OGP Steering Committee Defers Civic Space Discussion

30 October 2013

The Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership Oct. 29 decided against establishing a task force on how the OGP should address emerging constraints on the media and civil society organizations.

The discussion of protecting “civic space” is expected to continue, however, according to members of the Steering Committee representing civil society organizations, CSO members and OGP officials told FreedomInfo.org.

Restrictions on freedom of assembly, crackdowns on the media and various forms of limitations on the activities of CSOs are among the concerns, and by some estimates the trend is negative within about half a dozen of the 60 OGP countries.

The topic also was the subject of a session at the CSO conference Oct. 30, preceeding the official OGP summit Oct. 31 – Nov. 1.

The U.S. representative on the Steering Committee, Sarah Mendelsohn said at the CSO panel, “I am not positive that everyone on the Steering Committee is as convinced as some of us are that this is a problem.”

CSO members on the Steering Committee, who put the topic on the agenda, suggesting the creation of a task force to address constraints on civic space. (See previous FreedomInfo.org.report.) Despite shared concerns about the importance of the topic, there was disagreement on how to proceed, the OGP sources said. Among other things, it was suggested that an existing SC subcommittee could look into the matter. Most of the concerns were registered by the representative from South Africa, several sources said.

There was “reticence” about the process, one OGP official said. There were no “ripe ideas” on the table, noted another, pointing out that the committee operates by consensus. The task force idea was seen as “a bit premature,” commented another.

There was limited time, about 20 minutes, for the civic space discussion. The Steering Committee, composed equally of government and CSO members, met for more than three hours in advance of the summit, primarily to review the summit agenda.

A variety of possible OGP responses were outlined during the CSO conference panel by Suneeta Kaimal, who will soon be  the CSO OGP co-chair. She is the deputy director of the Revenue Watch Institute.

“Within the Steering Committee discussion it has been said time and time again that this is an absolutely critical issue,” she said, calling the integrity of the process “fundamental.”

“What we are facing is how to assure this,” Kaimel said.

The “low bar” for civic engagement that is part of the OGP eligibility requirement is a “relatively poor bar” she said, adding that possibly the measurement mechanism can be improved. Whether the OGP should have a rapid response mechanism is another idea, she said.

Another avenue is for the independent researchers who evaluate OGP members’ national action plans to address problems in the enabling environments. Kaimel suggested that a set of standards could be prepared for the reviewers. CSOs also need to communicate with the reviewers about problems, said several members of a panel that advises the Independent Reporting Mechanism. At least one report of the first IRM reports recently released, on South Africa, touched on this area, saying that legisalation on restricting national security information contributed to mistrust bwteeen the government and vicil society.

Marinke van Riet, an international director of Public What You Pay and a board member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, said the EITI is developing a checklist on civic space to be used for EITI country evaluations.

Mendelson said, “It is not clear to me that OGP is the ultimate response,” suggesting that other avenues may be necessary.

Panelists at the CSO session addressed some specific problems.

New constraints in Azebaijan are impeded pubic participation on the OGP process, said Gubad Ibadolglu, representing a CSO in Azerbailjan, commenting, “The government does not like independent civil society organizations.”

“We are currently monitoring 50 restrictive laws around the world,” said Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.

A recent Media Council report for the OGP mentioned media restriction in South Africa, Tanzania, Turkey and Hungary.

 

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