Rising populism, the stigmatization of civil society and restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and assembly were among the global concerns highlighted in a recent report for the UN Human Rights Council, that should serve as a warning.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, Clément Voule, identified eight trends of concern that include the repression of social movements, the stigmatisation and attacks against civil society actors, restrictions targeting particular groups and restrictions on peaceful protest.
These concerns have been voiced in Malta too, on the collapse of the rule of law and the targeting of those critical of the government. Discrediting the protests and actions of civil society groups is a common tactic in preserving authority for the government.
The secret pro-Muscat online groups exposed by The Shift News are a tool used to discredit activists and set them up as targets of hate. The Facebook groups, which until recently had Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as a member, have targeted activists, politicians from the opposition, the Archbishop and assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and her family.
These groups continue to be administered by people who include staff at ministries paid by taxpayers, and their members still include Labour MPs and government officials working at the Office of the Prime Minister.
Attempts to discredit civil society and limit its expression through protest are visible – such as when a police officer tried to stop a press photographer from documenting an anti-corruption protest.
Public expression of government criticism – through banners and billboards – have also been taken down, repeatedly. Other voices are drowned out through the government’s dominance of the public sphere – its control over media and communications channels, and its willingness to use taxpayers’ money to advertise the government’s message.
These trends do not only serve to silence opposition, they serve also to increase the leader’s popularity. The UN Special Rapporteur said rising populism was one of the concerns in global trends.
Column inches have been dedicated to explaining the dangers of rising populism, and the threat this poses on democratic freedoms. Yet, populist leaders only grow stronger. Then, facts can be buried, truth can be spun, opposition can be ignored.
Even the smallest limitation on freedoms should be met with outrage, not complacency.
The UN Special Rapporteur commended civil society for standing up to the rhetoric of hate and intolerance, and authoritarianism. He also called on States to recognise “the important and legitimate role civil society played in shaping governance and rule of law, inclusiveness and development”.