Tracking Civic Space During a Global Pandemic

As COVID-19 began to spread globally, the ICNL Alliance was among the first to highlight that it was not just a public health crisis, but also a crisis for civic space. In just over two weeks after the WHO officially declared a pandemic, ICNL and ECNL launched the COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker. The Tracker currently covers 164 countries and more than 400 measures – emergency declarations, laws, and practices that affect the freedoms of association, assembly, and expression.

While quick actions are necessary, some governments have been using the pandemic to justify undue civic space restrictions. As the Tracker shows, emergency laws in Zimbabwe punish sharing vaguely defined “fake news” about the pandemic with up to 20 years in prison. Algeria, Eritrea, and Mexico have indefinitely banned protests and public gatherings. In Brazil, data regarding cases and deaths has been removed from government websites, preventing people from making informed decisions and evaluating personal risks.

The Tracker swiftly became a go-to source of information on the implications of COVID-19 on civic space. Its data has been cited by The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, and a host of international media outlets from Argentina to Australia. It has also informed initiatives to safeguard rights during the pandemic, from Nigerian civil society activism against an unduly restrictive “Infectious Diseases Bill,” to U.S. lawmakers’ development of the bipartisan “Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic” bill.

As the pandemic evolved, we adapted our efforts to help keep civic space healthy in a rapidly changing landscape. Alongside the Tracker, we created user-friendly toolsto assess regional trends; shared up-to-date analyses on an array of COVID-related issues; and identified positive government responses that protect civic space. We held high-level briefings for donors and government officials, including a hearing before a U.S. Congressional subcommittee, to help set regional and national priorities around COVID-19 and civic space. We convened civil society hubs around the world to identify urgent threats and are supporting our partners’ efforts to navigate and push back against overreach.

Together with civil society allies worldwide, we will continue working to protect the health of civic space.

This story is from our 2019-2020 Annual Report. Each story in the report shows how our partners across the world help protect and, where possible, expand civic space.