uses its research findings to create practical solutions for citizens and civil society.

    Some time ago it seemed that the online sphere could offer civil society a new space for debate and action – until it became apparent that online civic space was being restricted too. What kinds of restrictions are you currently seeing online, and what's changed in recent years?

    Fifteen years ago, the digital space in a way belonged to the people who were experimenting with it. People were building that space using the available tools, there was a movement towards open source software, and activists were trying build an online space that would empower people to exercise democratic freedoms, and even build democracy from the ground up. But those experimental spaces became gentrified, appropriated, taken over and assimilated into other existing spaces. In that sense, digital space underwent processes very similar to all other spaces that offer alternatives and in which people are able to experiment freely. That space shrank massively, and free spaces were replaced by centralised technology and started to be run as business models.

    For most people, including civil society, using the internet means resorting to commercial platforms and systems such as Google and Facebook. The biggest change has been the centralisation of what used to be a distributed system where anybody was able to run their own services. Now we rely on centralised, proprietary and controlled services. And those who initially weren’t very prevalent, like state or corporate entities, are now dominating. The difference is also in the physical aspect, because technology is becoming more and more accessible and way cheaper than it used to be, and a lot of operations that used to require much higher loads of technology have become affordable by a variety of state and non-state entities.

    The internet became not just a corporate space, but also a space for politics and confrontation on a much larger scale than it was five or ten years ago. Revelations coming from whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and scandals such as those with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are making people much more aware of what this space has become. It is now clear that it is not all about liberation movements and leftist politics, and that there are many groups on the other end of the political spectrum that have become quite savvy in using and abusing technology.

    In sum, changes are being driven by both economic and, increasingly, political factors. What makes them inescapable is that technology is everywhere, and it has proliferated so fast that it has become very hard to imagine going back to doing anything without it. It is also very hard, if not impossible, to compartmentalise your life and separate your professional and personal activities, or your political and everyday or mundane activities. From the point of view of technology, you always inhabit the same, single space.

    Do people who use the internet for activism rather than, say, to share cat pictures, face different or specific threats online?

    Yes, but I would not underestimate the cat pictures, as insignificant as they may seem to people who are using these tools for political or social work. It is the everyday user who defines the space that others use for activism. The way technologies are used by people who use them for entertainment ends up defining them for all of us.

    That said, there are indeed people who are much more vulnerable, whose exposure or monitoring can restrict their freedoms and be dangerous for them – not only physically but also psychologically. These people are exposed to potential interceptions and surveillance to find out what are they doing and how, and also face a different kind of threat, in the form of online harassment, which may impact on their lives well beyond their political activities, as people tend to be bullied not only for what they do, but also for what or who they are.

    There seems to be a very narrow understanding of what is political. In fact, regardless of whether you consider yourself political, very mundane activities and behaviours can be seen by others as political. So it is not just about what you directly produce in the form of text, speech, or interaction, but also about what can be inferred from these activities. Association with organisations, events, or places may become equally problematic. The same happens with the kind of tools you are using and the times you are using them, whether you are using encryption and why. All these elements that you may not be thinking of may end up defining you as a person who is trying to do something dangerous or politically controversial. And of course, many of the tools that activists use and need, like encryption, are also used by malicious actors, because technology is not intrinsically good or bad, but is defined by its users. You can potentially be targeted as a criminal just for using – for activism, for instance – the same technologies that criminals use.

    Who are the ‘vulnerable minorities’ you talk about in your recentreport on digital civic space, and why are they particularly vulnerable online?

    Vulnerable minorities are precisely those groups that face greater risks online because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. Women generally are more vulnerable to online harassment, and politically active women even more so. Women journalists, for instance, are subject to more online abuse than male journalists when speaking about controversial issues or voicing opinions. They are targeted because of their gender. This is also the case for civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on women’s rights, which are being targeted both offline and online, including through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, website hacks, leaks of personal information, fabricated news, direct threats and false reports against Facebook content leading to the suspension of their pages. Digital attacks sometimes translate into physical violence, when actors emboldened by the hate speech promoted on online platforms end up posing serious threats not only to people’s voices but also to their lives.

    But online spaces can also be safe spaces for these groups. In many places the use of internet and online platforms creates spaces where people can exercise their freedoms of expression and protest. They can come out representing minorities, be it sexual or otherwise, in a way they would not be able to in the physical places where they live, because it would be too dangerous or practically impossible. They are able to exercise these freedoms in online spaces because these spaces are still separate from the places where they live. However, there is a limited understanding of the fact that this does not make these spaces neutral. Information can be leaked, shared, distorted and weaponised, and used to hurt you when you least expect it.

    Still, for many minorities, and especially for sexual minorities, social media platforms are the sole place where they can exercise their freedoms, access information and actually be who they are, and say it aloud. At the same time, they technically may retain anonymity but their interests and associations will give away who they are, and this can be used against them. These outlets can create an avenue for people to become political, but that avenue can always be closed down in non-democratic contexts, where those in power can decide to shut down entire services or cut off the internet entirely.

    Is this what you mean when you refer to social media as ‘a double-edged sword’? What does this mean for civil society, and how can we take advantage of the good side of social media?

    Social media platforms are a very important tool for CSOs. Organisations depend on them to share information, communicate and engage with their supporters, organise events, measure impact and response based on platform analytics, and even raise funds. But the use of these platforms has also raised concerns regarding the harvesting of data, which is analysed and used by the corporations themselves, by third-party companies and by governments.

    Over the years, government requests for data from and about social media users have increased, and so have arrests and criminalisation of organisations and activists based on their social media behaviour. So again, what happens online does not stay online – in fact, it sometimes has serious physical repercussions on the safety and well-being of activists and CSO staff. Digital attacks and restrictions affect individuals and their families, and may play a role in decisions on whether to continue to do their work, change tactics, or quit. Online restrictions can also cause a chilling effect on the civil society that is at the forefront of the promotion of human rights and liberties. For these organisations, digital space can be an important catalyst for wider civil political participation in physical spaces, so when it is attacked, restricted, or shrunk, it has repercussions for civic participation in general.

    Is there some way that citizens and civil society can put pressure on giant tech companies to do the right thing?

    When we talk about big social media actors we think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp – three of which are in fact part of Facebook – and we don’t think of Google because it is not seen as social media, even though it is more pervasive, it is everywhere, and it is not even visible as such.

    We shouldn’t expect these companies to solve the problems they have created. They are clearly incapable of addressing the problems they cause. One of these problems is online harassment and abuse of the rules. They have no capacity to clean the space of certain activities and if they try to do so, then they will censor any content that resembles something dangerous, even if it isn’t, to not risk being accused of supporting radical views.

    We expect tech giants to be accountable and responsible for the problems they create, but that’s not very realistic, and it won’t just happen by itself. When it comes to digital-based repression and the use of surveillance and data collection to impose restrictions, there is a striking lack of accountability. Tech platforms depend on government authorisation to operate, so online platforms and tech companies are slow to react, if they do at all, in the face of accusations of surveillance, hate speech, online harassment and attacks, especially when powerful governments or other political forces are involved.

    These companies are not going to do the right thing if they are not encouraged to do so. There are small steps as well as large steps one can take, starting with deciding how and when to use each of these tools, and whether to use them at all. At every step of the way, there are alternatives that you can use to do different things – for one, you can decentralise the way you interact with people and not use one platform for everything.

    Of course, that’s not the whole problem, and the solution cannot be based on individual choices alone. A more structural solution would have to take place at the level of policy frameworks, as can be seen in Europe where regulations have been put in place and it is possible to see a framework shaping up for large companies to take more responsibility, and to define who they are benefiting from their access to personal information.

    What advice can you offer for activists to use the internet more safely?

    We have a set of tools and very basic steps to enable people who don’t want to leave these platforms, who depend on them, to understand what it is that they are doing, what kind of information they leave behind that can be used to identify them and how to avoid putting into the system more information than is strictly necessary. It is important to learn how to browse the internet privately and safely, how to choose the right settings on Google and Facebook and take back control of your data and your activity in these spaces.

    People don’t usually understand how much about themselves is online and can be easily found via search engines, and the ways in which by exposing themselves they also expose the people who they work with and the activities they do. When using the internet we reveal where we are, what we are working on, what device we are using, what events we are participating in, what we are interested in, who we are connecting with, the phone providers we use, the visas we apply for, our travel itineraries, the kinds of financial transactions we do and with whom, and so on. To do all kinds of things we are increasingly dependent on more and more interlinked and centralised platforms that share information with one another and with other entities, and we aren’t even aware that they are doing it because they use trackers and cookies, among other things. We are giving away data about ourselves and what we do all the time, not only when we are online, but also when others enter information about us, for instance when travelling.

    But there are ways to reduce our data trail, become more secure online and build a healthier relationship with technology. Some basic steps are to delete your activity as it is stored by search engines such as Google and switch to other browsers. You can delete unnecessary apps, switch to alternative apps for messaging, voice and video calls and maps – ideally to some that offer the same services you are used to, but that do not profit from your data – change passwords, declutter your accounts and renovate your social media profiles, separate your accounts to make it more difficult for tech giants to follow your activities, tighten your social media privacy settings, opt for private browsing (but still, be aware that this does not make you anonymous on the web), disable location services on mobile devices and do many other things that will keep you safer online.

    Another issue that activists face online is misinformation and disinformation strategies. In that regard, there is a need for new tactics and standards to enable civil society groups, activists, bloggers and journalists to react by verifying information and creating evidence based on solid information. Online space can enable this if we promote investigation as a form of engagement. If we know how to protect ourselves, we can make full use of this space, in which there is still room for many positive things.

    Get in touch with Tactical Tech through itswebsite and Facebook page, or follow@Info_Activism on Twitter.

     

  • POLAND: ‘People are more understanding and supportive of LGBTQI+ issues than politicians’

     

    Following our 2019special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences in facing anti-rights backlash and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about recently established ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland with Bart Staszewski, a young LGBTQI+ activist. Bart works as a freelance videographer for various civil society organisations and is a co-founder and board member of the Lublin Equality March Association (LEMA), an organisation that he defines as ‘an LGBTI NGO inside the LGBT-free zone’. For the past eight years, Bart has also taken part in the struggle for marriage equality led by theLove does not Exclude Association.

    Bart Staszewski

    Photo by Przemyslaw Stefaniak

    What challenges do the LGBTQI+ community and its organisations face in Poland?

    I think the main problem is homophobia, which is growing due to the regressive government at all levels, from the national level to the very local. Governments at these different levels are using the same hate speech that we have already seen in Russia, in exactly the same wording, for example accusing LGBTQI+ organisations of disseminating ‘homo-propaganda’. We are also facing growing homophobia on public TV, which disseminates what are basically ‘fake news’ stories about us. They have even used our Facebook posts against us. For instance, during the campaign for parliamentary elections in 2019, some of us were not so positive about a candidate who happened to be the only gay candidate and wrote about it on Facebook. Quotes from our Facebook posts were then used in a campaign against this candidate, to show that even gay activists opposed him.

    They also produced a documentary, ‘Invasion’, which stated that the Polish LGBTQI+ movement is sponsored by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who according to them is paying people to attend Pride events; this is why, according to them, so many people are attending our events. They filmed this thing by having people pose as volunteers with LGBTQI+ civil society organisations (CSOs) and bring a spy camera into Pride marches. According to Polish law, CSO volunteers have to get paid a small fee, somewhere between €5 and €8, when travelling outside the city. They used this to create a story that LGBTQI+ organisations are bribing people into attending Pride marches. They do this because while homophobia is on the rise, the LGBTQI+ movement is also growing, and our events are in fact getting the biggest turnout ever, so they are looking into new ways to defame us, including by saying that people are in it for the money.

    But it is not just the government and the state media. The LGBTQI+ movement is not as afraid of the government as we are of anti-rights organisations like Ordo Iuris, a right-wing legal foundation that offers legal assistance to municipalities that are curtailing LGBTQI+ rights. They are a think tank for anti-LGBTQI+ rights and anti-women’s rights policies, supporting reinforcing marriage laws as pertaining to the union of a man and a woman, total abortion bans and divorce bans. This group is quite well connected to the government; for instance, one of its prominent members was Poland’s Secretary of State under the previous right-wing government. They are also connected to Agenda Europe, a pan-European, Christian fundamentalist network that seeks to restore ‘natural order’ and that offers an umbrella for many right-wing organisations across Europe. They say they receive no funding from the government, but they are very well funded.

    They have people who teach in schools and universities and who are running a series of campaigns against us. All of their advocacy and campaigns have turned us into easy targets. Many activists, including myself, have received death threats for denouncing homophobia. Last year the police raided the home of a woman who had created rainbow marriage stickers, like it was such a big deal. I am getting used to the idea and getting ready for something like this to happen to me too. The government has unleashed this with its homophobic rhetoric but now does not take responsibility for its consequences.

    What are the so-called LGBT-free zones, and how are they impacting on the LGBTQI+ community?

    A third of Polish municipalities have adopted resolutions ‘against LGBT propaganda’ which are essentially unwelcoming of LGBTQI+ people and practices – although the way they put it, it is as if being an LGBTQI+ person was some ‘foreign ideology’. As a result, these municipalities have become so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’. Local governments in these municipalities have issued non-binding resolutions in which they pledge to refrain from taking any action to encourage tolerance of LGBTQI+ people. While they do not have material implications in practice, their symbolic effect is huge, as they stigmatise LGBTQI+ people in a way that legitimises further attacks against us.

    In other words, ‘LGBT-free zones’ are the formalisation of homophobia, the institutionalisation of prejudice. They confirm homophobes in their beliefs and encourage them to turn them into action. The hooligans who throw stones at us during Pride marches every year will now feel empowered because the law now tells them that they are ‘protecting Christian values against homo-propaganda and ideology’. Families that don't accept their LGBTQI+ kids will now feel more confident about their hateful decisions. Teachers will feel uncomfortable when teaching content on LGBTQI+ issues in schools, now that they know that local politicians are against it – and they are the ones who make decisions on school funding. Some teachers have even asked us if they are allowed to teach anything at all related to LGBTQI+ issues after the new policies were put in place.

    An increasing number of citizens are more confident than ever that homophobia is good and something to be proud of. The idea that is being disseminated is that there is something wrong with LGBTQI+ people and you’d better be careful around them. Homophobic billboards have gone up in major cities across Poland, accusing homosexuals of molesting kids, associating them with paedophilia.

    Can you tell us about your campaign to challenge ‘LGBT-free zones’?

    Last year, as local governments were declaring ‘LGBT-free zones’ one after the other, I started thinking about how else to call attention to this given that the media was definitely not interested in homophobia as a problem. Our first campaign was in Lubin, where we created a billboard campaign called ‘Love is Love’. While it received some attention, in the end nothing changed and more ‘LGBT-free zones’ were introduced. I thought we needed to try something new. I wondered what I could do to highlight this problem. Along with my boyfriend we came up with the idea to order signs to place in ‘LGBT-free zones’, but then thought that the signs would not be enough: we needed human stories behind them, we needed to show the real people behind this struggle and inside these zones.

    So I came up with another, very simple idea. I asked LGBTQI+ individuals that I knew in municipalities that had been declared ‘LGBT-free zones’ to participate in the project. It was key that the participants were from those areas, either still living there or – if we could not find any LGBTQI+ resident – that they had at least grown up there. I asked them if I could take a few photos of them with the signs, and honestly, I initially thought that this would be just an art project, something for an exhibition. I took the first photos of LGBTQI+ people standing behind the ‘LGBT-free zone’ signposts in December 2019. I asked photographers and art people to participate in the project, but nobody seemed to be interested; they told me that it was repetitive and ‘nothing new’. In December the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution to condemn Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones’ and also the Polish Ombudsman made declarations about it. It was already January 2020 and I felt that nobody was interested in my project so I just uploaded some photos to Facebook page, and then created a webpage, in the hope of triggering some debate in Poland. I never imagined it would lead to a worldwide response.

    Did you get any feedback from the people you photographed regarding the ways in which anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric and policies are affecting their lives?

    Initial reactions depended a lot on how much interest in politics people had. Some of them had not really thought about the amount of homophobia they had been coexisting with. One of my project’s participants, Kate, who was about 18 years old, first told me she did not feel anything had changed after her town had been declared an ‘LGBT-free zone’. But then I asked her how she felt in the small city that she lived in: could she hold hands with her girlfriend, go to a dance with her and dance together as a couple? And she said she could definitely not; she could not even imagine herself going out onto the street with her girlfriend. She was so deeply submerged in homophobia that she didn’t even notice it was happening.

    Homophobia can be invisible, but statistics do not lie. Many young people are committing suicide, and two-thirds of them are LGBTQI+ people. Many members of the LGBTQI+ community have suicidal thoughts and depression. Some people are being kicked out of their homes and families for being gay; their own parents view them as diseased. And all of this is happening in silence. The people behind the hate campaigns against us would never know about it. 

    Another person who joined my project later spoke to a foreign journalist that I put her in contact with, and just a week later she got death threats over Twitter and Facebook, because the name of the village she lives in appeared in the news report. Now people want to burn her house down. Such is the severity of hate.

    As the ‘LGBT-free zone’ campaign took off, several politicians from right-wing parties, as well as Ordo Iuris, appear to have notified the Prosecutor’s Office that by running it I have committed a criminal offence, but I have not yet received any official notification. For the time being, it seems that they are focused on preparing lawsuits against the Atlas of Hate, a map of anti-LGBTQI+ government resolutions in Poland put together by other LGBTQI+ activists.

    What kind of support from the international community and from civil society around the world do Polish LGBTQI+ activists need?

    Of course financial support is something that we always need, because right-wing CSOs are quite well funded, and we are not. But besides funding, we also need to put pressure on our government and the European Union (EU). European countries that have already enshrined LGBTQI+ rights and equality should support us loudly rather than quietly. This is the only thing that is working with this government. They are scared of the EU and of what other countries will say. So we need diplomacy where ambassadors tell the Polish government that they will lose funding if Poland carries on in this way. They need to constantly ask the Polish government about this and put pressure on them.

    We need a well-organised campaign. People can create petitions – I have seen quite a few, and it was a big surprise to me that many of them were launched by private individuals in France and Germany – but after one week, they are dead. In France, 10 CSOs sent a letter to President Macron to ask him to speak up loudly against ‘LGBT-free zones’ during his visit to Poland. But he didn’t say a word about ‘LGBT-free zones’ or the situation of LGBTQI+ people. Maybe he said something in private, but not in front of the media. We need big CSOs to do something about this.

    Fortunately, we are already growing in solidarity. Last year we had the biggest turnout at a Pride march in Poland. My association conducted a survey that showed that even when homophobia is at its highest in Poland, people are more supportive than ever and are marching for equality and in support of same-sex civil unions. Our biggest problem is with the politicians and not the citizens. People have the internet, they have HBO and Netflix, they are more understanding and supportive than politicians. Things are slowly changing for the best, and we need to make sure they keep going that way. But we need international support to do so, or we will end up like Hungary or like Russia in the hands of Vladimir Putin.

    Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Lublin Equality March Association through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@marszlublin and@BartStaszewski on Twitter.

     

     

  • SRI LANKA: ‘Trolls accusing people of being traitors are organised and political’

    Ahead of the Sri Lankan presidential elections on 16 November 2019, CIVICUS spoke with Sandya Ekneligoda, a human rights defender and campaigner for justice for families of people who have been disappeared. Sandya is the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda and has been subjected to a barrage of hate, abuse, intimidation, harassment and death threats on social media.

    sanya Eknaligoda

    Photo: Ravindra Pushpakumara

    Can you tell us about the campaign on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and how you became involved in it?

    My husband Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted in January 2010. Since that terrible day, I have campaigned for the truth behind his disappearance. When domestic efforts failed, I traveled to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to press for justice. During my activism journey, I have worked with other mothers of the disappeared to raise awareness. We have asked the government to deliver on the truth behind the thousands of disappearances in our country. We also want the authorities to give support to families who often struggle with their livelihoods once a family member has been taken.

    There has been some progress with the International Convention on Disappearances, signed in 2007 and in effect since 2010, but much work needs to be done to find the truth and support the victims. The Convention has not yet resulted in relevant domestic legislation. To keep momentum going on Prageeth’s case I have attended court over a hundred times tracking the habeas corpus case. Meanwhile, in the north, hundreds of mothers have been protesting on the streets seeking answers about their children. Justice for those disappeared remains a critical issue for the country to resolve.

    What threats have you faced for your advocacy?

    I have faced a number of different threats. I have been called a traitor and received hate speech on Facebook. In 2016, Prageeth and myself became the targets of a defamation campaign that took many forms, including public speeches and posters smearing my name. I believe this was an organised smear campaign by the Rajapaksa clan, the clan of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I have also been targeted by nationalistic Buddhist monks. Venerable Gnanasara Thero, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist nationalist organisation, threatened me as I was monitoring Prageeth’s court case. I filed a case against him, and he was found guilty by the court in Homagama in 2019. After this decision I got a lot of vicious threats, including threats to kill me and my children.

    In 2018, I managed to navigate my way through one of the Rajapaksa clan’s attempts to lure me into a trap. They sent one of their men, a former air force officer, to meet me. He offered to disclose information on chemical weapons in return for safe passage to the USA. I do not believe this was genuine; it was a way of distracting me from my important work to seek justice for Prageeth. These obstacles have not stopped me fighting for justice but they make life as an activist challenging.

    What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict?

    Between 2010 and 2015 the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka was terrible. Repression was so severe we faced imminent threats of being forcibly disappeared or killed if we spoke out. We saw the state using the Prevention of Terrorism Act to try to silence activists. An example of this was the 2014 unlawful detention of Balendran Jeyakumary, an activist campaigning for the disappeared.

    After political change in 2015 the situation improved. There have been some incidents but space to talk about issues has increased. Recently, however, we have seen more clampdowns on the freedom of expression, including the arrest of Shathika Sathkumara, an award-winning writer, as well as of journalist Kusul Perera. This really troubles me. Although the environment is calmer, we see toxic elements appearing in social media. Trolls accusing people of being traitors and disseminating hate speech have emerged on Facebook and other social media platforms. This is organised and political.

    Are there any particular issues affecting civil society and the space for civil society that you are concerned about ahead of the elections?

    The participation in the elections of Gotabaya Rajapkasa, former defence chief and brother of Mahinda Rajapkasa, has re-energised racists and nationalists, who had been a bit dormant after 2015. These elements are now becoming quite vocal and issue threats. For example, following a petition filed by Gamini Viyingoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara querying Gotabaya’s eligibility for elections, Madumadawa Aranvinda, a politician, posted the comment that roughly translated as “there was a name which sounds like Viyangoda which was Ekneligoda and best wishes to you both and good luck.” As my husband was disappeared for speaking out, this was clearly a threat to the petitioners to stay silent.

    Ahead of the elections there’s a looming possibility that violence will erupt. There have already been some examples. When Gotabaya’s legal team won the petition, a Gotabaya supporter set fire to the house of a United National Party supporter. In a highly polarised context, with the two bigger parties fielding strong candidates, it’s possible that the parties will encourage proxies to incite violence. This violence could also turn against civil society activists raising issues. I feel wary of the path ahead as impunity prevails, as reflected in the little progress experienced in mine and other cases.

    What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from the international community and international civil society to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    If Gotabhaya comes into power there will be a surge in threats. International civil society groups should be ready to help those most at risk, like myself, who have named and shamed him. This is an important time for international civil society to show its solidarity with activists in Sri Lanka and check in with friends and colleagues on protection needs. It’s also really important that organisations continue to work with the victims who raised awareness about the need for truth following the end of the war despite the threats they faced. Civil society organisations must stay vigilant and keep pushing on investigations for important justice cases in Sri Lanka, such as my fight for the truth about what happened to my husband, Prageeth.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    This interview was undertaken by independent researcher Yolanda Foster on behalf of CIVICUS.