PORTUGAL: Civil society complaint on harmful speech receives state support

(CIVICUS MonitorPositive action on harmful speech

A positive case of cooperation between the Portuguese government and civil society occurred at the beginning of January 2018 when the state’s Equality Body filed a complaint with the Public Prosecution Service against the newspaper Sol because of an offensive, transphobic article. The complaint was filed by a civil society group claiming that the article violated protections within the equality-related laws already in place.

The Equality Body stated in regards to the case that:

“The text in question is deeply detrimental to the dignity of transsexual people, and its message is likely to encourage acts of homophobic and transphobic violence, aggravated by the amplification that results from its dissemination in a national media, to establish the practice of crimes of sexual discrimination and instigation to commit crimes, namely against freedom and sexual self-determination”. (Translated from Portuguese).

The article had been published during a controversial debate over a law protecting the right to self-determination of trans and intersex people which would dealt with the legalities behind the clinical procedure to change a person’s gender. The law received some backlash in some of the media, which reportedly provided biased coverage of the parliamentary debate. According to civil society, the biased coverage stemmed from a lack of proper training on how to report on equality issues which then led to a misunderstanding of the bill’s provisions. The law was ultimately approved on 13th April.

Civic space overall in Portugal is vibrant and robust. Policymakers understand the value of and encourage civic participation. According to the CIVICUS Monitor research partner, the authorities tend to be very receptive to civil society’s views, including on issues such as gender equality and LGBTI rights which may have been considered more sensitive in the past.

One drawback, however, is that civic participation in decision-making at the governmental-level is primarily done through formal channels (public consultations, participatory budgeting, etc.) and as a result, social or more informal movements feel they do not have as much influence on policy compared to other interest groups. While there is respect for fundamental freedoms, civil society is becoming increasingly aware of potential vulnerabilities in and challenges to their positioning with the government, which, thus far, have not been addressed.

Following the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, state funding for public services decreased, and the state came to rely more on civil society organisations to provide services and implement policies. For example, in 2017 Lisbon municipality implemented activities to combat gender-based violence. The perception of civil society organisations (CSOs) involved in those efforts was that the city administration was relying heavily on the sector to be the driving force in the implementation thereof. As a result, Portuguese CSOs felt that their ability to develop activities on their own initiatives had been somewhat hampered.

Civil society is often seen as a service provider, and this impacts the effectiveness of advocacy in specific policy areas. For example, in the development sector, the consultation process involves an intermediary body – the National Development Agency. While acknowledging that dialogue with the Agency has been productive, civil society believes that further mechanisms should be developed to give CSOs the ability to influence decisions, practices and policies of this Agency within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. To this end, a Cooperation Forum was developed to exchange information with the Ministry, but it has not been functioning since last year. Moreover, some in civil society view the Forum as a less effective form of consultation, as the Ministry unilaterally informs civil society of ongoing initiatives. Development-oriented CSOs are requesting that this Forum be strengthened to allow for a more meaningful dialogue and effective cooperation.

Featured image: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images