This week CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, announced the inevitable change Italy has undergone. The country is now classified as a “Narrowed” country rather than an “Open” one.
The distinction between the two terms, according to the worldwide civic space watchdog, CIVICUS, is the following: An Open country is a place in which the state both enables and safeguards the enjoyment of civic space for all people that is expressed with the freedom to speak out, organise and take action. A Narrowed country, by contrast, is a place where, while the state allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, violations of these rights also take place. People can form associations to pursue a wide range of interests, but full enjoyment of this right is impeded by occasional harassment, arrest or assault of people deemed critical of those in power. Protests are conducted peacefully, although authorities sometimes deny permission, citing security concerns, and excessive force, which may include tear gas and rubber bullets, is sometimes used against peaceful demonstrators. The media is free to disseminate a wide range of information, although the state undermines complete press freedom either through strict regulation or by exerting political pressure on media owners.
But why has this drastic change occurred?
CIVICUS with the support of the monitoring of international Civil Societies, such as for example SOLIDAR and Civil Societies has found that over the last two years there has been a climate of tension and several pressures on social movements, NGOs , migrants’ rights defenders and journalists, and they are coming under increasing attack in Italy.
The most recent striking case is that of “Medici Senza Frontiere”. In November 2018, the Italian judicial authorities impounded one of the last civilian search and rescue (SAR) boats, the Aquarius, led by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and SOS Mediterranée. Twenty four people are currently under investigation by the prosecutor’s office of Catania for ‘‘trafficking and the illegal management of waste”, the food and clothes from their missions.
MSF commented on the allegations: "The Public Prosecutor's Office claimed that this waste should be considered as hazardous medical waste and managed according to appropriate procedures, but MSF has always followed standard procedures based on regular contracts with port agents and waste disposal companies at the port, so we are serene and trust in the course of justice. As doctors, even the suspicion of such a crime is unacceptable: saving lives is our first and only mission.”
The organisation is preparing an appeal. Karline Kleijer, MSF’s head of emergencies said: “After two years of defamatory and unfounded allegations of collusion with human traffickers, judicial investigations, and bureaucratic obstacles against our humanitarian work, we are now accused of organised crime aimed at illicit waste trafficking.”
Recently, international groups have been criticising Italy for targeting NGOs. The EU Agency for fundamental rights and several UN Special Rapporteurs have condemned the criminalisation of search and rescue NGOs as well as organisations and citizens providing support to migrants. The statement added: “Saving lives is not a crime. Protecting human dignity is not a crime. Acts of solidarity and humanity should not be persecuted”
A report by the Transnational Institute warns that the space for solidarity to migrants is shrinking.