Gabrielle Ritchie: Director, The Change Room
16th November 2016
Philanthropic funding is critical for a host of democracy-defending and –strengthening initiatives that would otherwise have little or no financial support at all to implement the tough work that needs to be done to defend our democratic space. In South Africa, we must remain vigilant about our freedoms and must continue to push to ensure that rights – as per our constitution – are realised for all.
So where does digital fit into discussions on democracy, development and donors?
I have been thinking a lot about digital civil society – which, in my view, is the same thing (at least currently they remain the same) as civil society using digital technology. A few weeks back, I had the energising experience of being part of an Enset/ Resource Alliance panel discussion in Cape Town about South African civil society and the digital space, which I will be writing about in the next week or so (so watch this space!). It’s a huge topic, with so many sub-topics, not all of which link up neatly together. The digital space and its implications for civil society has been a hot topic for precisely this reason – there is SO much to discuss!
One of my most favourite, self-proclaimed philanthropy wonks is Lucy Bernholz. Her latest blog post is about digital civil society and the looming threats to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, all the more threatened with the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Her urgent call is that we all need to stand up, make our voices heard, and resist attempts to close down civil society space.
This is not a challenge limited to the US. Far from it. Increasingly across the African continent, there are noises and threats regarding the closure (or further constriction) of digital space, in addition to pressure on the physical civil society space – where it does exist – to organise and express challenges to governments.
As Bernholz says:
All our civic action – from philanthropy to protest, from petitions to polling – now takes place on a digital infrastructure. Every organization that is dedicated to helping the vulnerable, to free expression, or that understands it is simply an institutionalized form of our right to peaceable assembly and private action for public benefit should realize now that their existence depends on the rights now threatened. As civil society has closed elsewhere, so has it now been directly, overtly, and rather unabashedly threatened from the people elected to lead our government.
The most important point that Bernholz makes, though, is that we all need to get ourselves trained up around digital space, the ways (both actual and potential) in which this space is threatened, and what we need to start doing about it. Right now.
Bernholz mentions a number of angles, including “capacity building, consulting, governance training, and technology support need to address digital governance and practices”. And she goes on to stress that “It is not optional, it’s integral to running a safe and effective organization”.
In other words, this isn’t something we need to watch out for coming down the line. Rather this is something that we need not only to be monitoring now, but we need to be managing the risks already, and putting place policies and practices that will ensure we are able to continue to work effectively and safely.
Ute Scheffer’s September 2016 article, No right for digital participation in many regions of the world, offers insights into the current state of play with regard to journalism and clampdowns on expression and organising. According to Scheffer, South Africa ranked 39th of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. This is above the US, and only one place behind the UK. There are two thoughts on this – one is that this is very revealing about the squeeze on press freedom in these apparent bastions of democracy and freedom; the second is that having a reasonable ranking means we must maintain and increase (not loosen) our vigilance.
It is critical to bear in mind that, with regard to digital civil society – and the digital space in which we operate – it is not just about access to news and information, but is also fundamentally about forms of communicating, organising, advocating, mobilising, and attracting resources in support of organisational and campaign work.
Organisations in South Africa working on these issues (and supported with philanthropic funding) suddenly become central to South African civil society then, right? So who are they, what are they working on, and how do we find them? Below are a few of the best known organisations working to defend our freedoms with regard to information, and the sharing of information in print and in the digital space.
- Right2Know Campaign
- Freedom of Expression Institute
- Open Democracy Advice Centre
- Code for South Africa
- Code for Africa
Start engaging around our digital space, people – global trends (and Lucy Bernholz) indicate that the time is now.