11 countries downgraded in new global report on civic freedoms

  • A growing number of people are living in ‘closed’, ‘repressed’ and ‘obstructed’ countries
  • Downgraded countries include the USA, Philippines, Guinea, Slovenia, and Iraq
  • Top violations include: detention of protesters, censorship and attacks on journalists
  • Freedoms of speech, association and peaceful assembly  deteriorated during COVID-19 

The fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression continue to deteriorate across the world, according to a new report released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, a research collaboration that tracks fundamental freedoms in 196 countries. The new report, People Power Under Attack 2020, shows the number of people living in countries with significant civic space restrictions continues to increase year on year. 

87 per cent of the world's population now live in countries rated as ‘closed’, ‘repressed’ or ‘obstructed' - an increase of over 4% from last year. Over a quarter of people live in countries with the worst rating, closed, where state and non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, injure, and kill people for attempting to exercise their fundamental freedoms. China, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and 20 other countries fall under this category. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dire impact on civic freedoms globally. In times of crisis, space for open and constructive dialogue between governments and civil society, as well as access to prompt and reliable information, are fundamental. However, our research shows that governments have taken a different path and are using the pandemic as an opportunity to introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms. 

Our data shows that the detention of protesters and the excessive use of force against them are the most common tactics being used by governing authorities to restrict the right to peaceful assembly. Although this was a common violation last year, authorities have been using the pandemic as an excuse to further restrict this right. Censorship, attacks on journalists, and the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders were also common tactics documented during the year. 

“The use of detention as the main tactic to restrict protests only shows the hypocrisy of governments using COVID-19 as a pretence to crack down on protests - the virus is more likely to spread in confined spaces like prisons,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “Our research reflects a deepening civic space crisis across the globe and highlights how governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to further curtail rights, including by passing legislation to criminalise speech.” 

This year, eleven countries have been downgraded and only two improved their rating.  The CIVICUS Monitor is particularly concerned about civic space restrictions in the Americas, where four countries dropped a rating: Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, and the USA. Also alarming is the deterioration of civic space in West Africa, with four countries – Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo – moving from obstructed to repressed

There is growing concern about the decline of democratic and civic rights in Europe, with Slovenia also being downgraded. The decline in civic space conditions in Asia remains a cause of concern with the Philippines moving down from obstructed to repressed. MENA, the region with the most countries in the closed category, adds one more to the list, with Iraq moving from repressed to closed

With limited but welcome improvements, DRC and Sudan improved their ratings, both moving from closed to repressed

“In most regions this year the story around civic freedoms looks bleak. At a time when civic rights are needed more than ever to hold governments accountable, the space for this is further being restricted. It is crucial that progressive governments work closely with human rights defenders and civil society moving forward to halt this downward spiral and push back against the authoritarian forces at work,” said Belalba Barreto 

Undeterred by restrictions, human rights defenders and civil society continue to operate, adapt and resist. Massive protests were often the key factor that led to positive changes. In Chile, mass protests forced the government to hold a referendum to change the constitution. In the USA, some states pledged to dismantle or undertake structural reform of their police forces following Black Lives Matter protests. While in  Malawi, months of protests led to a historic rerun of the presidential elections and a transition of power.  

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 500 civic space updates over the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2020. Civic space in 196 countries is categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.


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