Pacific’s positive rights record blighted by downgrade of Solomon Islands and restrictive laws8 December, 2021
- Solomon Islands downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’
- Use of restrictive laws most common civic rights violation in Pacific in 2021
- Majority of countries in the Pacific are rated ‘open’
A civic rights downgrade for the Solomon Islands, coupled with the passage or use of restrictive laws, 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 2021 report shows that civic freedoms are routinely respected in over half the countries in this region. Seven countries in the Pacific are rated ‘open’, the highest rating awarded by the CIVICUS Monitor. An ‘open’ rating means people are free to form associations, demonstrate in public spaces, and share information without fear of reprisals.
However, the CIVICUS Monitor is concerned that civic rights are not respected across the region; Fiji, Nauru and Papua New Guinea remain in the ‘obstructed’ category, meaning that restrictions of freedoms of expression, association and assembly have been raised by civil society in these countries. Also, in an alarming development, the Solomon Islands has fallen from the top rating ‘open’, to ‘narrowed’.
Restrictions relating to media freedoms, access to information and the right to protest led to the Solomon Islands’ downgrade. Freedom of expression is of particular concern - in early 2021 the cabinet threatened to ban Facebook over worries about posts with “inflammatory critiques of the government”. The government eventually backtracked after condemnation from civil society and the opposition.
Infringements on the right to freedom of assembly have been documented in the Solomon Islands. In July, the State of Public Emergency was extended for another four months in response to COVID-19, even though there were only 20 reported cases in the country. A march in Honiara to deliver a petition to the government by people from the Malaita province was disrupted and dispersed by the police.
Accessing information is another pressing concern in the Solomon Islands, where there is no freedom of information legislation, and media groups have also expressed worries over the lack of information available throughout the pandemic. Additionally, the environment towards civil society groups is becoming more hostile in the country, for example, in late 2019 the office of the Prime Minister called for an investigation into a number of civil society groups after they called for the Prime Minister to step down.
“Excessive restrictions on civic freedoms imposed by the government under the guise of preventing COVID-19 led to the downgrade of the Solomon Islands. Constant threats to ban Facebook and attempts to vilify civil society have also resulted in the failure of the Solomon Islands to retain a top spot in our global rights rankings,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS.
In Asia-Pacific, the use of restrictive laws against activists and critics was the top civic rights violation in 2021, documented in at least seven countries.
In Fiji, provisions relating to sedition in the Public Order (Amendment) Act 2014 have been used to target journalists, activists and government critics, while other sections of the act have been used to arbitrarily restrict peaceful protests. The Fiji Trade Unions Congress (FTUC) was denied a permit to hold a rally in the capital, Suva, on International Labour Day, 1 May 2021; no written reason for the rejection was given.
The use of restrictive laws is a concern across the Pacific. New criminal defamation laws passed in Vanuatu and Tonga cast a chilling blow to freedom of expression. In Australia, the government continues to hound whistle-blowers through the courts, as seen in the case of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer of an ex-spy, who was charged with allegedly exposing Australia’s bugging of Timor-Leste; in 2019 Australia was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor due to attempts to silence whistleblowers who reveal government wrongdoing, among other concerns.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association says the pandemic should not be used as a pretext to suppress the right of peaceful assembly. Yet in Australia and New Zealand scores of anti-lockdown protesters were detained in 2021 for violating COVID-19 regulations.
Other civic rights violations highlighted by the CIVICUS Monitor include the harassment or intimidation of activists and critics across the Pacific, as documented in Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. Fijian surgeon Dr Jone Hawea was detained for questioning after criticising the government’s response to COVID-19 in his Facebook live videos, while Papua New Guinean lawyer Laken Lepatu Aigilo was allegedly detained and assaulted by police in April 2021 after lodging an official complaint against a politician.
“The state of civic space in the Pacific may seem relatively positive. However, over the year we have seen restrictive laws being used in several countries, including criminal defamation laws. Protests have also been denied or disrupted under the pretext of handling the pandemic, while activists have faced harassment and intimidation,” said Benedict.
Despite this onslaught against civic freedoms, there have been some positive developments this year. After strong civil society pressure, Tongan authorities moved swiftly to charge the alleged murderer of leading LGBTQI+ activist Polikalepo “Poli” Kefu, after his body was found on a beach near Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island.
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 550 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2021.
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.
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