​Freedom of Assembly: Why Do Authoritarians Hate It So Much?

Free assembly is vital to democracy. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise, then, that authoritarian governments in Europe are restricting this right in illegitimate ways.

In democratic societies, free assembly is one of the instruments by which people can bring about social change. Freedom of peaceful assembly is a fundamental human right recognised by several important documents, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights.

States have negative and positive obligations regarding peaceful demonstrations. The negative obligation is that the state and the police can not interfere and ban any peaceful demonstration – not even spontaneous demonstrations the authorities have not been notified about. The positive obligation is to help and protect peaceful demonstrations, by coordinating traffic, keeping public order and protecting protesters from those wishing to disturb the demonstration.

There are some justified ways to put impositions on public assemblies. For example, it may be legitimate to ban a purposely loud demonstration in a densely populated area in the middle of the night, for this may disproportionately disturb the lives of many. But it would surely not be legitimate to refuse a notice for a loud demonstration in front of the Parliament building during a session.

Illegitimate restrictions in the EU

Unfortunately, a number of European governments impose illegitimate restrictions on the freedom of assembly these days.

For example, in 2016 the Polish government pushed through an amendment to the Law on Assemblies that gives preference to assemblies organized by state and religious institutions. This amendment significantly restricts the right to hold counter-demonstrations and spontaneous manifestations.

In Romania, the law puts a number of limitations on where and when public assemblies can be held and organisers need to obtain a permit in writing from the local authorities three days before the gathering. Organisations critical of the government frequently face difficulties in obtaining that permit.

Hungary, where the governing party enjoys a two-thirds parliamentary majority, passed a new on the right to assembly in July. The new law allows the police to ban demonstrations for extremely vague and open-ended reasons, saying, for example, that the demonstration would endanger the “dignity of the Hungarian nation”.

Society benefits from letting free assemblies take place in crucial ways. Freedom of assembly is an important means through which the public can express their views to their leaders and to other members of society. It promotes public discourse and diversity, and it is also a proper – and relatively cheap – tool to achieve changes in society.

Make your voice heard

And this is exactly why authoritarians hate freedom of assembly. They like to say that since they won some electoral majority, they are the rightful representatives of the people, and the only legitimate channel through which the people’s will expresses itself. They like to say that those who do not agree with their anti-democratic measures are the real anti-democrats, for real democracy means that the majority has an unlimited power to decide about the rules governing society. They like to pretend that there are only a few delusional idiots or traitors standing against them.

When people go out and make their voices heard, it becomes clear that something is very off about an authoritarian's message. And if enough people recognize that that message is off, the authoritarian will lose their power. And this is exactly why they hate freedom of assembly, and this is exactly why they try to restrict it. Do not let this happen. Support the organisations fighting for freedom of assembly and/or helping those who are illegitimately persecuted for expressing their views.

You can find the list of our member organisations here.

This week the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union is working hard to help those whose rights have been infringed during the “Slave Law” demonstrations. Support them here.

Please also consider supporting our work, so that we can help our national members achieve their aims.

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