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Civil society groups feel heat as elected governments turn on NGOs

International civil society groups say they are facing intensifying pressure even in democracies as elected governments wield political, legal and financial weapons to halt their work.

Amnesty International’s suspension last week of its Indian operations is the latest casualty in what critics view as a widening crackdown from Budapest to Brasília by elected but autocratic leaders seeking to entrench their power.

The trend has fed broader fears of a tilt towards authoritarianism worldwide. Activists fear that the loss of campaigning on injustices by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will add to factors such as online disinformation and the Covid-19 pandemic that already alienate people and make it easier for politicians to tighten their grip.

“An atomised society is a society that’s easier to control — that’s the rationale behind cracking down on NGOs,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of US-based Human Rights Watch. “That was a first principle of dictatorship — but we are now seeing this in ostensible democracies.”

Clampdowns on domestic civil society groups viewed as threatening official interests are familiar in countries that either hold no elections or whose polls are seen by international observers as flawed, such as China and Russia.

However, in recent years a number of democracies have begun to use similar tactics to curb the work of local and global NGOs.

Critics say the trend is part of a strategy of “hybrid government” by authoritarians, who amass power not by directly rigging votes but through domination of the public sphere achieved by stifling dissenting voices and promoting supportive ones.

“It’s definitely happening more with democratically elected governments,” said Elena Lazarou, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank. “And they are not only cracking down but also trying to boost their own alternative sets of civil society actors.”

Amnesty stopped its work in India after the country’s economic crime investigation agency froze the aid group’s bank accounts on the grounds that it allegedly broke laws prohibiting overseas funding. Amnesty has denied wrongdoing and says it has been harassed by Indian authorities for the past two years. It recently published two reports that attacked the human rights record of Narendra Modi’s government.

Elsewhere, a July report by the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights warned that President Rodrigo Duterte had created a “dangerous fiction” that it was legitimate to monitor and harass NGOs. He said in 2017 that police should shoot human rights activists who were “obstructing justice” in his bloody drugs war.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro last year initially blamed non-profit groups, without evidence, for wildfires that surged through the Amazon. Last month he branded NGOs a “cancer”.

In the EU — which sees itself as a bastion of democracy — Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s government has criminalised civil society groups that provide help to migrants it deems illegal. It also imposed law changes and exerted political pressure that forced the Open Society Foundations, created by billionaire

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