‘Closing Civic Space:’ A Space for a New Movement-Building

By Joy Aceron* 

The agenda ‘closing civic space’ has been taken up extensively of late in transparency, participation, accountability, open government and anti-corruption spaces. I have been asked to give talks on this topic in three separate international events, namely the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia in July; the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Copenhagen in October; and this week in UNODC’s workshop in Bangkok, Thailand. This is recognized as a key issue in the Philippines. In the event of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in the Philippines that G-Watch attended in Tagaytay several weeks ago, the challenge of ‘closing,’ ‘shrinking,’ ‘constraining’ civic space has been pointed out in all workshop groups when asked what are the main challenges confronting Philippine civil society today. 

I would like to share some insights and analysis on it in this piece, particularly what I see as typologies of actions to close civic space and our initial thinking of what can be done about it.  

What, Why, Who?

There are many ways that groups, advocates and researchers use the term closing civic space. The more obvious understanding is how the space for civic action are starting to become constrained, constraining, small and limited. Another way of understanding ‘closing civic space,’ which I prefer, is the declining efficacy of civil society in holding power to account that is crucial in protecting, advancing and expanding human rights, democracy and social justice goals. 

But who is closing civic space? Actions of both government and private entities with power could be the culprits. However, given its sheer massiveness in account of its supposed ‘legitimate control of the instrumentalities of violence,’ the main aggressor that seem to be most troublesome is the state. The actions leading to closing civic space involve state actors with or without the participation of non-state actors. 

But why are state actors taking actions to close civic space? The question of motive is important and it varies from country to country and in terms of what kinds of actions are taken. The types of aggression depend on the purpose. 

What are some of the actions taken by state actors to close civic space? Upon observing this in the Philippines, listening to the experience of other countries and reading write-ups on this, I thought of coming up with two main typologies: (1) direct and (2) passive aggression.  

Direct Aggression

Direct aggressions are actions that involve direct use of violence: harassment, intimidation and killings would be some of the acts belonging to this category. In the Philippines, journalists have been the victims of direct aggression that closes civic space. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), there are now 12 journalists killed under the term of now Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte (See  https://bit.ly/2QKUrb5). 

The tax evasion case against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and the case on Rappler’s registration papers are also being considered mostly by national and international media as a form of harassment, of silencing free press. See this piece of Time Magazine that has made several journalists, including Maria Ressa, as Persons of the Year: http://time.com/person-of-the-year-2018-the-guardians/

For this typology, direct aggression, the purpose is obvious: to eliminate any source of accountability and dissent. This is the act of direct aggression that usually involves the use of legal instrumentalities, such as laws, justice system and accountability institutions. Filing cases against opposition while freeing pro-administration politicians affect reforms directly, like in the case of the recent acquittal of a senator (Bong Revilla) who was involved in a multi-billion scam.

Passive Aggression 

The other typology is the harder to pin down: passive aggression. I can think of at least three sub-categories under this: (1) appropriation, cooptation and dilution, (2) misdirection, distraction and obfuscation and (3) indifference and neglect. 

Some of the specific actions that I observed in the Philippines under appropriation, cooptation and dilution include the growing pressure of the government on any organized group to register. The registration process involves steps and requirements that are not only demanding and voluminous, hence automatically excluding small and weak organizations, but are means to enable the state as well to control organizations and limit what they can do. Another action under this is how the state appropriates the words ‘transparency,’ ‘participation,’ ‘accountability,’ ‘open government,’ etc. to use it for its purpose. 

The purpose varies: from as worse as means to regulate and neutralize civil society (like supposed open government technologies or programs being used to spy on civil society) to something as acceptable and legitimate as to advance purely bureaucratic/ technocratic goals that benefit the government but are not exactly the priorities of the citizens. 

For the former, an example in the Philippines is a program called Masa Masidthat was initially included in the Duterte government’s OGP commitment. Masa Masid, which literally means Mass Watch,’ is a reporting mechanism with the participation of citizens, but instead of it being used to watch/ check the government, the mechanism mobilizes citizens to monitor and report on their fellow citizens to supposedly ‘fight criminality.’ The program has been cancelled after it has been called out by civil society and the Senate, but if it continued, this could have turned citizens against each other to empower the state. Other specific actions of cooptation include favoring some civil society groups to turn to the side of the government, sometimes using access to participatory mechanisms as a form of bribe. This can be viewed as a new application of divide and conquer. 

Other actions involve diluting supposed progressive content of spaces and mechanisms by either turning them as mere procedural or technocratic or by undermining their claim-making/ accountability value. 

One specific incident whereby the Duterte government used appropriation and dilution is when the it declared a national holiday after finding out that the transport sector was planning a nationwide strike. The idea behind a strike is disruption to make the people’s message heard. The declaration of national holiday pre-empted the strike which diluted the impact of the strike, while appropriating the disturbance (such as traffic) that could have been caused by the strike to send its message of protest.

The infamous fake news and media spin are examples of specific actions under misdirection, distraction and obfuscation. Popularizing issues to distract the public from headline issues that threaten the power of the political leadership is another common trick. In the Philippines, when the rice crisis was starting to be picked up by the public with more and more people and groups expressing disappointment over the government, the government started going after an opposition senator while avoiding to respond to inquiries about the crisis. The Dengvaxia controversy, which is an allegation that the former government abused authority in approving a vaccine that has not been tested, has been an easy scapegoat of the administration and its supporters whenever they are called out for extrajudicial killings. “The Yellows [referring to the former government] killed/ endangered millions of children and you are fretting about thousands killed under a legitimate anti-drug campaign” is the byline. Another example is how the Philippine president himself would attack foreign media and institutions when called out for its human rights violation, raising new/ side issues to evade the issue that his government is being made to account for. 

Another action that distracts and obfuscates is controlling of the narrative through spin and propaganda. The Duterte government is avoiding accountability in the destruction of Marawi and the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao by saying that the use of massive force that brought the entire city down the ground was needed to fight terrorism. The Duterte government’s neglect that led to the terrorist attack and misjudgment on the amount of force needed that resulted in extreme casualties have been covered up to evade accountability.

The third sub-type is the oldest and perhaps still the most common: neglect and indifference. There are many mechanisms, processes, tools and spaces for transparency, participation and accountability (TPA) in the laws. However, due to sheer neglect or indifference, these are not being operationalized, enabled and used. Neglect and indifference are also the usual response to claim-making of civil society actors perceived to be weak or insignificant. Even in supposed TPA initiatives, there are elements that are ignored and neglected, which are the usual parts that involve accountability, such as response and action. 

One specific action that is both direct and passive is the use of offensive, discriminating, misogynistic language or expressions. It is a direct aggression, though often the attack is subtle. The Philippine president uses this very commonly. By ‘making jokes,’ he insults and undermines personalities and institutions that threaten him. His misogynistic remarks are subtle attacks against women, especially those opposing him. 

There are many more specific examples and perhaps other categories, but the more important question now is how do civil society groups advancing human rights, democracy and social justice respond to a condition wherein they are being made ineffective, weak and insignificant to the point of physical elimination. 

What can we do about it?

G-Watch is learning from social movements but upgrading movement approaches with systems and tools from the more technocratic/ public management tradition of social accountability. For example, the paper written by Francis Isaac, Danny Carranza and myself entitled ‘From the Ground Up: Multi-Level Accountability Politics in Land Reform in the Philippines’ (see https://www.g-watch.org/resources/vertical-integration-research/ground-multi-level-accountability-politics-land-reform)have come up with a tool that maps actions of ‘anti-accountability forces’ across levels. By determining what are the actions, where the actions are at and the degree of intensity of the actions, progressive/ ‘pro-accountability’ forces would know where to organize and what to do to pre-empt, neutralize, stop direct aggression. 

One gap in the tool that G-Watch is still developing is how it can be expanded to include passive aggression that I started to list down here.

The next step is to also identify what kinds of actions civil society would take. Many groups are now trying to understand this and propose ideas. An article of OpenDemocracy cites actions that “involve a variety of social groups, strategies and alliances which are local and global, particular and universal at the same time” (see https://www.opendemocracy.net/simin-fadaee-geoffrey-pleyers/new-repertoire-of-repression-and-how-movements-resist). An organization called International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) has published guide to donors in April this year: http://www.icnl.org/news/2018/Effective%20donor%20responses%20FINAL%201%20May%202018.pdf. The Institute for Development Studies (IDS) contributed a review of empirical evidence to come up with a framework of analysis in measuring the impact of closing civic space on development (see https://www.ids.ac.uk/publications/what-does-closing-civic-space-mean-for-development-a-literature-review-and-proposed-conceptual-framework-2/). 

G-Watch, on its end, is again learning from past citizen actions and upgrading it. In the book Going Vertical, G-Watch and Accountability Research Center (ARC, www.accountabilityresearch.org) (see https://www.g-watch.org/resources/vertical-integration-research/going-vertical-citizen-led-reform-campaigns-philippines-2nd) came up with an ‘Scaling Accountability Map’ (SAM) that maps actions, approaches and tactics of civil society to take advantage of opportunities and address threats and challenges across the different levels of decision-making to advance a certain agenda. It is a tool that guides analysis and planning for ‘vertically-integrated’ campaigns that allow effective oversight and claim-making of civil society.

The cases studied in Going Verticalare campaigns that advanced specific policy reform/ accountability agenda. We think the tool too can be used to respond to actions that close civic space. This requires recognizing, identifying and utilizing new or reclaimed spaces, forms and approaches of actions. Some groups are using the term ‘shifting civic space’ in recognition of the new spaces that are opening up as others are closing down. 


However, the idea of shifting civic space too is starting to be appropriated by state/ reactionary forces. By simply opening up spaces for issues that are not contested or conflict-ridden -- such as service delivery that are popular and yield immediate gains but do not necessarily transform unequal power relationships that perpetuate dependency and are, at the same time, prone to abuse -- the supposed new spaces being opened up are containing and framing civic action. This is another form of appropriation and distraction for it hides or distracts us from the more critical issues of human rights abuse and threat to democracy and freedom. One new space being identified is online, the social media, civic technologies, which can be used either way to open or close civic space and may or may not be effective depending on how it is designed and utilized. If developed and used to counteract the different forms of actions that close and endanger civic space, civic technology can be vital in movement-building too. 

In one of the discussions with farmers where we presented the findings of our research for the book Going Vertical, one farmer said that based on what we shared, she understands the concept vertical integration using the Scaling Accountability Maps as ‘tapatan’ – the closest Filipino word for it is paralleling. The idea here is exactly that: paralleling. We need to know the actions that close civic space and pre-empt and stop it with our preemptive and counter actions and strategies. Our resources are our numbers, linkages and tight hold of the agenda and issues that do not only yield benefit today, but transforms the system for it to be just and fair in the long run.  

Multi-level organizing to respond to closing civic space creates something new that responds to the challenges of today. A wide spectrum of actions by broad set of actors across levels -- a vertically-integrated alliance-building -- creates a scale of collective action strong enough to stop or at least neutralize attempts of the state to close civic space. By organizing collective action with such a scale, civil society could be creating new spaces and dynamism that are not yet known to the government or to the anti-accountability forces. This would have to involve new formations of old and new actors, new shared understanding, analysis and values, new shared vision and aspirations, a new movement adapted to today’s struggle.

*Joy Aceron is Convenor-Director of Government Watch (www.g-watch.org) and a Research Fellow of Accountability Research Center based in School of International Service of American University in Washington, DC (www.accountabilityresearch.org).