The best country in the world… but not for activism

Media raids and the introduction of data surveillance laws have seen Australia’s civic rating downgraded, with a new report raising serious concerns the government is trying to “muzzle criticism”.   

The downgrade means that while Australia still allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression, violations of these rights is also happening. 

The findings were published in the latest CIVICUS Monitor, an ongoing research project between the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, and 20 global research partners. 

This year’s report found there were 24 countries with closed (the most restrictive rating) civic space, 38 countries with repressed space and 49 with obstructed space.  

Just 43 countries received an open rating, and 42 countries (including Australia) were rated narrowed. Nine countries changed ratings since 2018; seven country’s ratings worsened, and two improved. 

“This indicates that repression of peaceful civic activism continues to be a widespread crisis for civil society in most parts of the world,” the report said. 

Following a year of regular monitoring, the report said incursions on free speech, the increasing use of surveillance and crackdown on protesters in Australia were behind the downgrade. 

CIVICUS pointed to police raids on ABC headquarters over a two-year-old report detailing killings by members of the Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan, and raids on the homes of Sunday Telegraph and News Corp journalists, after they reported on plans by the government to expand civilian surveillance powers as areas of serious concern. 

Lyndal Rowlands, UN advisor at CIVICUS, said there was a clear climate of intimidation by the state to discourage dissent.   

“Australians have always enjoyed a healthy scepticism of unchecked power, yet more recently it seems like the only people getting punished for government wrongdoing in Australia are the people who courageously reveal it,” Rowlands said.

Government attempts to silence whistleblowers and crackdowns on environmental climate activism in Australia were also criticised in the report.  

“The right to peaceful assembly, association and expression is essential to our democracy – rights that Morrison has a duty to protect, even if he disagrees with the message,” Rowlands said. 

Josef Benedict, CIVICUS civic space researcher, told Pro Bono News for Australia to improve its rating there needed to be serious push back by civil society on restrictive laws, such as the anti-encryption laws, and an end to crackdowns on press freedom. 

There needs to be laws that enshrine human rights in legislation, particularly the rights to privacy protection and freedom especially,” Benedict said. 

He said with much of the Asia Pacific region sitting in the obstructed or repressed zone, it was important for Australia to set a good example for other nations. 

“People are seeking out how they can mobilise and organise themselves across the globe and fight back, and I think in Australia we need to be setting an example,” he said. 


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