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The Public Sphere’s New Enemies

NEW YORK – Before 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 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. 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.

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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, association, and dissent. Lately, governments have been moving in the wrong direction. But 2016 offers 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. In 2016, we must fill – and thus protect – that space together.

Chris Stone is President of the Open Society Foundations.

By Chris Stone

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