The police and secret services monitor them and intimidate employees, their financial resources are blocked, often in the form of heavy fines, and laws hinder their work or ban them entirely – such as Putin’s law against “foreign agents”. There are many ways in which dictatorships – or “illiberal democracies” like Viktor Orbán’s Hungary – take action against uncomfortable democratic associations and initiatives.
But democracies are not immune either. A few years ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, Maina Kiai, presented a worrying list of restrictions in tried-and-tested democracies in Berlin: that in Switzerland anyone who does not immediately obey the police at demonstrations has to pay 100,000 francs, that Spain has the most restrictive right of assembly in the world and undercover agents in the UK have been allowed to infiltrate environmental groups and other legal organizations, sowing mutual distrust and crippling work.
Or that the police in some US states are legally allowed to beat up black demonstrators. The traditional London civil rights organization IRR compiled three years ago how sea rescue, an age-old duty on the seas, is being criminalized by more and more EU countries as smuggling – the crew of the German ship “Iuventa” has been on trial in Sicily since Saturday, the indictment against the captain and her people demands 20 years imprisonment.
Democratic engagement is under pressure worldwide. And not just through government intervention. “Non-state actors also threaten civil society and thus impair its work,” write two researchers from the Berlin DeZIM Institute in a recently published pilot study “Threatened Civil Society”. So far, research has hardly been aware of this danger. For this purpose, Nora Ratzmann and Moritz Sommer collected data from the initiatives and associations that the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs supports in the “Living Democracy” program – which are therefore considered by the state itself to be worthy of support.
The most important result: In Germany, where there is no systematic persecution of civil society by the state, civil rights activists still work in many places under conditions that endanger them and their commitment. More than two-thirds of the project coordinators who Ratzmann and Sommer interviewed stated that they had experienced specific hostilities, threats and assaults in their everyday work over the past twelve months.
Only 16 of the 50 organizations surveyed had not experienced anything of the sort during this period. More than half (54 percent) cited defamation of their work as the most common form of threat. Personal disparagement and insults, for example through hate speech on social networks, were also frequently mentioned (42 percent). A good quarter (26 percent) experience targeted attempts to intimidate them, for example when they find themselves on “death lists” or are exposed to telephone harassment.
The threats constantly accompanied her life and work. “It’s always present,” the project coordinator of an organization that works for the immigration society is quoted as saying. “a constant buzz from this hatred and from insults and threats.”
According to the study, the target is preferably anyone who works for a diverse society, for social participation and against racism, anti-Semitism and hostility towards sexual minorities, such as gays and trans people. Half of the respondents also say that sexism or hatred of feminism is “often” or “always” involved when they are attacked.
Most of the aggression comes from the right and right-wing extremists. However, Jewish initiatives are also familiar with attacks from the left, from the anti-imperialist scene, and from the Islamist side. Contempt for trans people also shows the bourgeois-conservative center and turns it into defamation of clubs and people who are involved here.
In the interviews, the AfD and its possibilities appear as a very concrete threat on several levels since it has been represented in the Bundestag and in the state parliaments. The civil society initiatives not only fear them as the most important force that is shifting the public debate to the right. She also puts them under pressure with parliamentary inquiries if they don’t suit her politically. She reports to her sponsors and project partners, which means inquiries to the initiatives and additional pressure to justify her. Those surveyed complain that dealing with it ties up further scarce resources, time and money.
Attempts to take legal action against them are also expensive and time-consuming. “In addition, several study participants who work on topics related to the immigration society expressed concern about the future of the projects, their jobs and their personal security should the AfD gain extended access rights to internal data by taking over offices,” the researchers write: Inside.
They also asked what means they see against ever stronger attacks. Result: More police and other physical protection is right at the end of the wish list. Most frequently (85 percent), on the other hand, the democratically active would like “public support”.
Then there is the legal one: 79 percent think that state funding for them does not take into account the fact that the – legal – defense against attacks also costs money; this would then have to be paid for with funds that should actually be spent on promoting democracy. 67 percent also want better legal foundations.
The study refers to the Attac case. The organization, which is committed to social and ecological globalization, lost its non-profit status in 2014. From the point of view of the Federal Fiscal Court, it works too day-to-day. Attac has lodged a complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court, which has not yet been decided.
The state is therefore an accomplice if it does not protect democratic commitment to diversity and equality. Nora Ratzmann and Moritz Sommer write that these “schools of democracy” are endangered not only by oppression, as in dictatorships, but also by “political neglect.” The “outdated German non-profit law” is an example: “Such regulatory omissions are undoubtedly one of the most pressing challenges for the relationship between the state and civil society