Members of the building and wood workers union demanding better working conditions in Cambodia. Photo: LICADHO

Threats to democracy, civic freedoms and human rights are escalating across the world. This material is about the global attack on civic space. It includes examples from various countries as well as recommendations to states, the EU and the Swedish government.

We are witnessing a backlash on democracy around the world. More authoritarian governments are attacking independent media, arresting opposition groups and silencing ciritical voices. For the 13th consecutive year, there is a decrease in respect for basic freedoms, such as freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. There are now more countries with a decline in democracy compared to countries where democracy is advancing. Today, more than 6 billion people live in countries where there are severe restrictions on civic freedoms, according to  CIVICUS

Number of people living in countries with restrictions 2018

Freedom Captivity

Source: Civicus, People power under attack, 2018

It has become very dangerous for people to defend their rights. Social activists, journalists, lawyers and community leaders who are speaking up and defending human rights are being threatened, attacked and even killed around the world. Being a human rights defender today means risking your life, whether you are involved in defending indigenous peoples’ rights, protecting the environment or standing up for women’s rights. The threats are even extended to family and relatives.

In many countries, civil society faces severe limitations to act freely and their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and express views and opinions are threatened. According to CIVICUS, civil society is under severe attack in 111 countries. Freedom of expression is under serious threat across the world. By the end of 2018, Reporters without Borders reported that 348 journalists were imprisoned, 60 held as hostages and 80 had been killed during the year. Even international human rights institutions have been threatened in several countries, for example the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala sponsored by the UN.

Nijera Kori - Right to information day. Photo: Maria Persson, Swallows India Bangladesh
Women groups from Nijera Kori marching on Right to information Day. Photo: Maria Persson, Swallows India Bangladesh

Thousands of defenders criminalised

Governments, armed groups, organised criminal groups and powerful elites are using different measures to silence those who are defending their rights and who are perceived as threats. Governments are adopting repressive legislations that deny civil society organisations foreign funding or impose strict requirements for registrations. Many countries are trying to control press, social media and online platforms through restrictive legislations, for example Bangladesh, Myanmar and Tanzania. Sometimes even censorship or mass surveillance is introduced. Given the current global situation of high security concerns and fear of terrorist attacks, many governments have implemented regulatory measures and broadly defined anti-terrorism legislations that are also being used to limit civic freedoms. In Nicaragua and Cameroon anti-terror laws have been used to silence critical voices and restrict civil society.

Criminalisation is the most common measure to limit and delegitimise human rights defenders and their work. Thousands of defenders have been arbitrary detained, presented with unfounded charges and sometimes sentenced to long prison terms. An increasingly common tactic is to accuse human rights defenders under lawsuits that intend to burden them with lengthy court proceedings and costs to cover legal representations, until they abandon their criticism or opposition. These are called SLAPP lawsuits, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation

Most common violations 2018 (Excluding killings)

Most common violations 2018

Source: Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018

Escalation of attacks and killings

Civil society organisations are increasingly subjected to defamation and smear campaigns with the aim to undermine and delegitimise their work. Threats, physical attacks and killings are increasing at an alarming rate. In 2018, Front Line Defenders reported 321 killings of human rights defenders in 27 countries, which is nine more than reported the year before. Almost half of the defenders killed had previously received a specific direct threat. Colombia and Mexico alone accounted for 54 per cent of the total killings. However, the true number is much higher, many killings or attacks are never reported.

Particularly vulnerable groups are women, indigenous people, environmental activists, refugees and people defending labour rights or LGBTI rights (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual rights). In Tanzania, human rights defenders advocating for LGBTI rights have been facing high risks of arrest and physical assault following a violent anti-LGBTI campaign. According to Front Line Defenders, 77 per cent of those killed in 2018 were defending land, indigenous people or environmental rights. Women human rights defenders are targeted in ways different compared to men. For example, women are often subjected to sexualised smear campaigns, sexual assault and rape, including in police stations.

Groups involved in civic space incidents (2018)

Groups involved in civic space incidents
Missing media.

Source: Civicus, People power under attack, 2018

States are the most common violator. It is obvious that state authorities fear organised and mobilised civil society actors, that protest against human rights violations. The most common charges against human rights defenders include charges regarding public order and public assembly or gatherings. There are well documented links between attacks in pro-government media and defamation online and an escalation in physical attacks on individual human rights defenders.  A major problem is the widespread impunity. The perpetrators are seldom brought to justice.

Nijera Kori March Bangladesh
Groups from Nijera Kori on a march against fundamentalism. Photo: Maria Persson, Swallows India Bangladesh

Companies among the perpetrators

Human rights defenders are also facing threats or attacks by companies, either directly or in the context of their operations. According to Business & Human Rights Resource Center, there were over 1 200 attacks on defenders working on human rights issues related to business, including more than 400 killings, between 2015-2018. Attacks have increased particularly in relation to extraction of natural resources and conflicts around land. Agri-business, mining, renewables, extraction of oil and gas and logging are the most dangerous sectors for people defending their rights in relation to business.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders has highlighted the complicity of companies and business actors in various violations against human rights defenders and communities working to protect fundamental rights and freedoms. In many countries, companies have significant influence over states and can ensure that regulations and investment agreements are framed in a way that is beneficial to their business, often at the expense of human rights. There is often a lack of action by states in response to attacks on human rights defenders by business actors. This applies to both states where the violence occurs as well as the home states of businesses involved in the attacks. There are many examples where states tend to pursue cases brought forward by businesses against human rights defenders, but not act on cases put forward by defenders against businesses. In certain countries, companies have been complicit when states introduce legislations oppressing civic freedoms.

Most dangerous sectors for human rights defenders (attacks 2018)

Most dangerous sectors for human rights defenders (attacks 2018)

Source: Business & Human Rights Resource Center, 2019

Killings of human rights defenders in 2018*

Killings of human rights defenders in 2018

Case studies

Azerbaijan was downgraded from a repressed to a closed country in November 2018 on Civicus Monitor. Since the last 15 years, the authorities have in different ways tried to weaken and undermine independent civil society in the country and there has been a continuous decline in respect for fundamental rights. Threats, arrests and violence against human rights defenders and journalists often lead to imprisonment, exile or self-censorship. It is very difficult for NGOs to operate. Access to foreign funding is restricted through current legislation, criminal investigations have been launched of NGOs, their leaders have been arrested or affected by travel bans. 

Azerbaijan group of people
A rally in Guba on the genocide against Azerbaijanis. Photo: Sefer Ibrahim


Repressive tactics against media

The climate for media and free speech is repressive and the authorities have cracked down on independent media, including by blocking their websites, initiating tax evasion investigations and raiding their offices. In August 2018, a court ordered the blocking of four news websites for containing ‘defamatory statements’. In January 2019, thousands of people took to the streets and several Azerbaijani activists started a hunger strike to demand the release of the imprisoned journalist and anti-corruption blogger Mehman Huseynov. Huseynov is the Chairman of the Institute for Reporters Freedom and Safety, a human rights organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression and freedom of information. He was detained in 2017 and convicted to two years in prison for defamation. Two months before the end of his imprisonment, new charges of assaulting a prison officer were presented against him. Activists claim that the new charges were a fabrication by the authorities in order to extend Huseynov’s detention. The European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for his immediate and unconditional release and urging the authorities to drop all new charges against him. Following the protests and outrage, the Prosecutor-General's Office announced that it had dropped the new charges against Huseynov and he was released. A month later, travel restrictions were imposed on him and he was prevented from flying to Berlin.

In its resolution, the European Parliament called on Azerbaijan to fully guarantee freedom of the press and media, both in legislation and in practice, including online media. The Parliament also expressed concern over the situation of LGBTI people in the country and called on the government to stop obstructing and intimidating human rights defenders who promote and protect the rights of LGBTI people.

“Azerbaijan has a persistent record of using bogus charges to imprison government critics, routinely manipulating or fabricating evidence. The government should immediately free the many bloggers, political activists and other critics who are wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their legitimate activities.” Human Rights Watch

False charges and smear campaigns

The arbitrary and politically motivated arrests of persons who are working to defend human rights have increased. The human rights lawyer Emin Aslan was detained by plainclothes security officers while walking with his partner in central Baku in June 2018. Civil rights Defenders reported that all efforts to identify where Aslan was being held were unsuccessful. Later on, his lawyer was informed that Aslan was sentenced to 30 days administrative detention for ‘disobeying police’. But he was not allowed to meet with his attorney or family. Aslan has since many years worked to protect human rights in the country and he has litigated a number of cases of human rights abuses of Azerbaijani citizens at the European Court of Human Rights.

In December 2018 the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum reported that some government-oriented media had launched a slander and smear campaign against a number of civil society activists. According to the members of the platform, the campaign was intentionally designed to damage the dignity and the public image of the activists, representing another wave of pressure on civil society in the country.

The situation for people defending human rights in Bangladesh has become very hostile in recent years and deteriorated ahead of the national elections that took place on 30th December 2018. The authorities have used repressive laws to threaten human rights defenders and journalists, restrict the freedom of assembly and silence government critics and dissent. Critical voices have continued to be criminalized and the authorities have initiated intensive surveillance and monitoring of social media. The government has increasingly limited the right to freedom of expression and the space for Bangladeshi civil society to operate. Opposition members were arrested and intimidated by Bangladeshi security forces in the run up to the elections, according to Human Rights Watch. The government blocked 54 news websites ahead of the elections, with the intended aim to prevent the spread of “rumours”. The present prime minister won an alleged landslide victory in the elections, but the opposition rejected the results and there were widespread reports about rigging and violence, which led to at least 19 people being killed.

Nijera Kori - Right to information day. Photo: Maria Persson, Swallows India Bangladesh
Women groups from Nijera Kori marching on Right to information Day. Photo: Maria Persson, Swallows India Bangladesh

Criticised digital communication law

In September 2018, the Digital Security Act was adopted, despite strong opposition from journalists and human rights organisations, who claimed that the law will pose threats to freedom of expression and media. The Digital Security Act is intended to replace certain sections of the much-criticised Information and Communication Technology Act, which has restricted freedom of expression in Bangladesh since 2013. Section 57 of the ICT Act has frequently been used to bring charges against journalists, activists and other dissenting voices. Punishment could be imprisonment of up to 14 years and fines of up to 118,000 USD. The Digital Security Act incorporates Section 57 and contains other provisions criminalising different types of speech in a broad and vague manner.

Human rights groups victims of smear campaigns

Smear campaigns have become a tactic used to harass and intimidate critical voices. A smear campaign was initiated by pro-government media against the human rights group Odhikar. Founded in 1994, Odhikar is one of the leading human rights organisations in Bangladesh. The organisation was accused of being involved in various “anti-state activities” and “tarnishing the country’s image by providing wrong information to the international community”. Odhikar has denied the accusations, which they say are completely false and fabricated. The Bangladeshi Election Commission suddenly cancelled Odhikar’s registration as an election observer, since they had been notified by the state-run NGO Affairs Bureau that the organisation’s registration had expired. Since 2014, the NGO Affairs Bureau has subjected Odhikar to bureaucratic delays and been withholding the renewal of its mandatory registration. Odhikar is currently unable to receive foreign funding.

“This damaging smear campaign to discredit the work of an organisation committed to upholding human rights is extremely alarming for civil society and civic freedoms in Bangladesh.” CIVICUS about the smear campaign against Odhikar

The government has regularly banned gatherings of more than five people. On other occasions, the government attempted to prevent rallies and civil society gatherings by arresting the activists. Human rights groups have accused the police of use of excessive force at public protests. Activists and protesters have repeatedly been injured and sometimes killed in clashes with the police. Media workers and journalists are particularly targeted and several journalists have been arrested, among them the well-known photojournalist Shahidul Islam, who was detained in August 2018 under the ICT Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. He was released on bail in November, after having spent 107 days in jail.

European Parliament condemns the violence

In November 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in Bangladesh. The resolution calls on the Bangladeshi authorities to conduct independent investigations into reports of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and excessive use of force, and to bring those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards. It condemns “the arrests and violence against people who exercised their freedom of expression to criticise the government” and “deeply regrets the Government’s decision to enact the Digital Security Act which expands and reinforces the powers of the police to crackdown on free speech, including on social media, ahead of national elections in 2018". The European Parliament calls on the Bangladeshi authorities to “urgently revise the Information and Communication Technology Act and bring it in conformity with the international conventions on human rights to which Bangladesh is a party”.

“This damaging smear campaign to discredit the work of an organisation committed to upholding human rights is extremely alarming for civil society and civic freedoms in Bangladesh.

CIVICUS, about the smear campaign against the human rights organization Odhikar

Protests have increased in the Anglophone areas in the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon since 2016. It sparked off with lawyers, students, teachers and civil society groups engaging in strikes and protests to oppose what they perceived as the marginalisation of the Anglophone minority. Severe repression, arrests and prosecution of protest leaders followed. During 2018, a conflict between government forces and armed separatists has escalated, where human rights violations and killings have been committed by both sides. Villages have been burnt and looted and over 400 local people, 170 security officers and a number of armed separatists have been killed according to the International Crisis Group. Human Rights Watch reports that more than 20 000 people have fled the violence to Nigeria. Civil society organisations and human rights defenders have also been targeted. During times, the internet was shut down in the areas.

A market sight from Penja, a well known destination for fruits and vegetables. Photo: Bediong
A market sight from Penja, a well known destination for fruits and vegetables. Photo: Bediong
Missing media.

Anti-terror law used to silence critics

The country held presidential elections in October 2018, with the President Paul Biya trying to remain a seventh term after 36 years in power. The opposition claimed that the elections were full of irregularities. In the two weeks until the election results were announced, several violations of civic space took place, including the arrest of journalists, internet restrictions as well as the banning of protests and gatherings. For example, a press conference organised by three civil society organisations, among them the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (Redhac), was stopped by the police. President Paul Biya was eventually declared winner of the election.

An anti-terrorism law from 2014 has been widely used by the authorities to obstruct civil society activities and to silence human rights defenders. Defenders have been accused with false charges and lengthy or delayed judicial procedures. In 2017, Radio France International’s correspondent Ahmed Abba was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 84 000 euro under the law, after covering the activities of the terrorist group Boko Haram. Finally his jail sentence was reduced to two years.

Social leaders in detention

Authorities have also used restrictive legislation to curtail freedom of expression and assembly. In early 2017, the government arrested two civil society leaders, who are representatives of the Anglophone movement, Barrister Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla and Dr. Fontem Aforteka’a Neba. The government banned their organisation, which had been part of organising non-violent civil disobedience to protest conditions in schools and demanding the release of imprisoned students and teachers. They remained in detention for half a year until a presidential decree ordered the Military Tribunal of Yaoundé to drop all charges. Nkongho Felix Agbor-Balla is a human rights lawyer and also Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. He has consistently worked for the rights of citizens of the Anglophone regions in Cameroon.

Human rights defenders working on land rights and opposing land grabbing have been subjected to harassments, threats and attacks. Musa Usman Ndamba worked to defend the indigenous people Mbororo’s land rights, when he was sentenced to six months in prison for “defamation of character” against a wealthy landowner. He has faced a flagrant legal case with 60 hearings and seven years of continuous judicial harassment. After a month in prison, he was released on bail.

"The Observatory urges Cameroonian authorities to put an end to all forms of harassment against Mr. Ndamba and all human rights defenders so that they are able to carry out their legitimate and peaceful human rights activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.” The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, May 2018

Colombia is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental and human rights defenders given the high rate of violence. A wave of attacks towards environmental and human rights defenders, community and indigenous leaders has continued throughout 2018. The killings escalated and amounted to 126 at the end of the year, according to cases reported to Front Line Defenders. Colombia is by far the country with the highest number of human rights defenders killed in the world. A main reason for the escalating attacks is the conflict between exploitation of natural resources and local and indigenous people’s struggle to defend their land and environment. Illegal mining, illicit crops and drug trafficking are other reasons for the increased violence. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has called on the Colombian state to take urgent measures to protect human rights defenders in the country.

Peace demonstration Bogotá 2013
Peace demonstration Bogotá 2013, Photo: Rodrigo Arce

Threat to the peace agreement

The persistence of paramilitary structures, the criminalisation of peaceful protests, a high level of impunity and weak institutional capacity are among the structural problems that contribute to the dangerous environment for human rights defenders. Following the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), land is at the heart of many conflicts when displaced community members return to their former areas. The extraction of natural resources is intensifying as the country seeks to attract foreign companies and investors, further encroaching upon local and indigenous peoples’ land. The failure of the state to implement many of its obligations in the peace agreement, for example establishing a presence in the rural areas and implementing land restitution programs, has led to illegal armed groups trying to take control of areas previously controlled by rebel groups. IACHR has expressed its concern over the fact that many of the murdered defenders were working with implementation of the Peace Agreement.

“We want the international community to work hand in hand with us to fulfill the peace agreement in Colombia. The private sector must also be part of this process. We do not want more people murdered. We want to build peace in all the regions.”  Carmenza Gómez Ortega, Legal representative of ANZORC, partner to Forum Syd in Colombia

Human rights defenders are facing violence in different forms. Threats that put their lives or personal integrity at risk are common, and also often extended to families and relatives. Defenders are being detained or subjected to smear campaigns that involve hatred and threats on social media. Women human rights defenders are particularly vulnerable and they have often been victims of gender-based violence because of their activities as social leaders.

Deadly attacks

Active members of environmental organisations who are defending communities’ rights to a sustainable livelihood, land and a healthy environment have increasingly been subjected to violence and attacks.  By their work, they have posed threats to powerful businesses and commercial interests. In the first half year of 2018, two members of the environmental organisation Rios Vivos, Luis Alberto Torres Montoya and Hugo Albeiro George Pérez, were killed. Rios Vivos is working with communities who are protesting against the construction of the largest hydro-electric power plant in Colombia, Hidroituango. The local population has protested against the project since large areas will be put under water and unique eco-systems will be affected. Around 400 representatives from communities close to the project area were stopped by police from demonstrating against the construction of the dam. Due to their work, Rios Vivos has been subjected to over 150 attacks.

The situation for people who are defending the rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants is very difficult. In early 2018, Eleazar Tequia Bitucay, member of the indigenous organisation AsOrewa, was shot dead in Chocó. He was the third indigenous leader to be killed during one week. Another indigenous leader, Matilde Leonor López Arpushana from the organisation ONIC, survived an assassination attempt in her home. Matilde has been defending the rights of the indigenous people Wayuu in La Guajira and standing up against corruption in regional public institutions. Carlos Jimmy Prado Gallardo, an Afro-Colombian activist in Nariño, was assassinated in June 2018. He was a national delegate to the government program for consulting communities prior to development projects, in which he represented the Afro-Colombian community. Carlos Prado had earlier received threats and the National Protection Unit had provided him with a bulletproof vest and a telephone, but these were not enough to protect his life.

”Not only is being a leader a crime, but so is thinking differently, defending human rights, caring for the earth and water, reading different texts or planning something with people of the neighborhood; even having different dreams today is sufficient to constitute a crime.” Julián Andrés Gil Reyes, Secretary of Congreso de los Pueblos, from prison, June 2018

Guatemala has become very dangerous for people who are defending human rights, particularly indigenous peoples’ rights, protecting their land and the environment. Front Line Defenders reported that 26 human rights defenders were killed during 2018, which is more than twice as many as the year before. Over 330 acts of aggression against human rights defenders and 72 acts against indigenous and land rights activists were documented. Most of these cases were linked to extractive industries, corruption or illegal armed actors. Attacks are often not investigated properly and there is a widespread climate of impunity. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has expressed alarm over the increase in murders and aggressions against human rights defenders in the country. The commission called on the state to take urgent measures to protect those who are defending human rights and to fully investigate these crimes.

“The Commission wishes to remind the state of Guatemala that the work of human rights defenders is an essential part of building a solid, lasting, democratic society and they play a key role in achieving rule of law and strengthening democracy.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, October 2018

Guatemala people raising hands
Consultation among indigenous people in Conception Huista following ILO Convention 169. Photo: Asamblea Departamental de Huehuetenango

Human rights institutions attacked

The Guatemalan government has tried to restrict human rights institutions, for example the Ombudsman. In August 2018, President Jimmy Morales decided not to renew the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), an institution aimed at investigating corruption and impunity, sponsored by the UN. A month later, the Commissioner of CICIG, Iván Velásquez, was denied re-entry to the country. In December, the government ordered 11 members of the Commission to leave the country. These extraordinary moves met with heavy criticism internationally.

Long prison terms

Human rights defenders are increasingly sentenced to long prison terms. In November 2018, three women defenders, Aura Margarita Valenzuela, Mariela Alvarez Sucup and Maria Magdalena Zarat Cuzán, were sentenced to two and a half years in prison convicted of claiming land when they were protecting a group of families that were evicted from their settlement. Land rights defender Bernardo Caal was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison for “illegal detention”. Caal is an activist protecting the land rights of the indigenous Q’eqchi community and had previously been accused of other crimes under false charges.

Violence against indigenous people

During May and June 2018, seven indigenous leaders were killed in separate incidents. The victims were members of organisations that work with land rights and rural development for indigenous people. The organisations have protested against mining and hydroelectric projects in their areas, accusing powerful forces of pushing indigenous farmers off their lands. Both organisations had been subjected to criminalisation and smear campaigns before the killings. In early May, President Jimmy Morales had referred to one of them as a criminal organisation at a public gathering.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, expressed concerns over forced evictions and criminal prosecutions of indigenous people in Guatemala. At a visit to the country in May 2018, she stated that “the escalating incidence of forced evictions and the abuse of criminal proceedings against indigenous peoples who seek to defend their land was repeatedly raised as a key concern. I visited several indigenous leaders in prison who have been charged with criminal offences which appear to be inflated and who have been subjected to lengthy pre-trial detention. The root cause of the situation is land tenure insecurity. Guatemala has neither adopted legislation nor a mechanism for the adjudication of the rights of indigenous peoples to land, territories and natural resources. Many are left in a situation of total vulnerability in the face of competing interests and numerous projects that are carried out without consultations or the consent of the people concerned.”

“The criminalisation of indigenous leaders who seek specific and legal solutions to land disputes will only increase tensions in society. It is necessary that Guatemala identifies, confronts and starts to work towards the resolution of these structural problems.” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, May 2018

When Aung San Suu Kyi became State Counsellor in 2016 many people hoped that her government would move the country into an era of reforms, openness and democratisation. But instead, the democratic space, including freedom of speech and association, has been shrinking and violence against certain groups of the population have increased. Activists, journalists, film makers and lawyers have been arrested. There has been a crackdown on voices that are critical of the government, and an excessive use of force by the police is often reported.

Rohingya displaced Muslims
Rohingya displaced Muslims. Photo: Tasnim News Agency

Crimes against Rohingya

Serious crimes have been committed against the minority group Rohingya. Since August 2017, around 730,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, where they now find themselves in overcrowded camps. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar urged in early 2019 that the army chief should be prosecuted for "genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes”. A UN fact-finding report in August 2018 had found evidence of severe abuses of human rights in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states as well as serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Legislations used to silence critics

In 2018, the government increased its use of broad and vaguely worded laws to arrest and imprison activists, journalists and ordinary citizens for expressing perceived critical views of the government or the military. Prosecutions for criminal defamation has increased, particularly under section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act. A human rights defender was sentenced to three months in prison under the law for broadcasting a video of a satirical play about armed conflict on Facebook. The Privacy Law from 2017 is also being used to prosecute critics for criminal defamation.

In September 2018, two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who had reported on a military massacre of Rohingya in Rakhine state, were sentenced to seven years in prison under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. They were arrested the year before, in what witnesses described as a police setup, and subjected to mistreatment during interrogation. The case gained international attention and the journalists were released following a presidential amnesty after over 500 days in prison. The many arrests and prosecutions have had a severe chilling effect on journalists in the country.

The repressive laws that criminalise free speech and legitimate media reporting must be repealed. Critical reporting is essential in open societies, and more so in those undergoing transitions to democracy. - Paul Donowitz, Team Leader for Myanmar, Global Witness

 Activists have been arrested and prosecuted under the Penal Code and the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law for protests. In December 2018, three Kachin youth activists who led anti-war protests were each sentenced to six months in prison and each fined K500,000 (USD 326) for ‘defaming’ the Myanmar armed forces under Section 500 of the Penal Code.  By April 2019, there were 138 political prisoners in the country and another 198 facing trials outside the prisons.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy promised a new Myanmar, but the government still prosecutes peaceful speech and protests and has failed to revise old oppressive laws. - Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor, Human Rights Watch

The respect for fundamental freedoms declined dramatically in Nicaragua during 2018 when the country’s unprecedented largest protest movement was met with excessive violence and brutal force by the authorities. In April 2018, extensive protests began against proposed social security reforms and the lowering of workers’ pensions. Over 300 individuals were killed following the crackdowns, more than 600 protesters are in detention and many have disappeared. More than 2,000 individuals were injured, among them several journalists. Independent television channels were blocked during the protests, for example the TV channel 100% Noticias, which was replaced with a government-owned channel. This move was denounced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and their Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. According to Front Line Defenders, around 40,000 Nicaraguans have fled to Costa Rica. Public hospitals denied access to people injured in the protests and many doctors and nurses were fired from the public sector after having treated wounded protesters. 

"Being a journalist in Nicaragua today is a matter of life and death. We didn’t have to do investigative journalism, just run the high risk of reporting what was happening in front of our eyes." Miguel Mora, Director of the TV channel 100% Noticias

Nicaraguans protesting against the Nicaraguan Canal
Nicaraguans protesting against the Nicaraguan Canal. Photo: MRS Movimiento Renovador Sandinista

Abuse of international law

According to Amnesty International, the Nicaraguan government used armed individuals or pro-government armed groups that acted in collusion with state officials, particularly the National Police, during the protests. Protesters were intentionally killed and many of the killings could be considered extrajudicial executions. Amnesty International has accused the Nicaraguan government’s response to the protests of being fundamentally unlawful, having involved serious human rights violations and even crimes under international law. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also condemned the violations and documented the abuses of international human rights law, such as the disproportionate use of force by police, sometimes resulting in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, widespread arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment. The report also documented violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as of peaceful assembly. Following the report, UN staff was reportedly being expelled from Nicaragua.

Farm leaders arrested

There has been a systematic erosion of human rights in Nicaragua over the years, which erupted in the violence and repression following the demonstrations in early 2018. Journalists and political commentators have received death threats. The attacks and harassment against women activists have also increased. Leaders of the farmers’ movement as well as environmental and land rights defenders have been particularly targeted.

In July 2018, Medardo Mairena, Coordinator of the National Council in Defense of Land, Lakes and Sovereignty, and farm leader Pedro Mena were arrested at the airport when they were about to fly to the US to participate in a solidarity event with Nicaragua. Medardo Mairena has been working to defend land rights and more recently, he has participated in the National Dialogue in Nicaragua on the current political crisis. In December, they were found guilty of a series of crimes and face up to 73 years in prison on false charges of terrorism, organised crime, kidnapping, robbery and murder. The trial allegedly included irregularities, for example the manipulation by the prosecution of evidence and witnesses. According to Front Line Defenders, the conviction is an example of the widespread criminalisation of human rights defenders in the country.

In July 2018, Nicaragua introduced an anti-terror legislation, which has vague wordings and is widening the definition of terrorism. For example, damaging property can now be seen as terrorism. By the end of the year, the government cancelled the legal registration of nine leading human rights organisations accused of “financing of terrorism”, based on the new legislation.

"We are in a maximum security jail, where the cells are in bad conditions, there is no electricity, rest rooms are damaged, windows are closed. It is like being baked in an oven and we are isolated from everyone else.” Medardo Mairena, in a letter to media from the detention.

The Philippines has become one of the world’s most dangerous countries for human rights defenders and environmental activists. According to Freedom House, President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has since 2016 led to more than 12 000 extrajudicial killings. During his regime, over 60 environmental defenders have been killed and in 70 per cent of these cases there are links to mining. President Duterte’s public threats against activists who oppose his policies and his hostile rhetoric towards media have created a situation of fear and insecurity in the country.

philippines HRDs 2018
Jimmy Saypan, a Lumad peasant leader brutally assassinated in 2016. Photo: Center for Environmental Concerns

Indigenous people targeted

Leaders and activists among indigenous peoples have been particularly targeted. Indigenous and environmental activist Ricardo Mayumi was shot dead in March 2018 in his home in Ifugao Province in the northern part of the country. He was one of the leaders of the Ifugao Peasant Movement and had opposed a hydroelectric dam project. The indigenous people Lumads on Mindanao have been severely threatened, since they live on lands rich in natural resources and with some of the last remaining uncut forests. These lands have now attracted large scale mining and logging projects. Jimmy Saypan, a Lumad peasant leader, was brutally assassinated in October 2016 by suspected military groups. He was one of the leaders of the Compostela Farmers Association, which led protests against the Agusan Petroleum and Minerals Corporation.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a Philippine national, has been accused of terrorism in a government court petition, listing her name along with many indigenous leaders, activists and their legal representatives. UN human rights experts have expressed grave concerns and pointed out that the accusation comes following public comments made by her in connection to the militarisation, attacks and killings of indigenous peoples of the Lumad community carried out by members of the armed forces.

"We are shocked that the Special Rapporteur Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is being targeted because of her work defending the rights of indigenous peoples." Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Land rights – a deadly struggle

Defending land rights is a major reason for violence and attacks towards communities. In October 2018, nine sugar farmers were killed at a sugar plantation on Negros. The workers had joined the first day of a “land occupation” protest on part of the sugar cane plantation. A month later, the lawyer, Benjamin Ramos, who had been providing free legal assistance to the families of the assassinated farm workers, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. He was a founding member of the National Union of People’s Lawyers and a well-known advocate for peasants’ rights. Ramos was the 34th lawyer killed under Duterte’s regime. A major problem is the widespread impunity and the lack of independent investigations into the killings.

In November 2018, the Philippine authorities stated that they had evidence to prosecute the news site Rappler and its founder Maria Ressa for tax evasion and failure to file tax returns. Rappler, which has been an outspoken critic of Duterte’s regime, particularly of its ‘war on drugs’, has denied the accusation. In February 2019, Maria Ressa was arrested on an alleged violation of the Philippines' cybercrime law for an article that Rappler published back in 2012. She was released on bail after one day. A month later, she was again arrested when she had just got off a plane from San Francisco.

“The Philippines is the second deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders. We have recorded 66 killings in the 2,5 years that Rodrigo Duterte has been President. The situation is very dangerous for local people who are defending their environment against large scale mining.” Frances Quimpo, Center for Environmental Concerns, The Philippines

The environment for human rights defenders, journalists and civil society organisations in Tanzania has become more hostile in recent years. Human rights defenders advocating for LGBTI rights in the country have been facing high risks of arrest, physical assault and sexual violence in detention following a violent anti-LGBTI campaign initiated by Dar es Salaam’s regional commissioner in October 2018. A surveillance task force to identify and arrest members of the LGBTI community was created. The Tanzanian government did not condemn the campaign. Homosexual acts are illegal in Tanzania, with punishment of up to 30 years in prison. The government has waged defamation campaigns that have served to legitimise the violence and cause splits between LGBTI communities and allied lawyers, medics and mainstream civil society organisations.

Tanzania protests
Demonstration on May 1st in Mwanza. Photo: Rodrigo Arce

Restrictive online media law

A new law that seeks to regulate content published online (The Electronic and Postal Communications Regulation), which is impacting on bloggers, radio and TV stations streaming online as well as other online platforms, came into force in March 2018. Media outlets, bloggers and online platforms are now required to apply for a license before publishing content and must also pay an annual fee of up to 900 USD. Failing to comply with the new regulation could lead to criminal prosecution, including a fine of five million Tanzanian shillings (around 2 180 USD) and a one-year prison sentence. According to the Tanzanian government, the law is intended to put a stop to the "moral decadence" caused by social media and the internet. The government also claims that social media is a threat to Tanzania's national security. In June 2018, the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority ordered all unregistered blogs and online forums to suspend their websites' functionality and banned them from publishing new online content without the required licenses.

Protesters have been subjected to violence and arrested during demonstrations. Excessive use of force by security forces against protestors has been reported. A protest against Tanzania's growing number of restrictions on freedom of expression and the media was organised for the Union Day in April, but it was prevented by threats, intimidation and the deployment of security forces. Authorities banned the protest and the chief of police threatened the people planning to protest that they "will seriously suffer ... they will be beaten like stray dogs".

In 2017, the Tanzanian government suspended several newspapers and five TV stations were fined between 7.5-15 million Tanzanian shillings (3 330-6 660 USD) for broadcasting “offensive and unethical” content. A particular reason was that the TV stations had broadcasted a press statement by the Legal Human Rights Centre about major human rights violations during the elections of councillors.

Civil society condemns violations of human rights

In February 2018, 112 Tanzanian civil society organisations issued a statement, where they called on the government to put an end to human rights violations in the country. They denounced the "violation of human rights, insecurity of the nation, curtailment of freedom of expression, limitation on media freedom, CSOs shrinking space, non-observation of rule of law in decision making processes, curtailment of democracy as well as different elections which are unfair and have a lot of aftermath on citizens’ lives”. They also condemned the “armed attacks, atrocious killings, injuries, enforced disappearance, brutality, arrests, malicious prosecutions targeting human rights defenders, journalists, politicians and even normal civilians of this nation".

”We are seriously concerned by the current situation of human rights violations, rule of law and the security of citizens in Tanzania. CSOs are independent and autonomous entities established by different laws of Tanzania.” 112 Tanzanian CSOs in a petition February 2018


The work by human rights defenders, civil society organisations, community leaders, lawyers and journalists continue across the world despite restrictions and threats of violence. The activists are not giving up their struggle to restore the democratic space. National governments, the EU, the UN, businesses, donors and civil society actors need to step up their work to address this issue. The critical and legitimate role that civil society, including human rights defenders, plays to safeguard human rights and promote democracy must be recognised by countries all over the world.

Recommendations to states

  • Publicly recognise the legitimacy of human rights defenders and their work, and ensure a safe and enabling environment for civil society and human rights defenders.
  • Adopt legislation that protects human rights defenders and ensures an effective implementation of the UN Declaration on human rights defenders.
  • Without delay investigate and address attacks and threats against civil society representatives, including human rights defenders, and bring the responsible actors to justice. Ensure that the perpetrators do not have impunity.
  • Recognise the particular challenges and risks that women human rights defenders face and ensure that they receive the specific protection that they need against gender-based and sexual threats and violence.

Recommendations to the EU

  • Ensure that the EU’s policies and development cooperation is contributing to democratic societies where civil society actors, including human rights defenders, can act and work freely.
  • Allocate means in the next Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-27 to addressing shrinking democratic space and promoting civic freedoms.
  • Take an active role in promoting a democratic development, respect for human rights and the rule of law in countries where democracy and civic freedoms have been declining, outside as well as within the EU.
  • Strengthen the work of EU delegations on the democratic space for civil society and build up systems for proper risk analysis to be able to discover threats towards a democratic space at an early stage.
  • Introduce a binding legislation on the EU level that requires businesses to conduct Human Rights Due Diligence, to ensure that companies respect human rights in all their operations.

Recommendations to the Swedish government

  • Ensure that Swedish development cooperation counters the root causes for the shrinking democratic space for civil society and strengthens democratic processes.
  • Ensure that Swedish development cooperation can support new strategies and innovative ways among civil society to be able to work in a hostile environment, and adapt aid modalities to current realities.
  • Ensure that Swedish embassies have knowledge and updated information about the situation for human rights defenders and human rights risks in the countries, and that they view civil society actors as valubale resources for information about the situation on the ground.
  • Enable Swedish embassies to facilitate and create spaces for dialogue between companies, investors, representatives from authorities, affected communities and human rights defenders.
  • Adopt a national binding legislation that requires businesses to conduct Human Rights Due Diligence, to ensure that companies respect human rights in all their operations.