July 21, 2022
Since 2020, Leopoldo Maldonado Gutiérrez has been regional director for the Mexico and Central America office of the international NGO Article19, which is devoted to the defense and promotion of freedom of expression and access to information globally. We recently spoke with Leopoldo about the linkages between international funding of civil society organizations (CSOs) and their accountability in the context of actions geared toward reducing the civic space.
EG: To what extent is the closing of civic space linked to the issue of CSO accountability in Mexico and the region?
LMG: Mexican civil society has been questioned from public authorities about its sources of funding, particularly due to its social accountability role around the exercise of power and public resources, with the aim of undermining the legitimacy of civil society organizations (CSOs). While attacks and actions to control CSOs’ operations is a global phenomenon, in the case of Mexico, there has been a direct confrontation during the current government, from the president’s own speech, through his morning press conferences.
In August 2020, from the Office of the Presidency, and arguing upon the President’s right to reply, there was an attack to a group of local, national and international organizations which supported the indigenous communities and peoples who were opposed to one of the current government’s flagship projects so-called ‘the Mayan Train’. This also led to the questioning of international private foundations supporting these organizations, arguing that since the philanthropic funds came from abroad, they were motivated by foreign interests. In this way, the government sought to discredit the organizations and undermine their legitimacy based on the discourse that international funding associated with foreign interests guide the actions of these organizations. Paradoxically, USAID and other international cooperation agencies have supported the Mexican government with a significant volume of resources, including in the area of human rights.
In mid-2020, there was a watershed in Articulo19’s relationship with the government of President López Obrador. In a joint investigation conducted with ITESO and Aristegui Noticias in May 2020, Articulo19 reported on the existence -through the state news agency Notimex- of a machinery within the state apparatus devoted to using fake social media accounts in order to attack and silence journalists critical to the government. It should be noted that Notimex’s general director was a journalist defended by Articulo19 in a defamation lawsuit brought by a politician some time ago. The U.S. State Department included a reference to our investigation in its annual report on human rights in Mexico. This caught the attention of the President of Mexico, generating an public reaction against Articulo19. On March 31, 2021, the President ratified his confidence in the director of Notimex while pointed out that Articulo19 was being financed by the United States. In addition, the President, who has maintained a public confrontation with another organization (Mexicans Against Corruption, where a former director of Articulo19 had gone to work), included our organization as part of an opposition front with Mexicans Against Corruption, constructing a conspiracy theory which involved the financing of CSOs by international agents.
A few weeks later, our President again mentioned Articulo19 during the visit to Mexico of the US Vice President, Kamala Harris. On that occasion, the Mexican President indicated that, he had requested -through a diplomatic letter- that U.S. government funding to CSOs be discontinued. Although Articulo19 was not included in the government’s letter, our organization is again mentioned in the President’s press conference. In total, the President made three reference to Articulo19 and its funding from the US.
In July 2021, an additional episode opened another flank in the President’s relationship with Articulo19, in the context of the so-called 11-J involving mass protests in Cuba. As a regional office that includes Cuba and other countries in Central America, our Articulo19 office issued a message calling for restraint due to Cuban President Diaz Canel’s call to defend the revolution in the streets, albeit making a mistake by using a photo from a demonstration in Cairo. While our office deleted the tweet and quickly acknowledged its mistake, President López Obrador resumed his attack at the following day’s press conference, sharing a screenshot of the deleted photo and claiming that the Cuban government was being delegitimized by an organization that received funding from the U.S. Embassy. This discourse from the public authorities seeks to generate doubts about the legitimacy of Articulo19’s actions and thus undermine its credibility, which is a fundamental asset for organizations working on human rights and advocacy.
Overall, we could state that this has led to an increase in attacks on Articulo19’s work through social media, while generating an environment conducive to other aggressions such as attacks to our website, specifically a microsite containing a repository called “Archivos de la Represión“; threats to staff of the organization; and a request for tax-related information from the public authorities.
EG: So the national government has questioned CSOs, including their funding from international sources. What were the actions taken by your organization in response to these events?
LMG: These aggressions or attacks from the government have generated a context of fear and self-censorship, as organizations no longer dare to denounce issues of their own agenda or defend other organizations. It is on the latter where we are observing one of the main challenges faced by civil society due to the attacks and questioning from the government.
Even so, after the first attacks on environmental organizations, in August 2020, an informal group was formed for reflection, exchange of experiences and joint development of a strategy, which later became known as ‘Espacio Cívico’ (Civic Space), and was joined by recognized international private foundations. This space has also served to bring together environmental and human rights organizations.
The dialogue and collaboration through Espacio Cívico made it possible to come up with articulated efforts and less confrontational responses from civil society in the short, medium and long term. One output was the development of a protocol for CSOs in the face of smear campaigns or reputational attacks. Espacio Cívico is also exploring a strategy to raise awareness among urban youth about the work of CSOs. Within this framework, a focus group was organized which showed that youth in urban areas distrust public authorities, but do not trust CSOs very much either. For this reason, a multimedia or multi-platform campaign is being considered to reduce the gap between CSOs and various segments of society.
EG: How did the mechanisms or groups to whom Articulo19 Mexico is accountable react?
LMG: Although we have programmatic autonomy, our office is accountable to Articulo19’s international office in London, to a regional advisory council and to donors. When Articulo19 was questioned by the President of Mexico, we had strong support from various stakeholders. Articulo19’s international office, to whom we report through audits and which are reviewed by the international board of directors, issued a communiqué and implemented a communications strategy with allies in Europe and the United Nations system, while we focused on the Inter-American system and regional allies. Our Regional Advisory Council, to whom we report every six months on the budget and strategies for each programmatic area, also issued a public statement.
More importantly, there was significant support from a number of CSOs. Articulo19 interacts with organized civil society engaged with human rights in Mexico, as well as with journalists. Before the first attack on Articulo19 by the President of Mexico, several journalists (a group on which we focus part of our defense actions) came out to publicly support the work of Articulo19. Later, however, with the events surrounding the so-called 11-J in Cuba, intellectuals and journalists sympathetic to the government began to distance themselves, arguing a certain selectivity on the part of our organization.
EG: To what extent could international standards, for example, the Global Standard for CSO Accountabilitythat promotes more domestic and peer-oriented accountability to local key stakeholders with which an organization works, contribute in contexts of restrictive civic space?
LMG: These mechanisms that promote various forms of accountability could contribute as part of the international and local reaction and support that legitimize the work of an organization or group of CSOs. Similarly to Accountable Now, Articulo19 has adopted a set of standards, although the challenge is how to bring these standards and practices closer to local organizations in order to generate a counter-narrative to the discourse from public authorities on the role of CSOs, their sources of funding and how they are accountable. Perhaps, the existence of these accountability mechanisms are irrelevant to governments seeking to control civic space, but it may matter for the citizenry to support an organization. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in countries where there is a culture of individual giving, the income of organizations that rely on it increased significantly. Sometimes, civic organizations have focused on wealthy philanthropists rather than a broad number of individuals donating to an organization’s mission, which in turn will contribute to an organization’s reputational social capital. That is why it is important to diversify the audiences or stakeholdersto which one is accountable as well as the forms of CSO accountability.
EG: Could you share with us some lessons learned from what happened in terms of shrinking civic space?
LMG: In addition to physical and digital risks, there are also reputational risks. CSOs need to generate resilience strategies based on communication with third parties and solidarity networks. For a long time, the funding model of some international cooperation donors led CSOs to compete for funds at the national or regional level. Currently, priority is given to a focus on joint or collective funds. This is a good thing, but networking must continue to be strengthened.
In conclusion, the threats to civic space also require examining how to advance accountability beyond financial and to donors, involving other stakeholders such as peer organizations and/or the communities with which CSOs work.