By Janet Sankale
Human rights defenders and civil society groups have expressed concern at increasing government restrictions on civic space in eastern Africa, especially during election seasons.
Several speakers at the launching of three publications on civic space in Nairobi, Kenya, cited new laws and regulations that have been used to justify attacks on journalists, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, and civic actors rooting for transparency and accountability.
“There is a rise in the restriction of civic space through violent crackdowns on demonstrations, arresting and intimidating internet users, strict regulation of online platforms, and internet shutdowns,” said Santana Simiyu, a programme officer at the International Commission of Jurists – Kenyan Section.
Roland Ebole, a researcher at Amnesty International, who said the new publications should be used to enhance civic space, gave the example of the Ugandan presidential elections in January 2021, which were preceded by heavy sanctioning of civil liberties.
Journalists were required to get clearance to report the elections. Permits for foreign journalists were suspended and there was a short notice for renewal of licences, locking out most media from reporting the elections.
Ebole added that the leaders of NGOs and other organisations engaging in monitoring the elections or independent tallying results were arrested, making it difficult to have credible monitoring of polls.
They were speaking on July 23, 2021 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel during the launching of Compendium of Laws on the Civic Space, The Digital Space Digest, and Democratic Gain and Pitfalls: The Role of Courts in Safeguarding Civic Space in Kenya. The function was hosted by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and the Civil Society Reference Group (CSRG).
The books were published by KHRC, CSRG, and CSO partners on behalf of the Civic Space Protection Platform in Kenya, whose mandate is to support the creation, reclamation, and preservation of civic space.
Compendium of Laws on the Civic Space in Kenya is meant to be a resource for analytical perspectives on existing and draft legislations that affect fundamental rights and freedoms.
The Digital Space Case Digest looks at several court cases concerned with freedom of information, freedom of expression, and the right to privacy. It was described as a useful toolkit for those tasked with protecting and promoting fundamental freedoms and applying human rights principals to safeguard the digital space.
Democratic Gains and Pitfalls: The Role of Courts in Safeguarding Civic Space in Kenya documents selected cases where CSOs have applied public interest litigation as a strategy and tool of reversing backlash from the Kenyan state.
Citing the case of Tanzania, where the government crippled the operations of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition by freezing their accounts and revoking their licence to provide voter education and monitor the October 28, 2020 elections, Salome Nduta cautioned civil rights organisations to be on the lookout for official sanctions.
“We need to be aware that our accounts could be frozen at any time, especially as we head to the elections,” the human rights official from Defender Coalition said.
She urged the organisations to explore other ways to implement their activities as they prepare for the 2022 elections in Kenya in case they are affected.
Another concern was the increasing employment of violence against civilians, media outlets, civil society organisations, human rights defenders, and opposition political parties. Ebole cited the case of Burundi, where the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has over the years been deployed to unleash violence on opposition party leaders and members. The situation became so bad that the offices of several NGOs, the United Nations human rights office, and media outlets had to close.
The latest frontier for the battle for civic space is the digital sphere, Faith Kisinga, an advocate of the Kenyan High Court and adviser to the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, said. She recommended the toolkit to help human rights defenders to safeguard digital space and practice.
Joshua Changwony of the Constitution and Reform Education Consortium said sector stakeholders urgently needed training and education in digital security and digital rights.
Even the Covid-19 pandemic has become a handy tool to use to impose restrictions on civil liberties. Ebole cited the Uganda example again. The government selectively used Covid-19 containment regulations to stop opposition politicians such as Bobi Wine from holding campaign meetings. Several rallies were violently dispersed, even causing deaths.
Several participants expressed concern that Kenya was likely to go the same way as the next elections, scheduled for August 2022, approached. The Kenya Human Rights Commission said there was an urgent need to protect civil freedoms from certain laws, policies, and regulations that seemed designed to stifle civic space.
The 2017 elections in Kenya and their aftermath that curtailed media freedom were still fresh in the minds of civil society stakeholders. The government shut down three of the biggest television stations in the country because they defied orders not to broadcast the mock swearing in of opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Changwony said there was a credible threat of the Covid-19 regulations being misused in Kenya. He spoke about the recent by-election in Kiambaa, where chiefs, who are not mandated to administer and manage elections, patrolled polling stations on the pretext of ensuring that Covid-19 protocols were observed.
He emphasised the need to strengthen partnerships as a means of protecting and expanding civic space, and in the process restrict retrogressive laws.
“Civic space is larger than us. We should involve other non-state actors and common citizens in our interventions to protect it,” Ebole said.
He urged African states to recognise the role of civil society organisations and journalists as human rights defenders and not enemies, adding that they have a key role to play in holding governments accountable, contributing to policies, and ensuring that regimes adhere to their human rights commitments.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission, the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice, and the Civil Society Reference Group set up the Civic Space Protection Platform in Kenya to bring together actors and stakeholders in issues on civic space. The platform has since been involved in strategic litigation, research and advocacy, and political education and action designed to help consolidate civic spaces.
To watch the full session on the launch on publications on civic space: