Chris Sto­ne: The pu­b­lic sphe­re’s new en­emies.

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From Fran­ce to Ugan­da and Rus­sia, the­re is a frigh­ten­ing glo­bal crack­down on ci­vil rights. Ne­ver has spea­king up re­qui­red mo­re cou­ra­ge, ar­gues Chris Sto­ne.

Be­fo­re last No­vem­ber’s ter­ro­rist attacks in Pa­ris, it was le­gal to sta­ge a de­mons­tra­ti­on in a pu­b­lic squa­re in that ci­ty. Now it isn’t. In Ugan­da, alt­hough ci­ti­zens cam­pai­gning against cor­rup­ti­on or in fa­vor of gay rights of­ten faced a hos­ti­le pu­b­lic, they didn’t face jail ti­me for de­mons­tra­ting. But un­der a frigh­ten­ingly va­gue new sta­tu­te, now they do. In Egypt, go­vern­ment aut­ho­ri­ties re­cent­ly rai­ded and shut down pro­mi­nent cul­tu­ral in­sti­tu­ti­ons — an art gal­le­ry, a thea­ter, and a pu­blis­hing hou­se – whe­re ar­tists and ac­tivists on­ce gathe­red.

All around the world, it seems, the walls are clo­sing in on the space that people need to as­sem­ble, as­so­cia­te, ex­press them­sel­ves fre­e­ly, and re­gis­ter dis­sent. Even as the In­ter­net and com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons tech­no­lo­gy ha­ve ma­de spea­king up pu­bli­cly tech­ni­cal­ly ea­sier than ever, ubi­qui­tous sta­te and com­mer­ci­al sur­veil­lan­ce has en­su­red that ex­pres­si­on, as­so­cia­ti­on, and pro­test re­main cons­trai­ned. In short, spea­king up has ne­ver re­qui­red mo­re cou­ra­ge.

For me, this shift could not hit clo­ser to ho­me. In No­vem­ber, the Open So­cie­ty Foun­da­ti­ons (the glo­bal phil­an­thro­pies of Ge­or­ge So­ros, which I le­ad) be­ca­me the se­cond or­ga­niza­t­i­on black­lis­ted un­der a Rus­si­an law, enac­ted in May, that al­lows the coun­try’s pro­se­cu­tor ge­ne­ral to ban for­eign or­ga­niza­t­i­ons and su­s­pend their fi­nan­ci­al sup­port of lo­cal ac­tivists. Be­cau­se an­yo­ne who en­ga­ges with us is sub­ject to pos­si­ble pro­se­cu­ti­on and im­pri­son­ment, we ha­ve had no choice but to cut off re­la­ti­ons with the do­zens of Rus­si­an ci­ti­zens we sup­por­ted in their ef­forts to pre­ser­ve so­me frag­ment of de­mo­cra­cy in their coun­try.

Of cour­se, the­re is not­hing wrong with re­gu­la­ting pu­b­lic space and the or­ga­niza­t­i­ons that use it. In the ear­ly 1990s, so­me new go­vern­ments in Eas­tern Eu­ro­pe, Af­ri­ca, and La­tin Ame­ri­ca, un­de­re­sti­ma­ting the po­wer of an ac­tive ci­ti­zen­ry and ci­vil so­cie­ty, failed to re­gu­la­te ade­qua­te­ly ad­vo­ca­cy or­ga­niza­t­i­ons and the space in which they work. But over the last two de­ca­des, as ac­tive ci­ti­zens ha­ve topp­led re­gimes in do­zens of coun­tries, go­vern­ments ha­ve mo­ved too far in the op­po­si­te di­rec­tion, im­po­sing ex­ces­si­ve re­gu­la­ti­ons on tho­se or­ga­niza­t­i­ons and that space. In the pro­cess, they are cri­mi­na­li­zing the most ba­sic forms of de­mo­cra­tic prac­tice.

In so­me ca­ses, go­vern­ments do not even bo­ther to crea­te a le­gal pre­ce­dent for their ac­tions. Last spring in Bu­run­di, Pre­si­dent Pier­re Nku­run­zi­za as­su­med a third term in of­fice, de­spi­te the two-term li­mit enshri­ned in the con­sti­tu­ti­on. When ci­ti­zens took to the streets to pro­test, they we­re vio­lent­ly sup­pres­sed.

Even coun­tries with so­me of the world’s most ro­bust de­mo­cra­tic tra­di­ti­ons ha­ve be­en cracking down. Af­ter the Pa­ris attacks, Fran­ce and Bel­gi­um (whe­re the ter­ror plot was plan­ned and or­ga­ni­zed) sus­pen­ded ci­vil liberties in­de­fi­ni­te­ly, trans­for­ming them­sel­ves over­night in­to what are, at least by sta­tu­te, po­li­ce sta­tes. In both coun­tries, de­mons­tra­ti­ons ha­ve be­en ban­ned; pla­ces of wor­ship ha­ve be­en clo­sed; and hund­reds of people ha­ve be­en de­tai­ned and in­ter­ro­ga­ted for ha­ving voiced an un­con­ven­tio­nal opi­ni­on.

This ap­proach is ex­ac­ting a hea­vy toll. Thousands of people who had plan­ned to pro­test at the Uni­ted Na­ti­ons cli­ma­te talks last month had to sett­le for lea­ving their shoes on the ground. It was a start­ling image, il­lus­tra­ting how fe­ar can over­run the com­mit­ments nee­ded to main­tain open so­cie­ties and po­li­ti­cal free­doms even in Eu­ro­pe, the birth­place of mo­dern ci­ti­zenship.

The­re is no sim­ple for­mu­la for re­gu­la­ting

pu­b­lic space or safe­guar­ding peace­ful po­li­ti­cal dis­sent in an age of ter­ro­rism and glo­ba­liza­t­i­on. But two ba­sic prin­ci­ples are cle­ar.

First, the world nee­ds stron­ger in­ter­na­tio­nal go­ver­nan­ce of the mo­ve­ment of people and mo­ney, and fe­wer re­stric­tions on speech, as­so-cia­ti­on, and dis­sent. Late­ly, go­vern­ments ha­ve be­en mo­ving in the wrong di­rec­tion. But the­re are plen­ty of op­por­tu­nities for cor­rec­tion, in are­as ran­ging from tra­de to mi­gra­ti­on.

Se­cond, non-pro­fit or­ga­niza­t­i­ons wor­king to im­pro­ve pu­b­lic po­li­cy need the sa­me rights to se­cu­re in­ter­na­tio­nal fun­ding as for-pro­fit en­tre­pre­neurs see­king to pro­vi­de goods and ser­vices. For­eign di­rect in­vest­ment should be en­cou­ra­ged, not hin­de­red, re­gard­less of whe­ther it will sup­port goods pro­duc­tion and job crea­ti­on or stron­ger pu­b­lic po­li­cies and mo­re ac­tive ci­ti­zenship.

The re­s­pon­si­bi­li­ty for chan­ging cour­se does not fall ex­clu­si­ve­ly on go­vern­ments. All of us who va­lue open pu­b­lic space must stand shoul­der to shoul­der in sup­port of the po­li­cy frame­works and in­sti­tu­ti­ons that safe­guard it. Now is a ti­me for so­li­da­ri­ty across mo­ve­ments, cau­ses, and coun­tries.

When sim­ply ta­king up the ac­tivism of a con­cer­ned ci­ti­zen can land you in jail and fe­ar of sur­veil­lan­ce en­cou­ra­ges mass pas­si­vi­ty, sing­le-is­sue po­li­tics is not a win­ning stra­te­gy. The best way to de­fend pu­b­lic space is to oc­cu­py it, even if you are cham­pio­n­ing a cau­se dif­fe­rent from that of the per­son stan­ding next to you. We must fill – and thus pro­tect — that space to­ge­ther.

Chris Sto­ne is pre­si­dent of the Open So­cie­ty Foun­da­ti­ons, which pro­mo­te de­mo­cra­cy and ac­coun­ta­ble go­vern­ment world­wi­de.

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