Italian civil society as an “antidote” to the crisis of democracy

Published: 4 August 2022

“There are many good cases of effective collaboration between NGO campaigns and the media where civil society has produced some interesting data and a media campaign uses them. [….] the work of journalists also has a continuation within a public sensibility.” – Luisa Chiodi, director of OBCT

The NGO Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso e Transeuropa (OBCT) – a think tank focused on South-East Europe, Turkey and the Caucasus founded more than 20 years ago – published the report “Italian civil society: from target to antidote to the crisis of democracy?”. The research, supported by Civitates, is part of the project “Winning the Narrative”, which aims to respond to the shrinking space for non-governmental organisations, renewing their narratives, especially on migration issues.

The authors – Luisa Chiodi, Fazila Mat and Serena Epis – conducted 18 interviews with prominent actors of the Italian civil society, asking them to assess the conclusion of the first Report on the Rule of Law in Italy, published by the European Commission in 2020. The main question that the report tried to address is why NGOs that assist migrants are targeted by defamation campaigns and, at the same time, to understand how the civil society in Italy changed over time in its relationship with politics and the media.  

Politics and media are necessary interlocutors for civil society

The OBCT team found that civil society in Italy has both strengths and weaknesses. It is fundamental to preserve the rule of law, but this role of “antidote” is endangered by the rise of populism that followed the 2015 migrant crisis. This explains the question mark at the end of the title: Italian civil society is still working to recuperate its space of safeguard for democracy. 

“There is a huge amount of work to be done” – says Luisa Chiodi, director of Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa since 2006 and co-author of the report – ”and it must be done in a new relationship with the media, but also with politics. Italian civil society has emancipated itself from politics, compared to when it was a transmission belt of politics that somehow controlled civil society and its narrative.. Today it is proud to be emancipated from the political hegemony of parties. But this relationship must be renewed. Civil society must maintain its autonomy, but if it does not re-establish a new relationship with politics, it will never be effective. It lacks interlocutors.”

So, civil society is an antidote? “Yes, potentially it is. But if the relationship with the media does not change and if the relationship with politics is not strengthened in a new way, we cannot do it.” Changing these dynamics, according to Chiodi, is crucial in the perspective of rethinking narratives about NGOs. “There is work between the media and civil society that needs to be done. Not only in changing the narrative of civil society. There are many good cases of effective collaboration between NGO campaigns and the media, although we have experienced them recently, where civil society has produced some interesting data and a media campaign uses them. This does not mean that the media are a servant of political logic, but that the work of journalists also has a continuation within a public sensibility,Chiodi explains.

CSOs need to rethink their narratives

Many of the civil society leaders interviewed by OBCT feel that it is urgent to rethink NGOs’ communication strategies, to maximise the effectiveness of political action. And also, to counteract the narrative that criminalised NGOs that are helping migrants and are accused of merely being sea taxis.  As explained by Chiodi, working with legacy media remains important for civil society. At the same time, exploring new digital channels is a challenge for the future.

There is clearly a need for Italian NGOs to rethink communication in general and therefore, narratives. We have been attacked by effective narratives, however obviously perverse, to delegitimise our work,” Luisa Chiodi explains. “In recent years, thanks to the work of our Italian partners and also thanks to Civitates, a strong reflection on this issue has been introduced”. Still, Chiodi concludes, Italian civil society lacks the funding, the skills and the personnel to put into practice new strategies, especially online.

Strategic litigation as the new frontier for civil society

Among the different advocacy strategies that the OBCT report individuates there is one that is considered “the new frontier of civil society both in Italy and internationally.”  It is strategic litigation, a legal action that aims to fill gaps in existing legislation carrying on individual cases to bring broader human rights changes. It can be a powerful tool for NGOs.

At the same time, Chiodi clarifies thatIf malevolent actors have more resources than democratic civil society, they will be much better able to demonstrate the force of law against civil rights.” And here it comes again the need to rethink a new alliance between NGOs and news outlets. The media – Chiodi maintains – should do a significant job in demonstrating that yes, justice takes a long time, but that strategic litigation, in a substantial number of cases, really succeeds in defending the rights of the most vulnerable.

Some recommendations

The Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso e Transeuropa research ends with a series of recommendations to different actors to deal with a context, like the Italian one, in which the recognition of civil society is “ambivalent”, as summarised by a question mark in the title of the report. OBCT advises policymakers to introduce a human rights authority, to ensure the independence of the Italian Equality body and, more generally, to include civil society in the decision-making process. Policymakers are also recommended to improve the independence of the media by reviewing the grants system. In addition, human rights NGOs need to be provided with adequate funding and protected from strategic lawsuits.

The OBCT report also includes advice to leaders of civil society: to advocate for the creation of an independent human rights authority and their participation in the decision-making process; to renew their communication strategies, reach public opinion with effective narratives, and explore – at the same time – new networking methods, and to pay more attention to security threats related to digitalisation. Ultimately, to take advantage of the European space to build a transnational alliance to defend the civic space.

According to the report, international donors should consider Italy as an important country for safeguarding European democracy and ask national institutions to give priority to the issue of human rights, recognizing the role of civil society as “a pillar of the democratic system”. Moreover, a fundamental role of international donors is – as Laura Chiodi explains – to help Italian NGOs to build a better connection with the European “bubble”. This is precisely one of the next challenges that the Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso e Transeuropa is addressing. Chiodi concludes:

We are now completing a report to understand what Italian civil society struggles with in relation to the European decision-making process, how it struggles to fit in. Moving from the national to the European level is not easy, even for big stakeholders. Large Italian stakeholders in civil society, trade unions and interest groups still do not reach the European level. So, connecting the Italian territories to Brussels is certainly very important. This connection, which could strengthen democracy, is something we are working on.”