CIVICUS Monitor tracks civic space issues worldwide. In 2018 it identified eleven EU member states where civic space had become “narrowed” or “obstructed”. Civil society organisations lament the lack of access to policymakers and are consulted less frequently than before. They are the target of smear campaigns and defamatory articles in the public discourse. In some EU countries, they face new laws that violate freedom of expression and information, and freedom of peaceful assembly. Access to funding has become more difficult, and it is nearly impossible to share experiences under these conditions. Digitalisation has opened up new spaces for citizens, but even this restricts freedoms elsewhere. The lack of regulation and transparency of the algorithms used by online platforms, the role of these platforms and their interactions with companies and political actors, negligent data protection and unrestricted data usage all make it easier to manipulate public discourse and spread disinformation. On the other hand, regulatory responses can be problematic for democracy if they adversely affect freedom of expression. This is also problematic because public trust in the media has dropped in many European countries. Media freedom and independence are declining in Europe, partly because it is almost impossible to finance quality journalism.
We have teamed up with 16 other foundations from across Europe to create a fund aimed at supporting civil society initiatives all over Europe. In 2019, Civitates consisted of two funds that select projects via public requests for proposals. The fund for a “strong and resilient civil society” promotes cross-sectoral cooperation in several European countries, primarily in the form of coalitions and networks that go beyond capital cities and the non-profit sector. The aim here is to protect and widen the space available for critical, committed citizens and their organisations. The fund for a “healthy digital public sphere” provides targeted support to initiatives that respond to the current and future problems of digitalisation by proposing new rules. We want to engage with as many experts from civil society as possible to provide information and press ahead with a reform agenda for the digital public sphere in order to help people in Europe better understand how the digital news and information ecosystem works. In 2020, a third fund was created for promoting independent quality journalism (public interest journalism).
Together we can achieve more. We have teamed up with other foundations because we want to jointly contribute to bringing substantial funds into the sector. The many active yet overstretched civic organisations that strive to improve communal life in our society need structural support. We also want to empower European citizens to recognise digital disinformation and the risks of digital information channels. People can make better choices when selecting information sources if they understand that public discourse can be manipulated and that problems arise when there is a lack of gatekeepers in the media and an absence of transparency and accountability among large online platforms. We want to help provide access to a wide range of media, news sources and content.