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Press release

Pandemic used as cover to further suppress civic space and silence critics, new study reveals

Published on 24 May 2021

Autocratic behaviour surged and democratic freedoms were excessively restricted during the pandemic last year – that is the finding of a new study monitoring civic space in Mozambique, Nigeria, and Pakistan, published by the Institute of Development Studies.

Researchers found that while restrictive measures to protect public health were necessary, Covid-19 was also used as a cover for curtailing offline and online freedoms integral to democratic debate and civic action, including implementing emergency measures without time limits, and silencing or eliminating critics.

The report ‘Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid’, by the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) research programme, is based on a collaborative study that catalogued events through real-time research with civil society in three countries – Mozambique, Nigeria, and Pakistan – from June to December 2020.

Pre-pandemic, each country was already experiencing a tightening of civic space, with authorities clamping down on civil society organisations, media and activists directly critical of state authorities. Evidence from the new research shows how the pandemic exacerbated these existing trends, closing down civic space both offline and online, as authorities sought to undermine and silence critical voices.

Legal regulations were used in both Pakistan and Nigeria to increase state control of digital spaces and limit free expression. Press freedom was also put under pressure in all three countries with voices critical of government particularly hard-hit, with media outlets and journalists singled out for targeted suppression or attack.

Where restrictions on movement and gatherings were put in place, the report found that these were not applied equally, with different political parties, social classes, religions and livelihood groups experiencing differential treatment. In all three countries the already familiar tactic of forced disappearance also continued, and the researchers say were arguably made easier by stay-at-home orders. They report that even as the first wave of transmission waned, securitisation of the pandemic deepened, restrictive legislation was extended, and individual activists and dissenters were punished for protesting.

Dr Rosie McGee, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, said: “Mozambique, Nigeria, and Pakistan offer prime examples of how Covid-19 has acted a catalyst, accelerating a decade-long global trend towards increased authoritarianism and a ‘democratic backsliding’.

“We know that throughout the pandemic measures were brought in to suspend many fundamental freedoms in countries around the world, but our evidence shows that in some countries it fuelled new forms of human rights abuses under the cover of new restrictions and public health measures.

“Civic freedoms are crucial for furthering human rights and social justice, not least during times of crisis, such as Covid-19, when the impacts often fall disproportionately on marginalised people whose interests are least represented by formal institutions. They rely on civic space to make their voices heard and campaign for the rights they are entitled to.”

Looking to the future, the report reflects that civil society coalitions ‘forged in the heat of the pandemic’ are likely to endure as a safer and surer way for civil society and activist groups to operate, and that innovative use of online spaces and digital communications is a way of opening up civic space. However, it also warns that states are likely to continue to find new regulation and routes to shut down online spaces, and therefore the threat to civic space will remain.

Notes to Editor

  • The report is part of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA), a five-year international research programme. It explores how social and political action can contribute to empowerment and accountability in fragile, conflict, and violent settings, with a particular focus on Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Pakistan.
  • Led by the Institute of Development Studies, A4EA is being implemented by a consortium which includes: the Accountability Research Center, the Collective for Social Science Research, the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, Itad, Oxfam GB, and the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research. It is funded with UK aid from the UK government.
  • The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) delivers world-class research, learning and teaching that transforms the knowledge, action and leadership needed for more equitable and sustainable development globally.
  • IDS is ranked first in the world for development studies by the QS University Rankings, together with the University of Sussex. We are also ranked best international development policy think tank. See ids.ac.uk for more information.

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