Venezuela’s Opportunity for Democracy

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


Credit: Jimmy Villalta/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Jun 10 2024 (IPS) – Venezuela’s 28 July presidential election could offer a genuine chance of democratic transition. Despite an array of challenges, the opposition is coming into the campaign unified behind a single candidate. Many Venezuelans seem prepared to believe that voting could deliver change.

But the authoritarian government is digging in its heels. The opposition reasonably fears the election could be suspended or the government could suppress the opposition vote. Large-scale fraud can’t be ruled out.

All credible opinion polls show that authoritarian president Nicolás Maduro, in power since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013 and seeking a third term in office, is highly unpopular. But his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) extensively controls the state apparatus. Electoral authorities aren’t neutral and the election system is riddled with irregularities. A recent decision by the government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) excluded from voting over five million Venezuelans who’ve emigrated.

If the opposition defeats the PSUV at the polls, the government will only accept the results if the costs of repression outweigh the costs of withdrawal. This means some form of exit guarantees will need to be agreed. An agreement to coexist would also be needed for a transition period that could last several years, during which PSUV supporters would continue to hold important positions and the party would need to be given the chance to reinvent itself as a participant in democratic processes.

Civil society in resistance mode

Venezuelan civil society has long played a key role in promoting democracy and defending human rights. But civic space has increasingly been shut down, with activists and journalists routinely subjected to threats, harassment, intimidation, raids, arrests, detention and prosecution by courts lacking any independence.

Many civil society organisations (CSOs) and media outlets have closed and others self-censor or have changed their focus to avoid reprisals. Numerous journalists, academics and activists have joined the exodus to other countries.

The government give repression legal cover through a barrage of laws and regulations, supposedly on grounds such as the defence of sovereignty and the fight against terrorism. Many of these, starting with the 2010 National Sovereignty and Self-Determination Law, sought to restrict access to funding to financially suffocate civil society.

In 2017, the state introduced the Constitutional Law Against Hatred, for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence, known as the Anti-Hate Law, imposing heavy punishments, including lengthy jail sentences, for inciting hatred or violence through electronic means, including social media. The law leaves the definition of what constitutes hate speech to the government-aligned courts.

In 2021, the government passed an International Cooperation Act that includes a mandatory register of CSOs and an obligation to provide sensitive information.

The government has doubled down ahead of the election. In January, the National Assembly approved the first reading of a draft law known as the Anti-NGO Law, which would prohibit CSOs from engaging in vaguely defined ‘political activities’. The National Assembly is also currently discussing a law against fascism, aimed at banning and criminalising ideas, expressions and activities it deems to be ‘fascist’.

A united opposition

Over the years, the opposition has found it hard to present a unified front and a credible alternative. But this has changed in the run-up to the 2024 election, with the opposition agreeing to select a single presidential candidate.

María Corina Machado emerged as a consensus candidate with over 90 per cent of the vote at the October 2023 primary election. More than two million people were said to have taken part, defying threats from the authorities, censorship and physical attacks on candidates.

In an attempt to regain the initiative, the government sought to stir up nationalist sentiment by activating its dispute over Essequibo Guiana, a large territory in Guyana claimed by Venezuela. In December 2023 it held and predictably won a consultative referendum on the issue.

A week after the opposition primary, the Supreme Court suspended the process and results. In December, Machado filed a Supreme Court writ, but instead the court ratified her disqualification. So on 22 March, three days before the deadline for candidate registration, she announced 80-year-old academic Corina Yoris-Villasana as her replacement.

The government couldn’t find any excuse to disqualify Yoris, so instead it blocked the registration website. Right up to the deadline, the automated system had selective technical issues that affected opposition candidates.

Following an international press conference in which Machado denounced the manoeuvre, support came from two unlikely allies, the leftist governments of Brazil and Colombia. The CNE eventually authorised a 12-hour extension to register its candidates.

As a result of further negotiations in April, all registered opposition candidates withdrew apart from one. The compromise candidate was former diplomat Edmundo González Urrutia, a moderate few could object to.

International community’s role

Some countries, notably European Union (EU) members and the USA, have supported the Venezuelan opposition and urged the government to respect human rights and hold free and fair elections.

Anything the USA does is open to the accusation of imperialist interference, but the EU has been able to supply a credible set of proposals on how to hold fair elections. Recommendations of its report following 2021 regional and municipal elections included strengthening the separation of powers, abolishing disqualifications, holding a public voter education campaign, allowing balanced media coverage, repealing the Anti-Hate Law and ensuring enough properly trained and accredited polling station officials are available on election day.

However, the EU’s role in the upcoming election remains in doubt. After the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Machado’s disqualification, the National Assembly leader said the EU wouldn’t be allowed to do election observation.

A key step in the right direction was taken in October 2023, just ahead of the primary, when government and opposition representatives met in Barbados and signed an agreement on the right of political organisations to choose their presidential candidates, an electoral timetable and a set of procedural guarantees.

The day after the signing of the Barbados Agreement, the US government eased its oil and gas sanctions but warned it would reinstate them if the government didn’t honour its commitments; in April 2023, it brought them back. The Venezuelan government immediately breached the agreement’s first point, as it initiated legal proceedings against the opposition primary.

Upon the signing of the agreement, the US Secretary of State also said that political prisoners were expected to be released by November. Five were immediately freed, but many more remain behind bars. Their release is a key opposition demand ahead of the election.

Two months before the big day, everything hangs in the balance. The unofficial campaign is well underway. Machado and González are touring the country, promising orderly and peaceful change. The government has launched an aggressive smear and disinformation campaign against González. Relentless harassment follows Machado wherever she goes. Local activists are routinely arrested following opposition rallies in their area.

There are surely many more twists and turns ahead. The Venezuelan government is used to ignoring international criticism, but it’s harder when calls to respect the democratic process come from leftist Latin American leaders. They can play a key role in urging Venezuela to let genuine elections happen and accept the results. The logic of democracy is that sooner or later Maduro will have to go. It would be wise for him to start negotiating the how.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


India’s Election: Cracks Start to Show in Authoritarian Rule

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, Religion, TerraViva United Nations


Credit: Himanshu Sharma/picture alliance via Getty Images

LONDON, Jun 7 2024 (IPS) – India’s Hindu nationalist strongman Narendra Modi has won his third prime ministerial term. But the result of the country’s April-to-June election fell short of the sweeping triumph that seemed within his grasp.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has shed seats compared to the 2019 election, losing its parliamentary majority. Modi remains prime minister thanks to coalition partners. It’s a long way from the 400-seat supermajority Modi proclaimed he wanted – which would have given him power to rewrite the constitution.

The outcome may be that Modi faces more checks on his power. If so, that can only be good news for those he’s consistently attacked – including civil society and India’s Muslim minority.

Modi’s crackdown

Under Modi, in power since 2014, civic space conditions have deteriorated. India’s election was accompanied by the usual headlines about the country being the world’s largest democracy. But India’s democracy has long been underpinned by an active, vibrant and diverse civil society. Modi has sought to constrain this civic energy, seeing it as a hindrance to his highly centralised and personalised rule.

Modi’s government has repeatedly used repressive laws, including the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, to harass, intimidate and detain activists and journalists on fabricated charges. Law enforcement agencies have raided numerous civil society organisations and media companies. In October 2023, for example, police raided the homes of around 40 staff members of the NewsClick portal and detained its editor.

This was one of many attacks on media freedoms. Independent journalists routinely face harassment, intimidation, threats, violence, arrests and prosecution. Last year, the government banned a BBC documentary on Modi, followed by tax investigation raids on the corporation’s Indian offices.

The authorities have also used the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to block access to international funding for civil society organisations, targeting those critical of their attacks on human rights. In 2020, the government amended the law to make it even stricter, extending powers to freeze bank accounts. Since the start of 2022, the authorities have cancelled registrations of almost 6,000 organisations.

The authorities have also unleashed violence against protesters. In 2019, citizenship legislation created a way for undocumented migrants to become Indian citizens – but only if they weren’t Muslim. Despite India’s secular constitution, the law introduced religious criteria into the determination of citizenship. The passage of this discriminatory law brought tens of thousands to the streets. Security forces responded with beatings, teargas and arrests, accompanied by internet shutdowns.

It was the same when farmers protested in 2020 and 2021, believing new farming laws would undermine their ability to make a living. The farmers ultimately triumphed, with Modi repealing the unpopular laws. But several farmers died as a result of the authorities’ heavy-handed response, including when a minister’s car ploughed into a crowd of protesters. Once again, the authorities shut down internet and mobile services, and police used batons and teargas and arrested many protesters.

As the new citizenship law made clear, those who have least access to rights are the ones most under attack. Muslims are the BJP’s favourite target, since it seeks to recast the country as an explicitly Hindu nation. The party’s politicians have consistently stoked anti-Muslim hatred, including over the wearing of hijabs, interfaith marriage and the protection of cows – a revered animal in Hinduism.

Modi has been accused of spreading anti-Muslim hate speech and conspiracy theories, including on the campaign trail. During the election, he called Muslims ‘infiltrators’ and alluded to India’s version of a narrative often advanced by far-right parties – that a minority population is out to replace the majority through a higher birthrate and the conversion of partners.

The BJP’s populist rhetoric has encouraged hatred and violence. In 2020, Delhi saw its worst riots in decades, sparked by violence at a protest against the citizenship law. Groups of Hindus and Muslims fought each other and 53 people were killed, most of them Muslims.

Top-down institutional violence followed the unilateral revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomous status in 2019. The removal of constitutional protections for this Muslim-majority region was accompanied by a military occupation, curfew, public meeting ban, movement restrictions and one of the world’s longest-ever internet shutdowns. Indian government authorities have detained thousands of Kashmiri activists and criminalised countless journalists.

Disinformation thrives

Ahead of the election, the state detained key opposition politicians such as Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and froze opposition bank accounts, including of the main opposition party, Congress. Almost all politicians investigated by the government’s Enforcement Directorate are from the opposition.

Indian elections always take several weeks, given the huge logistical challenge of allowing up to 969 million people to vote. But this one, spread over 82 days, was unusually long. This allowed Modi to travel the country and make as many appearances as possible, representing a campaign that put his personality front and centre.

Disinformation was rife in the campaign. BJP politicians spread claims that Muslims were engaged in what they called a ‘vote jihad’ against Hindus, accompanied by accusations that the opposition would favour Muslims. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was a particular target, with false allegations of links to China and Pakistan and doctored videos in circulation.

But despite the many challenges, the opposition coalition performed better than expected. The result suggests at least some are tired of the Modi personality cult and politics of polarisation. And for all the BJP’s attempts to emphasise economic success, many voters don’t feel better off. What matters to them are rising prices and unemployment, and they judged the incumbent accordingly.

It’s to be hoped the result leads to a change in style, with less divisive rhetoric and more emphasis on compromise and consensus building. That may be a tall order, but the opposition might now be better able to play its proper accountability role. Modi has lost his sheen of invincibility. For civil society, this could open up opportunities to push back and urge the government to stop its onslaught.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


Slovakia PM Assassination Attempt Sparks Journalists’ Safety Fears

Editors’ Choice, Europe, Featured, Freedom of Expression, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations

Freedom of Expression

Camera crews wait outside the Slovak parliament building in Bratislava days after the attempted assassination of PM Robert Fico. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

Camera crews wait outside the Slovak parliament building in Bratislava days after the attempted assassination of PM Robert Fico. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

BRATISLAVA, May 24 2024 (IPS) – Fears for the safety of journalists in Slovakia are growing in the wake of an assassination attempt on the country’s prime minister, which some politicians are blaming in part on local independent media.

Relations between some media and members of the governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party, have become increasingly tense since the government came to power in October last year.

And immediately after Fico was shot and seriously injured on May 15, as he greeted members of the public after a government meeting, senior members of coalition parties linked the attack to critical coverage of Fico and accused outlets of spreading hate against him.

The 71-year-old man who shot the prime minister is thought to have had a political motive for his attack.

Since then, there have been calls from some other politicians and heads of media organizations to stop trying to apportion blame for the attack on any group so as to defuse tensions in society.

But senior figures from governing coalition parties have continued to attack the media for what they see as their role in fomenting anger towards the government and provoking the tragedy.

Journalists in Slovakia, and press freedom watchdogs, worry this is increasing the risk reporters could also become targets of a violent attack.

“Journalists are in no way responsible for this, and blaming them is only fueling the fires and increasing the likelihood of another violent incident,” Oliver Money-Kyrle, Head of European Advocacy and Programmes at the International Press Institute (IPI), told IPS.

For many years, Fico and his Smer party, who have been in power for much of the last 18 years in Slovakia, have publicly attacked individual media, and specific journalists in some cases, for their critical reporting of the various governments he has led.

When Jan Kuciak, a reporter investigating alleged corruption by people close to Fico’s government, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were murdered in 2018, critics said Fico’s rhetoric towards journalists had contributed to creating an atmosphere in society in which those behind the killings believed they could act with impunity.

Fico was forced to step down as PM not long after the murders, following massive public protests against his government.

But since returning to power, he and other members of the ruling coalition have repeatedly attacked journalists they see as critical of the government and his party has refused to communicate with certain newspapers and broadcasters.

The government has also pushed through legislation that media freedom organizations and members of the European Commission have warned could severely restrict independent media and press freedom.

Some journalists at major news outlets have been regularly receiving death threats and facing horrific online harassment for years, but others have said they have become increasingly worried for their safety in recent months, and that those concerns have been exacerbated now in the wake of Fico’s shooting.

Many believe that years of aggressive, derogatory rhetoric against them has made them a target for hate among some parts of a society with widespread distrust of media—a recent survey showed only 37 percent of Slovaks trust the media.

Since the assassination attempt, some newsrooms have taken extra security measures and the government has said it will also be providing extra protection for groups which could be facing an elevated safety risk, including media.

While this has been welcomed by media rights organizations, they have said politicians must take the lead in reducing tensions in society and lessening immediate safety risks for journalists.

“The way to de-escalate the situation is that political hate speech against media must stop,” Pavol Szalai, head of the EU/Balkans desk at RSF at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told IPS.

In the immediate hours after the shooting, some ministers appeared to be pushing to calm the situation.  At a press conference, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok appealed “to the public, to journalists, and to all politicians to stop spreading hatred”.

Meanwhile, dozens of editors from print and broadcast media issued a joint statement publicly condemning the attack on the prime minister and calling for politicians and media to come together to calm tensions.

However, even days after the shooting, senior government figures continued to attack specific media or play down the seriousness  of comments made by colleagues just after the shooting, including  labelling media as “disgusting pigs”.

The Slovak government did not respond to questions on journalists’ safety from IPS.

But beyond putting journalists at increased risk, it is feared that the assassination attempt may also worsen what research has shown is significantly worsening media freedom in the country.

The government recently approved legislation – which is expected to be passed in parliament within weeks that will see the country’s public broadcaster, RTVS, completely overhauled and, critics say, effectively under control of the government.

Ominously, the leader of the governing coalition Slovak National Party (SNS), Andrej Danko, warned after Fico was shot that there would “be changes to the media” now.

And on May 19, speaking on the TA3 private news channel, he said he was planning to propose legislation that would set new regulations governing journalistic ethics, relations between journalists and politicians, and what politicians would be obliged to “put up with” from journalists.

Beata Balogova, Editor in Chief of the Sme daily newspaper, one of the news outlets in the country regularly criticized by government politicians, told international media that the government could now introduce “brutal measures against the media.”

Local journalists say any repressive measures would make an already difficult job even harder.

“I haven’t thought about how things could get more difficult for us to do our work in the future because it’s already very hard. It’s so difficult to gather news with political parties refusing to speak to us. [More restrictions] certainly wouldn’t make things easier,” Michaela Terenzani, an editor at Sme, told IPS.

She added, though, that it was difficult to predict what would happen in the coming days and weeks.

“At the moment, we are all just getting over the shock and trying to get on with our work as best we can. This is a major moment in Slovakia’s history and we will have to see what happens with relations between the media and politicians. Everyone is calling for calm, and I hope that is what we get,” she said.

IPS UN Bureau Report


North Macedonia Turns Back the Clock

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Economy & Trade, Europe, Featured, Headlines, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


Credit: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, May 23 2024 (IPS) – The old guard is back in North Macedonia, as the former ruling party – the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) – returns to parliamentary and presidential power.

Long the country’s dominant political force, the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE had been out of power since 2016. But this month, the political alliance it leads came first in the parliamentary election, taking 58 of 120 seats. In the presidential election runoff, its candidate triumphed with 61 per cent of the vote. In both cases the centre-left, pro-Europe Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), which had led the governing coalition and held the presidency, came a distant second. In parliament, its political alliance lost 28 of its 46 seats with only 14 per cent of the vote.

VMRO-DPMNE made its way back to office by harnessing widespread public frustration over the country’s attempt to join the European Union (EU), which has moved slowly, been dogged by controversy and forced the government to make numerous compromises. SDSM stood on a platform of rapid constitutional reform to accelerate progress, but VMRO-DPMNE, while claiming to support EU membership, opposes further changes. Its return signals a turn away from Europe, and a likely worsening of civil society conditions.

Rocky road towards the EU

North Macedonia has been an official candidate to join the EU since 2005. Negotiations are always lengthy, but North Macedonia’s road has been particularly bumpy. Before it could begin formal negotiations, it had to change the country’s name. Any existing EU member can block a non-member’s accession, and Greece stood in the way. The country shared its name with a region of Greece, which the Greek government saw as implying a territorial claim.

The hugely controversial issue brought extensive protests as name-change negotiations reached their conclusion in 2018. A referendum intended to approve the change failed when a boycott left turnout well below the level required; VMRO-DPMNE urged its supporters to reject the deal. The referendum was non-binding, and parliament went on to change the constitution regardless in January 2019.

Then Bulgaria intervened. The Bulgarian government insists its North Macedonian counterpart must do more to prevent the spread of anti-Bulgarian sentiments and protect the rights of the country’s Bulgarian minority. This heated issue, inflamed by much disinformation, helped force a political crisis in Bulgaria in 2022 when the government collapsed.

The two sides finally struck a deal to allow North Macedonia to begin EU negotiations in July 2022, but disputes still flare. In 2023 Bulgaria’s parliament warned it could halt the process again. North Macedonia’s outgoing government failed to win the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution to recognise the Bulgarian minority.

Relations with Bulgaria played their part in the campaign. Some think the government has gone too far in compromising, and VMRO-DPMNE characterised the SDSM-led government’s actions as a surrender.

As a consequence of all the delays and compromises, public support for joining the EU has fallen.

A troubling return

VMRO-DPMNE led the government for a decade from 2006 to 2016, with Nikola Gruevski prime minister throughout. The party also held the presidency, a less powerful role, from 2009 to 2019.

Gruevski and his party fell from grace in 2016 amid allegations that he and many more of his party’s politicians were involved in a wiretapping scandal affecting over 20,000 people. Mass protests followed. VMRO-DPMNE still came first in the 2016 parliamentary election but couldn’t form a coalition, so power passed to an SDSM-led government. SDSM retained power in the 2020 election, and its candidate won the presidency in 2019.

Gruevski’s fall was swift. In 2018, he was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption, but he fled to Hungary, where the government of his authoritarian friend Viktor Orbán granted him political asylum. Further convictions followed, including a seven-year sentence for money laundering and illegal acquisition of property.

From exile, Gruevski has continued to criticise the government that replaced him. And while relations with VMRO-DPMNE’s current leader are hostile, ideologically VMRO-DPMNE still carries his fingerprints and the networks Gruevski developed among supportive media, the private sector and criminal groups remain. Under Gruevski, the party took a nationalist, pro-Russia and anti-west direction, promoting identity politics that hark back to the ancient Macedonian Empire.

For civil society, this makes the results concerning news. Conditions deteriorated during VMRO-DPMNE’s decade in power. The party’s identity politics fuelled a polarised environment. Nationalist groups physically attacked several journalists. Civil society leaders were among those subjected to illegal surveillance. Using the same tactics as Orbán, the government hurled abuse at civil society groups receiving funding from Open Society Foundations, accusing them of colluding with foreign governments. It subjected critical organisations to financial audits and raided their offices.

The election was held in an atmosphere of intense polarisation and proliferating disinformation, some originating in Russia, which doesn’t want any more countries joining the EU. There’s now a risk of a return to the politics of division, which would bring a resumption of attacks on civil society and independent media. VMRO-DPMNE has already made clear it’s looking for confrontation. New president Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova upset Greece by using North Macedonia’s old name during her inauguration ceremony.

The EU impasse wasn’t the only reason voters were unhappy. People haven’t seen any progress in combating corruption or improving economic conditions and public services. In country after country, there’s a broader pattern of electoral volatility as voters, unhappy with the performance of incumbents in difficult economic conditions, shop around for anything that looks different. Populist and nationalist parties – even long-established ones such as VMRO-DPMNE – are doing best at making an emotional connection with voters’ anger, offering deceptively simple answers and promising change.

For civil society, that means there’s now work to be done in depolarising the debate, building consensus and defending civic freedoms: a tall order, but a vital one, for which it’ll need a lot of support.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


Solomon Islands: A Change More in Style than Substance

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Economy & Trade, Featured, Global, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


Credit: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, May 16 2024 (IPS) – There’s change at the top in Solomon Islands – but civil society will be watching closely to see whether that means a government that’s grown hostile will start doing things differently.

Jeremiah Manele is the new prime minister, emerging from negotiations that followed April’s general election. He’s part of OUR Party, led by outgoing four-time prime minister Manasseh Sogavare. The party came first, winning 15 of 50 constituencies, but several incumbents who stood for it lost their parliamentary seats, and Sogavare only narrowly held his. Weakened, Sogavare stood aside to allow Manele to prevail as the consensus candidate of the post-election coalition his party stitched together.

China in the spotlight

Voters had to wait to have their say. The election was supposed to be held in 2023 but the government postponed it. It claimed it couldn’t afford to hold the election and host the Pacific Games in the same year, and temporarily suspended constitutional provisions through a parliamentary vote. The opposition accused Sogavare of a power grab and questioned his commitment to democracy.

Political debate in recent years has been dominated by the government’s relations with China, a major funder of the 2023 Pacific Games. Sogavare pivoted towards China shortly after becoming prime minister for the fourth time in 2019. Until then, Solomon Islands was among the small number of states that still recognised Taiwan instead of China. The move was controversial, made with no consultation after an election in which it hadn’t been an issue.

Sogavare then signed a series of agreements with China, including a highly secretive security cooperation deal. For civil society, this raised the concern that Solomon Islands police could be trained in the same repressive techniques used in China, and Chinese security forces could be deployed if unrest broke out. The country has experienced several bouts of conflict, including ethnic unrest and violent protests started by young unemployed men, with some violence targeting people of Chinese origin. Such conflict followed controversial post-2019 election manoeuvres that returned Sogavare to power, and surged again in 2021 over the government’s relations with China. Sogavare blamed ‘foreign powers’ for the 2021 unrest.

China is making extensive economic diplomacy efforts to encourage states to switch allegiance and has developed a keen interest in Pacific Island nations, long neglected by western powers. Its efforts are paying off, with Kiribati and Nauru also abandoning Taiwan in recent years. The Pacific Islands cover a vast oceanic territory, and a major Chinese foreign policy objective is to break up the island chains it sees as encircling it and constraining its reach. It’s long been suspected of coveting a naval base in Solomon Islands.

Further, while the populations may be small, each state has an equal vote in the United Nations, and the more allies China has, the more it can shield itself from criticism of its many human rights violations.

China didn’t just help pay for the Games. It provides direct funding to pro-government members of parliament, and has been accused of outrightly trying to bribe politicians. Daniel Suidani, a strong opponent of deals with China, claims to have been offered bribes to change his position. Suidani was premier of Malaita Province, until 2023, when he was ousted in a no-confidence vote following the central government’s apparent intervention. Police then used teargas against protesters who supported him.

China’s attempts to exert influence extend to the media. Last year, it was reported that the Solomon Star newspaper had received funding from the Chinese state in return for agreeing to publish pro-China content.

Disinformation favourable to China also circulated during the campaign. A Russian state-owned news agency falsely reported that the US government was planning what it called an ‘electoral coup’, a lie repeated by the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper. During the campaign, Sogavare also doubled down on his support for China, heaping praise on its political system and suggesting that democracy might open the door to same-sex marriage, which he portrayed as incompatible with his country’s values.

At the same time as China’s media influence has grown, the Solomon Islands government has gained a reputation for attacking media freedoms. It took full control of the public broadcaster, the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, giving itself the power to directly appoint the broadcaster’s board, and made an attempt to vet all of its news and current affairs programmes, which it dropped after backlash. Following an investigation of relations with China by Australia’s public broadcaster, the government threatened to bar foreign journalists from entering the country if they run stories it deems ‘disrespectful’, accusing media of spreading ‘anti-China sentiments’.

Following criticism, the government also threatened to investigate civil society and accused civil society organisations of fraudulently receiving funds. It’s clear that the other side of the coin of closer relations with China has been growing hostility towards dissent.

Looking forward

China was far from the only issue in the campaign, and many voters emphasised everyday concerns such as the cost of living, the state of education, healthcare and roads, and the economy. Some criticised politicians for spending too much time talking about foreign policy – and will be judging the new government by how much progress it makes on these domestic issues.

The good news is that the vote appears to have been competitive, and so far there’s been no repeat of the post-election violence seen after the 2019 vote. That’s surely a positive to build on.

But Sogavare isn’t gone from politics, taking a new position as finance minister. Meanwhile, Manele, foreign minister in the old government and viewed as another pro-China figure, is unlikely to take a new foreign policy direction. But there’s some hope, at least for civil society, that he’ll be a less polarising and more conciliatory politician than Sogavare. The first test will be how the new government handles its relations with civil society and the media. The government should prove it isn’t in China’s pocket by respecting civic freedoms.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


Media Freedom Declining Across Europe, With Implications for Rule of Law

Democracy, Editors’ Choice, Europe, Featured, Freedom of Expression, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom, Sustainable Development Goals, TerraViva United Nations

Press Freedom

World Press Freedom Day 2024

Protestors gathered in Bratislava on May 2, 2024 to protest against changes to the public broadcaster, RTVS. The placard in the picture reads: RTVS on a flat-screen TV; STVR about a flat earth. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

Protestors gathered in Bratislava on May 2, 2024 to protest against changes to the public broadcaster, RTVS. The placard in the picture reads: RTVS on a flat-screen TV; STVR about a flat earth. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

BRATISLAVA, May 3 2024 (IPS) – A new report has warned media freedom in the EU is close to “breaking point” in many states amid rising authoritarianism across the continent.

In its latest annual report covering 2023, the Berlin-based Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties) highlighted widespread threats, intimidation and violence against journalists and attacks on the independence of public broadcasters in the EU, with roll backs in media freedom down to “deliberate harm or neglect by national governments”.

The group says its research confirms a continuation of alarming trends seen in the previous year, including heavy media ownership concentration, insufficient ownership transparency rules, and threats to the independence and finances of public service media,

And it warns the decline in media freedom seen in a number of EU member states has the potential to pose a direct threat to democracy.

“Media freedom is falling across Europe, and what we see, not just in Europe but in many places around the world, is that where media freedom declines, the rule of law declines too,” Eva Simon, Senior Advocacy Officer at Liberties, told IPS.

The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava, part of the RTVS public broadcaster. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava, part of the RTVS public broadcaster. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

The Liberties report, compiled with 37 rights groups in 19 countries, comes as other media freedom watchdogs and rights groups warn of growing  concentration of media ownership, lack of ownership transparency, surveillance and violence against journalists in EU countries, government capture of public broadcasters, and rising restrictions on freedom of expression.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its annual World Press Freedom Index today (April 3, 2024), warning that politicians in some EU countries are trying to crack down on independent journalism. They single out a number of leaders as being “at the forefront of this dangerous trend,” including Hungary’s pro-Kremlin prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his counterpart in Slovakia, Robert Fico.

It also highlights concerns for press freedom in other places, such as Malta, Greece, and Italy, pointing out that in the latter—which fell in the Index’s rankings this year—a member of the ruling parliamentary coalition is trying to acquire the second biggest news agency (AGI), raising fears for future independence of media.

“One of the main themes of this year is that the institutions that should be protecting media freedom, for example, governments, have been undermining it,” Pavol Szalai, head of the EU/Balkans desk at RSF, told IPS.

Like Liberties, RSF has cited particular concern about media freedom in Hungary and Slovakia among EU states.

Media freedom has been on the decline in Hungary for more than a decade, as autocratic leader Orban has, critics say, steadily cracked down on independent journalism. His party, Fidesz, has de facto control of 80 percent of the country’s media, and while independent media outlets still exist, their sustainable funding is under threat as state advertising is funneled to pro-government outlets.

The government’s effective control of Hungary’s public broadcaster is another major concern.

“Capturing public broadcasters limits access to information and that can have a huge impact on formulating political opinions and then how people vote,” said Simon.

Hungary is also suspected of having arbitrarily monitored journalists using the controversial Pegasus software.

RSF and Liberties both say their worry is not just what is happening to media freedom in Hungary, but that what Orban has done has provided a blueprint for other autocratic leaders to follow.

“Leaders in Europe are being inspired by Orban in his war against independent media. Just look at Fico in Slovakia, who has declared war on independent media,” said Szalai.

For years, Fico has repeatedly attacked and denigrated independent media and journalists.

In 2018, investigative journalist Jan Kuciak—who had been looking into alleged corruption by people close to Fico’s government— and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were murdered. Critics said Fico’s rhetoric against journalists had contributed to creating an atmosphere in society that allowed those behind the killings to believe they could act with impunity.

Independent journalists continue to face harassment and abuse from Smer MPs today.

Since being elected Prime Minister for the fourth time last autumn, Fico and the governing coalition led by his Smer party have continued their attacks. They also refuse to communicate with critical media, claiming they are biased.

It has also approved legislation—which is expected to be passed in parliament within weeks—that will see the country’s public broadcaster, RTVS, completely overhauled and, critics say, effectively under the control of the government.

“If the bill is passed and signed into law in its current form, RTVS will become a mouthpiece for government propaganda,” said Szalai.

The government has rejected criticism over the bill and argued changes to RTVS are necessary because it is no longer objective, is persistently critical of the government, and is not fulfilling its remit as a public broadcaster to provide balanced and objective information and a plurality of opinions. A senior official at the Slovak Culture Ministry who is among the favorites to take over as head of the public broadcaster in its new form has since suggested that people who support the flat-earth theory should be invited onto shows to air their opinions on the broadcaster.

The bill has led to public protests and threats of a mass strike from current RTVS employees.

However, against this grim backdrop, media watchdogs say new EU legislation provides hope for an improvement in media freedom.

The recently-passed European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), which takes full effect across the EU in August next year,  will, among others, ban governments from pursuing journalists to reveal their sources by deploying spyware, force media to disclose full ownership information, introduce transparency measures for state advertising, and checks on media concentration. It also provides a mechanism to prevent very big online platforms from arbitrarily restricting press freedom.

Another key measure in the legislation is that it enshrines the editorial independence of public service media, setting out that leaders and board members of public media organizations be selected through “transparent and non-discriminatory procedures for sufficiently long terms of office.”

“It is a good law that creates a very important base [for ensuring media freedom], which can be built on in the future. More safeguards [to media freedom] could be added to it in the future,” said Simon.

Szalai agreed, highlighting that the legislation was legally binding for member states. He admitted it had some shortcomings—for example, under some exceptions, journalists could be forced to reveal sources—but emphasized that it would take precedence over any national legislation, “and so governments cannot ignore it or try to get around it.”

But its implementation will be down to individual governments and authorities—something, that media freedom organizations have said must be closely watched.

A new EU body, the European Board for Media Services, is to be set up to oversee the implementation of the laws.

“It is important to make sure that the forces attacking media freedom are held back by this law. It will be up to the European Commission to hold governments to account on its implementation, and the Commission needs to consider press freedom as a priority after the European Parliament elections [in June] and to check on the EMFA’s implementation and take measures against any countries that violate it,” said Szalai.

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