The world is becoming less free and, in Asia, almost nobody lives in a country where civil rights are not being eroded or repressed, a new civil rights report has found.
And the 2019 CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that tracks fundamental freedoms in 196 countries, has downgraded Australia from an “open” country to one where civil space has “narrowed”, citing new laws to expand government surveillance, prosecution of whistleblowers, and raids on media organisations.
Human rights organisations have again argued Australia needs a bill of rights to prevent government repression of fundamental human rights.
Its report, People Power Under Attack, says across Asia those freedoms are being quietly eroded, or explicitly repressed, in almost every country.
Of 25 countries in the region, four are rated as closed, eight repressed and 10 obstructed. Civic space in South Korea and Japan is rated as narrowed, while Taiwan is the only country rated open.
“Our research shows that there continues to be a regression of civic space for activism across the region,” CIVICUS researcher Josef Benedict said. “The percentage of people living in Asian countries with closed, repressed or obstructed civic space is now at 95%.”
Across Asia, countries were increasingly censoring the media and free speech, and using new laws to stifle political rights such as the right to protest or to criticise the government. India, the world’s largest democracy, has been downgraded to “repressed”, with particular concern for Kashmir.
In 12 countries assessed across the Pacific, including Australia, more than half were rated as “open” by CIVICUS.
But in Fiji, the Public Order Act has been used to restrict marches and disperse peaceful protest by workers, and in Vanuatu and Samoa criminal defamation laws have been used to suppress criticism. In Vanuatu, the media director of the Daily Post, Dan McGarry, was banned from returning to the country after breaking the news that Vanuatu had deported six Chinese nationals – four of whom had obtained Vanuatu citizenship – without due process or access to legal counsel. In Nauru, where judges have been sacked for decisions the government doesn’t like, critics of the government are subjected to politicised show trials and denied access to lawyers.
But CIVICUS said “the most alarming deterioration in civic space [across the Pacific] is occurring in Australia, which has been downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’”.
Australia has seen the recent criminal justice examples of the prosecution of whistleblower Witness K, who exposed Australian bugging of ally East Timor’s cabinet room under the guise of a benevolent aid project, and the secret trial of Witness J, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced on national security charges in complete secrecy.
Victoria police have also been condemned for using violence against protesters at a series of anti-mining demonstrations in Melbourne in October. A report from legal observers Melbourne Activist Legal Support said police were antagonistic and “set a tone of violence” during three days of protests. Police sprayed demonstrators with capsicum spray excessively, were overzealous in using batons and drove police horses into protest lines to break them up, endangering animals and people. Victoria police has consistently denied the allegations, maintaining officers responded appropriately to the situation.
CIVICUS said freedom of the press was under particular threat in Australia, with raids on journalists’ homes and on media organisations. Whistleblowers are targeted for exposing government wrongdoing and face prosecution under the Intelligence Services Act. Technology companies are facing an environment of increasing surveillance with new legislation passed which will force IT companies to hand over user information even if it is encrypted.
“New laws in Australia are creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression, especially for journalists and whistleblowers seeking to expose issues of public interest,” CIVICUS UN adviser Lyndal Rowlands said. “Other new legislation seems to give the government inappropriate powers to allow for unjustified encroachments on Australians’ right to privacy.”
The Australian Council for International Development chief executive, Marc Purcell, said rising authoritarianism was one of the most threatening trends across the Asia-Pacific and that Australia must be more active in responding to this challenge.
“The backsliding on basic civic freedoms and democratic rights is an alarming deterioration,” he said. “The persistent assault on civil society and fundamental freedoms in Asia, particularly on censorship and harassment and even, in some cases, the killing of NGO leaders, demonstrates the need for urgent action.”
Purcell said Australia needed to assist the region’s civil societies and individuals in combating corruption and improving governance across Australia’s neighbours.
“Supporting civil society should be part of interests in our region, and this should be carefully considered in Australia’s aid review.”
Human Rights Law Centre campaigns director Tom Clarke argued Australia’s negative assessment reflected a clear trend of Australian governments chipping away at its citizens’ rights and freedoms.
“Restricting free speech, prosecuting whistleblowers, intimidating journalists for publishing articles about government wrongdoing, cracking down on peaceful protests about the climate crisis – all of these restrictive policies add up,” Clarke said. “We need to draw a line in the sand and say ‘enough’.”
Clarke said Australia needed a charter of human rights to protect fundamental freedoms and limit government actions.
“Powerful politicians and their corporate backers don’t always respect the rights of individual people or communities,” he said. “We need to create an Australian charter of human rights and freedoms to help level the playing field.”