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Positive Civic Space Record In The Pacific But Concerns Remain

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Concerns about restrictive laws, the stifling of protests and harassment detract from an otherwise positive picture of fundamental freedoms across the Pacific, according to a new report released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks rights in 197 countries and territories.

The People Power Under Attack 2022 report shows that seven countries in the Pacific are rated ‘open’, the highest rating awarded by the CIVICUS Monitor while Australia, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu are rated ‘narrowed’.

However, the CIVICUS Monitor is concerned that civic freedoms are not respected across the region; Fiji, Nauru and Papua New Guinea remain in the ‘obstructed’ category.

There continues to be concerns about the use of restrictive laws in the Pacific region. In Australia, we saw over the year an increasing number of anti-protest laws which put climate protesters at risk. In April 2022, the New South Wales parliament passed a new law to punish protesters who disrupt economic activity. In the state of Victoria, a new law to crack down on protests at logging sites was passed in August 2022. Under the law, the maximum jail sentence and fines for hindering, obstructing or interfering with timber harvesting operations would be increased. Tasmania also passed a law which significantly increases some penalties and creates new offences for non-violent protest-related activity.

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In Fiji, sedition provisions in the Crimes Act have had a chilling effect on freedom of expression while sections of the Public Order (Amendment) Act have been used arbitrarily to restrict peaceful protests. With the change of government in December 2022, there are hopes that these laws would be revised in accordance with international human rights law and standards.

In Samoa, criminal defamation cases under the Crimes Act 2013 were brought against the opposition and a radio presenter while in Vanuatu, cybercrime charges were used against individuals for posting comments on social media on the COVID-19 outbreak. The UN Human Rights Committee has urged states to decriminalise defamation.

“While the picture for civic space in the Pacific seems positive, there are concerns about anti-protests laws in Australia and criminal defamation laws in Fiji, Samoa And Vanuatu that have been used to silence dissent and restrict protests. These laws also create a chilling effect and must be revised or repealed so that activists and critics can speak up and mobilise without the fear of being criminalised,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS.

In the Pacific, the disruption of protests was documented in Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. In Papua New Guinea security forces opened fire on protesters in Jiwaka province around the general elections in August 2022, killing four men and injuring 15 others. In Australia, the police undertook a preemptive raid ahead of protests by Blockade Australia climate protesters in June 2022, arresting at least 40 people while in New Zealand, anti-vaccine protests were disrupted and protesters arrested in February 2022. The CIVICUS Monitor also documented the harassment of the media in Solomon Islands and as well as the suspension of judges in Kiribati.

“The right to protest is critical to highlight human rights issues and to demand justice and accountability. Protesters must be able to do this without fear of being arrested, prosecuted, attacked or even killed. States in the Pacific must ensure that security forces respect this right and bring those who violate them to account,” said Benedict.

Despite this onslaught against civic freedoms, there have been some positive developments in 2022. In Australia, amid ongoing campaigning from civil society, the new Labor government dropped the prosecution against whistleblower and lawyer, Bernard Collaery, for revealing spying on Timor-Leste during negotiations over oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea in 2004. In Papua New Guinea, there have been consultations on the development of a Human Rights Defenders’ Protection bill.

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor, providing evidence and research that help us target countries where civic freedoms are at risk. The Monitor has posted more than 490 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2022.

Civic freedoms in 197 countries and territories are categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology that combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Visit CIVICUS Monitor for more information on the Pacific region, and check back regularly for the latest updates.

PDF of report - https://civicusmonitor.contentfiles.net/media/documents/GlobalFindings2022.pdf

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