Democracy & Justice

What is Civic Space? Why Is It a Keystone in Any Democratic Society? How Do We Protect It?

What does civic space mean, and why is it a keystone to any democracy? Although it differs around the world, civic space is central to democracy, and we can all help protect it.

by Jonathan Day

What is civic space?

An essential element of any true democracy is the freedom of people to exercise certain fundamental rights without obstruction from the government. These rights include freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly. The “space” that allows people to freely exercise these rights – to say what’s on their mind and converse with others, to protest against things that are not in their best interest, to join together in citizens’ groups and other organizations – is referred to as “civic space.”

Why is civic space a keystone of any democratic society?

Civic space is necessary in any democracy because it provides the space for people to exercise their fundamental rights and the freedom for citizens and civil society organizations to organize themselves together in groups, to protest against threats to their freedoms and democracy, and to communicate their problems with the government.

Civil society organizations are especially important in civic space. They make democracy work by giving people a channel to communicate with their representatives. They keep people informed about how politicians are using the resources and powers given to them. And they make sure governments don’t overstep the law and encroach on human rights. The more a government is accountable to the people, and the more involved people are in government, the more likely it is that politicians will act not in their own best interest but in the people’s.

What are the basic elements of civic space?

Civic space allows the exercise of three fundamental rights that are central to any democracy: freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly. These three rights provide the foundation for people not only to interact with each other – to share ideas and discuss policies, laws or other issues of concern – but also with the government, so that people have a channel to reach politicians (such as through civil society organizations) and can voice their concerns without fear of retribution.

Freedom of expression, also called free speech, is our right to express ourselves in any way that does not harm the rights of others. This means people have the right to be critical of their leaders or government policies, whether speaking only for themselves or in groups of others. Sharing something on social media, writing a blog, participating in peaceful protests, even writing a letter to your local politician – all of these are examples of free speech and must be protected.

The right of people to join or form groups, and the right of these groups to work towards their lawful aims, is known as freedom of association. It gives people the right to identify with and support the causes they believe in, together with other like-minded people. When we join our voices together in groups, it adds weight to our message and increases the likelihood that politicians will hear and take seriously our claim.

These groups, whether they be citizens’ groups, human rights organizations or charities to help the elderly or the homeless, to name but a few, are collectively called civil society. It’s the part of our society that is not connected to politicians or party politics but nevertheless involves itself in political and social issues. Civil society organizations are also crucial actors in protecting civic space. Even in the European Union, there are authoritarian governments that do not respect fundamental rights or civic space – that in fact view these things as a threat. Civil society groups help raise awareness when our rights are under threat and work to ensure that threats are beaten back and civic space is healthy.

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Freedom of assembly is our right to peacefully gather together to voice our views on whatever matters we deem to be of public importance. This most commonly takes the form of protests, and peaceful protests are actually a sign of a healthy democracy. When people are free to air their concerns in public without fear or hindrance, it helps inform other citizens about problems they may be unaware of and helps the government understand what issues or problems are important to people.

Why and how does civic space differ around the world?

In an ideal world, civic space would be the same in every country – existing, strong, and unencumbered by the government. In reality, of course, this is not the case. Many countries, including in areas of strong democratic traditions like the EU, place restrictions on civic space. This occurs when democracy itself is not strong, as governments that do not have to fear losing power (such as in Hungary) have little incentive to act in the public interest.

There are some organizations that work to access the strength of civic space around the world. A good example is the CIVICUS Monitor, which rates countries on how well they uphold fundamental rights and protect civic space. According to this group, less than 4 percent of people around the world live in a county with “open” civic space, while almost 70 percent live in countries where the organization defines the civic space as either “repressed” or “closed.”

What are the biggest threats to civic space?

Civic space faces myriad threats, even in countries that we consider true democracies. Other factors, such as the coronavirus pandemic, can exacerbate these threats. For example, even countries like Germany and France made moves to limit peaceful protest and other rights during the pandemic – sometimes warranted on public health grounds, but often not.

In general, however, there are some threats to civic space that are common across many countries, regardless of the issues of the day. These include:

  • Attacks on rights defenders and civil society organizations, in particular against those who promote the rights of LGBTQI people, women, and minorities
  • Harassment, intimidation, and surveillance of activists
  • Disruption of the right to peacefully protest, often including the detention and prosecution of those who participate in protests
  • Online censorship
  • Laws that ban civil society organizations from receiving foreign funds, a necessary source of sustainment for many of these groups, and the imposition of unjust restrictions on the operations of civil society groups
  • Bureaucratic red tape and other obstacles meant to make civil society groups unable to perform their work, or even expose them to prosecution

These threats have a serious impact on civic space, in effect shrinking it and causing many people to choose not to participate in protests or join groups out of fear of retribution by the government.

What can be the consequences of shutting civic space down?

When civic space is squeezed or stamped out entirely, so too is democracy. While this may sound extreme, it’s fundamentally true because democracy is much more than simply the right of people to vote. It’s also the right of people to participate in public discourse, to voice their opinions, to form groups and to speak their minds, even to politicians, businesses, or other entities of power or authority.

When civic space does not exist, the threats to individuals who wish to exercise their rights and participate in public matters increase. They may even face incarceration or prosecution under unjust laws that are passed with the intention of silencing criticism of the government or impeding the work of organizations that work to expose corruption or other wrongdoing. All of this causes a chilling effect on public discourse, restricting the free flow of information, ideas, and news.

How can civic space be promoted and protected?

Protecting civic space begins with making clear its importance to people. Too many people do not understand why their basic rights are important, and how easily they can be restricted. The importance of civic space in keeping our rights strong, through our individual exercise of them or through organizations that work to promote and protect them, must be better communicated to the public.

When the government passes harsh and unjust laws that limit people’s rights, these should of course be challenged through the legal process, where possible. But more than that, activists and civil society organizations must appeal to our shared values as human beings, things like personal freedom, equality and equal opportunity, in order to underline the importance of civic space. The Civil Liberties Union for Europe works to promote this communications approach, called values-based framing, in order to turn public opinion in favor of protecting our rights and the civic space that makes them possible.

How can you participate in civic space?

Individually, each of us can help to participate in and strengthen civic space. If there are issues you care about, or problems you see, speak out about them, even on social media or in some other convenient way. Or join a group or association that works towards a goal you share, such as supporting minority groups or protecting LGBTQI people. It is important that we exercise our rights in order to protect them, because the more we do so, the more enshrined and accepted they become, and the more likely it is that decision-makers will take note of our concerns and change course.

Further reading on this topic:

Civic Space Policy Paper 2022

Civic Space Needs Our Protection

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