The CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression in 198 countries and territories, announced in a new report Wednesday that almost one third of humanity now lives in countries with ‘closed’ civic space.

This is the highest percentage–30.6% of the world’s population–living in the most restrictive possible environment since CIVICUS Monitor’s first report in 2018. Meanwhile, just 2.1% of people live in ‘open’ countries, where civic space is both free and protected, the lowest percentage yet and almost half the rate of six years ago.

These findings, detailed in the People Power Under Attack 2023 report, point to a worldwide civic space crisis requiring immediate, global efforts to reverse.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented global crackdown on civic space,” said CIVICUS Monitor lead researcher Marianna Belalba Barreto. “The world is nearing a tipping point where repression, already widespread, becomes dominant. Governments and world leaders must work urgently to reverse this downward path before it is too late.”

The CIVICUS Monitor rates each country's civic space conditions based on data collected throughout the year from country-focused civil society activists, regionally-based research teams, international human rights indices and the Monitor's own in-house experts. The data from these four separate sources are then combined to assign each country a rating as either ‘open,’ ‘narrowed,’ ‘obstructed,’ ‘repressed’ or ‘closed.’

Seven countries saw their ratings drop this year. These include Venezuela and Bangladesh, each now rated ‘closed’ due to intensifications of existing crackdowns on activists, journalists and civil society.

Democratic countries slipped too. Europe’s largest democracy, Germany, fell from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ amid protest bans and targeting of environmental activists. Bosnia & Herzegovina also declined to ‘obstructed,’ the twelfth European country downgraded since 2018.

One of 2023’s most dramatic slides occurred in Senegal, once considered among West Africa’s most stable democracies. Senegal entered the ‘repressed’ category amid sustained government persecution of protesters, journalists and opposition ahead of February elections.

“The range of countries where authorities restricted citizen participation in 2023 shows clampdowns are not isolated incidents but are part of a global pattern,” said Belalba. “A global backslide requires a global response. If citizens are not able to freely gather, organise and speak out, the world will not be able to solve inequality, confront the climate crisis and bring an end to war and conflict.”

CIVICUS Monitor data shows that worldwide, authorities target people’s freedom of expression above all else. Half of all documented violations in 2023 targeted free speech, with incidents ranging from a bombing outside a journalist’s house in Indonesia, the arrest of the head of a radio station in Tunisia and police pepper-spraying a reporter covering a protest in the United States.

Our research also reveals that intimidation is the number one tactic to restrict citizen freedoms. Human rights defenders, activists and media experienced intimidation in at least 107 countries. Media in particular bear the brunt, with 64% of incidents targeting journalists.

“Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy, but our data shows it faces serious threats,” said Belalba. “Assaults on journalists and media not only stifle individual voices, they are assaults on the very foundation of open societies.”

Despite these alarming trends, People Power Under Attack 2023 highlights areas of progress too. Timor-Leste’s civic space moved up to the second best rating ‘narrowed’ from ‘obstructed,’ reflecting the country’s commitment to fundamental freedoms. Four other countries saw ratings improve, though they remain in ‘repressed’ or ‘obstructed’ zones.

The report also details bright spots where countries made steps toward opening societies. Among these, Fiji repealed a restrictive media law. The Kenyan courts recognised the right of LGBTQI+ people to associate. Even Tajikistan, rated ‘closed,’ created a national human rights strategy with civil society input. Still, these and other improvements remain halting and often disconnected compared to widespread repression.

“These small steps show that even amid unprecedented restrictions, civil society is pushing back,” said Belalba. “These courageous acts of resistance by active citizens and civil society organisations give us hope that the downward trend is not permanent and can be reversed.”