The pattern is now clear. In country after country, those who seek to limit rights attack civil society. Alongside tactics such as censorship and misuse of the criminal justice system, a weapon in growing favour is smearing and vilification.
Smears, of organisations and activists, erode crucial public trust in civil society, positioning civil society as enemies. They normalise and prepare the ground for further attacks. Those levelling smears include government leaders who want to limit accountability over their power, populist politicians who seek office and influence, and ultra-conservative anti-rights groups. Civil society may be smeared as an unpatriotic agent of foreign interests, importer of inappropriate values, partisan partner of political opposition, or enemy of economic development. Many smears are rooted in a right-wing worldview shaped by aggressive nationalism and toxic masculinity, meaning that they disproportionately attack women and anyone else seen as different, including LGBTQI+ people and ethnic and religious minorities.
One reason smears are employed is that they are cheap and easy to spread on social media, and can be heightened further when regressive political leaders also control mainstream media, as in Hungary. Outrageous lies spread well. They are part of a broader campaign to shape what is said and thought. Smears are readily amplified by armies of trolls, hiding behind anonymity but often clearly well organised and resourced, able to mount a relentless barrage of online attacks, deliberate disinformation and conspiracy theories.
The smearing of civil society can be seen far and wide. Authoritarian leaders, including in Brazil, India, the Philippines, Tanzania and the USA, routinely fall back on the tactic. In Europe, the tactic has spread virally from Hungary, Poland and Russia to Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia and beyond. In just a few of many examples, in 2020, in Maldives, women’s rights group Uthema experienced vicious social media attacks, calling for it to be banned; the attacks seemed clear retribution for its engagement with the UN. In Serbia, civil society groups opposing a China-backed electricity project were smeared as foreign agents opposing investment. Across Latin America, feminist activists mobilising for abortion rights face smears daily, sometimes paving the way for physical attacks.
Smears hurt civil society because they push us onto the defensive, forcing activists to spend much of their time and energy in trying to rebut smears, prove their credentials and assert the validity of essential civil society roles. A natural response is to become less bold, more defensive: to self-censor.
Even in the emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments could not resist falling back on smears as a response to civil society action. As CIVICUS has documented, when the pandemic struck, civil society scrambled to offer an impressive response. But too often governments failed to recognise and support civil society, and instead viewed it as a critic or competitor. In country after country attempts by civil society to scrutinise the government’s response, disseminate prevention guidelines and guard against corruption in medical procurement were characterised as destabilising and spreading ‘fake news’.
Smears hurt civil society because they push us onto the defensive, forcing activists to spend much of their time and energy in trying to rebut smears, prove their credentials and assert the validity of essential civil society roles. A natural response is to become less bold, more defensive: to self-censor. Once toxic discourse about civil society sets in, it is hard to reverse.
But civil society is fighting back with a range of responses. First, civil society is leading by example, championing transparency and accountability actions to improve public trust in civil society. One such initiative, Resilient Roots, focuses on reconnecting with primary audiences through accountability mechanisms to make organisations more resilient in a context of increasing challenges. A range of accountability initiatives are also underway at the regional and global levels.
Related reading: Independent journalism is essential to democracy
Second, civil society organisations are using the spaces offered by international institutions to expose the problem and seek protection. At the global level, countless cases of reprisals, including smear campaigns, have been brought to the attention of UN human rights institutions. European civil society is turning to the EU, whose member states are expected to hold by rule of law standards that include respect for civic freedoms. In Bulgaria, 62 civil society organisations recently came together to complain to the EU about the persistent smearing of organisations that receive international funding.
Third, civil society is working, with journalists, media organisations and tech companies, to combat misinformation and share positive civil society narratives, putting a human face on human rights principles, focusing on hope instead of fear, and proving the value of an active, inclusive and rights-oriented civil society.
As these examples suggest, responses are needed that appeal to both reason and hope, model good practice and, importantly, bring together civil society as a whole. The Vuka! Coalition, which works to connect civil society to improve resilience to civic space attacks, offers an example of one such initiative. An attack against one must be seen as an attack on all. In the face of smears that seek to isolate and subdue individual activists and organisations, unity can be a powerful shield.
Andrew Firmin is Editor-in-Chief at CIVICUS, and Ines Pousadela is Senior Research Specialist.
Read CIVICUS’ latest report, ‘Solidarity in the Time of COVID-19’.