Tom Esslemont - Western governments are stepping up efforts to suppress campaign groups - a trend already seen in the developing world - fearful of their growing influence and ability to mobilise through social media , the head of a civil society group said on Monday.

“Restrictions on free speech are no longer just something that happens in banana republics around the world; this is a universal challenge of the 21st century,” said Danny Sriskandarajah, head of the global alliance CIVICUS.

From Latin America and Africa to the Middle East and Asia, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have seen their offices raided, bank accounts frozen and activists arrested in what they say is a crackdown by governments edgy about their activities.

Now mature democracies, while espousing freedom of speech, are taking their own steps to rein in non-profit groups, said Sriskandarajah on the sidelines of a conference in London.

“There is an aggressive wave, in which governments all over the world, even in mature democracies like India or Israel, tend to undermine the work of civil society, particularly those organisations that dare to speak to truth to power,” he said.

Earlier this month, a number of charities wrote to British Prime Minister David Cameron urging him to reconsider proposed changes to legislation which would bar charities from spending British government grants on lobbying activities.

In a 2014 report, CIVICUS, a global network of civil society groups, said Britain was one of 96 countries where there were serious violations to freedom of expression, association and assembly of non-profit groups.

The countries listed also included the United States, Spain, Canada, Russia, a swathe of African countries and most of Asia. Sriskandarajah said the crackdown reflected concerns about how ordinary citizens were mobilising and organising themselves, including through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. “It is not as easy as it once was for a government to have oversight of what is going on in civic space as people come together in new and more effective ways,” he said.


In the developing world, a surge in funding for NGOs from foreign donors - and a shift in focus for many non-profit groups - has made governments nervous.

Civil society groups received $17.7 billion from developed nations in 2013, up from $2.7 billion in 2004, according to humanitarian data researcher Development Initiatives.

Alongside this, they have shifted from traditional work in basic service provision to advocacy and campaigning, mobilising public support through social media on issues ranging from corruption and conservation to religious and gender rights.

This has prompted governments to impose various restrictions including tougher financial reporting rules and stemming funding through counter-terrorism laws, campaigners say.

Last week the Thomson Reuters Foundation revealed Western anti-terror laws were forcing aid agencies in Syria to avoid communities controlled by extremist groups, making it harder to deliver vital supplies. More than 60 governments have restricted the way NGOs receive or use overseas funds, by labelling them “foreign agents” or accusing them of financial misconduct, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL).

These included Russia, China, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Uganda, Israel, Ethiopia, Angola, Honduras, Venezuela and Egypt among others.

In Cambodia, security forces last year prevented hundreds of activists from protesting against a proposed law which required them to report their activities. NGOs said it was a move to silence criticism.

In October, Pakistan ordered all international aid agencies to renew their registration with the government within 60 days, amid a crackdown on charity workers whom authorities accused of breaking unspecified laws.

Greenpeace’s India was labelled “anti-national” by the government for its campaigns against coal mining, genetically modified crops and nuclear power. It said its foreign workers had been deported and Indian staff barred from overseas travel.


“Threats to freedoms and civil liberties (are) happening all over the world,” said Aya Chebbi, a Tunisian activist, speaking on Monday at a conference in London, organised by Bond, an umbrella group of British relief and development charities.

As a blogger she played a prominent role in Tunisia’s anti-government uprising of early 2011. In the five years since, Tunisia has been hailed as a model of democratic transition with free elections and a new constitution.

But last month saw an explosion of social tensions among youth over jobs and opportunities. “We have reached a time where someone can be jailed for his or her Facebook status,” Chebbi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While civil society was being challenged, however, there were also opportunities: “Like never before we have civil society in Tunisia today that is organised (through) watchdogs, media collectives, community projects and so forth,” Chebbi said.