Civil society is under "serious attack" in almost six out of 10 countries around the world, new research shows.
People Power Under Attack, published today by Civicus, a Johannesburg-based global alliance of civil society organisations and activists that works to strengthen citizen action, concludes that civil society is under serious attack in 111 out of 196 countries, up from 109 when the previous assessment took place in March.
The report says that in practice this means repression of peaceful civic activism is a "widespread crisis for civil society in all parts of the world", with only 4 per cent of the world’s population living in countries where governments are properly respecting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
"As societies fracture under the weight of rising social and economic inequalities and the increasing dominance of political leaders seeking to exploit societal divisions for their gain, civil society is bearing the brunt of a consequent drop in respect for the basic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression," the report says.
It says the space for citizen activism in a growing number of countries where democratic freedoms have long been considered established, such as the USA, is gradually reducing.
"Even in some of the world’s most open countries, such as Australia and Germany, challenges to civic space are growing," it says.
Researchers assessed countries on a range of areas to calculate the overall level of civic freedom they offered and categorised them as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open.
They concluded that the ratings for nine countries had worsened this year, including Austria, Kuwait, Tanzania and Italy, whereas seven had improved, including Canada, Ethiopia, Lithuania and Somalia.
The study says there are 23 countries with a "closed" civic space, whereas 44 of the 196 received an "open" rating at the opposite end of the scale.
The UK continues to be placed in the "narrowed" category, the report says.
"Countries including France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom have reduced the space for civil society organisations critical of the state and the private sector," it says.
"Very often, the targets of these restrictions are social movements, environmental groups or groups providing support to refugees and migrants."
Cathal Gilbert, civic space research lead at Civicus, said global leaders needed to take the protection of civic freedoms more seriously.
"For civil society, 2018 was a story of states innovating to suppress and restrict criticism by those who dare to challenge people in power," he said.