Civil society and democracy are inextricably related with each other. A civil society comprises citizens and groups in the public arena working outside the government and commercial market such as informal organisations, non-profit groups and voluntary sectors. It aims to, among others, represent the interest of those who find it difficult to articulate and those whose voices are ignored and excluded which is very essential to reinvigorate democracy. Civil society also contests the power of the state or come up with alternate ways of policy formation. Collaboration between state and civil society happens only when both sides are involved in all phases of policy making, implementation and evaluation. It is axiomatic that where civil society is active and vigilant, democracy fosters and thrives well. However, in order to make civil society active and vibrant, an enabling environment should be necessarily created to allow civil society organisations (CSOs) function effectively and articulate voices to defend rights and interest of citizens. Spaces for civil society to operate and carry out actions in defense of human rights, social justice and democratic governance should, therefore, not be jeopardised or prejudiced. But today there has been widespread concern over the growing jeopardy and assault on civic spaces around the world with an aim to fetter and hinder their operation and functioning. This is also the case in Nepal where fears and concerns have been expressed and mounted, of late, from several quarters with regard to not so encouraging or satisfying state of civic space and democratic governance. The 2018 civil society sustainability index report for Asia released the other day, in Kathmandu pinpoints the advances and setbacks in seven key aspects affecting the working of the civil society organisations in Nepal, Bangladesh and many other countries. The report makes a pointed observation on different aspects of civic space in six Asian nations covered in the study including Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The report outlines that the government in these countries have not been friendly, if not clamped down on freedom of association, expression and assembly. The report mentions candidly that the government attempts to restrict and jeopardise civic space is primarily manifested in three dimensions of civil society organisations sustainability namely the legal environment, advocacy and public image. The passage of restrictive legislations and illiberal implementation of existing laws governing civil society organisations and media have been the major areas of government efforts to restrict civic space. The report mentions about the increased harassment of civil society actors putting their operational freedom at risk. The report covers several aspects of CSO sustainability in Nepal. It highlights some positive aspects remarking that the new federalist system has created a window of opportunity to make new laws and policies to promote an enabling environment for civil society organisations. However, the report takes note of the attempts of the government to malign the civic space by exerting control over media and freedom of expression. The government introduced the information technology bill in the parliament which would mandate, if ratified by the parliament, registration of social media websites with the department of information. Social media sites that fail to register would have their services blocked. Likewise, there are also objections to the provisions contained in the Media Council Bill that would require the journalists to pass the licensing examination. Nevertheless, according to the report legal environment for CSOs did not change in 2018 in Nepal because of the fact the laws perceived to be directed at the curtailing civic space have not been passed by the Parliament. During 2018 the government proposed instruments like National Integrity Policy and local level CSO Management Act to impose both territorial and functional restrictions on the working of civil society organisations. Though in substantive terms no legal enactments have been introduced and enacted to restrict civic spaces, civil society organisations encountered procedural hassles and encumbrances in renewal and tax clearance processes. In the aforesaid report launching event organised by GoGo Foundation, the Minister concerned who was present had pledged to work together with civil society organisations in collaborative and responsive spirit not to allow the civic space to decline or shrink. It needs to be mentioned that the organisational capacity of the civil society organisations in Nepal is relatively weaker. The CSO sustainability index report also concurs this fact in categorical term. The report mentions that the CSOs' abilities to build strong constituencies are hampered by their reliance on project based donor funding which compels them to seek diverse funding opportunities rather than sticking to particular mission. Moreover, CSO reliance on project based funding makes it difficult for them to hire or retain long term staff that has a negative bearing upon their organisational capacity. In fact, as mentioned in the report, foreign funding is a significant source of support for Nepali CSOs which has a direct bearing upon their weakened financial resource base. Nepali CSOs had to contend with negative stereotyping like dollar harvesting (Dollar Kheti Garne) but according to the report the image has changed for better lately. At a time when role of civil society to contribute towards enhancing and strengthening democratic federal governance is considered to be critically important in Nepal, attempt on the part of the government to malign and discredit civil society should be countered. It is expected that the government abandons, as can be gleaned from the flexible gestures of the government minister concerned, its moves initiated to enact restrictive laws to shrink and jeopardise civic space in Nepal.
(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues. He can be reached at email@example.com)