It is crucial during a pandemic that journalists are free to ask politicians difficult questions to keep citizens informed and ensure governments are taking the best decisions. Similarly, citizens need to be able to express their concerns to their representatives through the right to protest or by relying on citizens' groups like civil liberties organisations that make sure governments protect their rights. Governments in the EU with authoritarian agendas have used the pandemic as a cover to continue squeezing citizens' groups and media freedom. But even governments in traditionally stronger democracies are making it harder for citizens to hold their politicians to account.
Attacks on media and journalists weaken democracy
Media pluralism and the right to freedom of information have taken a hit across the EU. Particularly in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, where governments have increased their influence over the media. In those countries, the deterioration of the media landscape has accelerated and is part of a wider pattern of concerted measures to cover up corruption and weaken democracy.
In Poland, the state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen acquired one of the country’s biggest publishing groups, Polska Press. The government also drafted a new law that would introduce a tax on advertising revenues. In protest, Polish independent media suspended news coverage for 24 hours. In Hungary, the government-critical radio station Klubrádió lost its license, forcing it off the airwaves. The pro-government media regulator refused to extend the license because the radio had failed to submit documents on time. It overlooked, however, similar administrative violations by other radio stations. In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš owns almost a third of private media. Journalists are constantly confronted with online smear campaigns. The country has dropped from 13th to 40th place in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in the last five years.
In Slovenia there has been a rapid deterioration of media freedom since Prime Minister Janez Janša and his nationalist, far-right SDS party came into power on 13 March 2020. Janša has increased his control on the media. He has fostered a toxic media landscape and targeted rights and democracy groups. The government has put pressure on the national press agency through smear campaigns, funding cuts (cancelled after pressure by the European Commission) and changes to the regulatory framework that endanger the agency’s independence. Online abuse against journalists has created a climate of fear. Janša has attacked women journalists with the misogynistic insult “presstitutes”. Journalists have reacted by self-censoring to protect their safety and mental health. The European Commission has criticized the Prime Minister’s attacks on the media, but press freedom groups want it to take more serious steps.
But even beyond countries with authoritarian leanings, independent journalists and other critical voices face increasingly hostile environments. These include smear campaigns and intimidation, through online harassment and even physical violence. Abusive lawsuits known as SLAPPs are also on the rise. And there are no safeguards currently offered to targets even in EU countries with strong traditions of protecting free speech. Just this week, a hearing will take place in Sweden on the SLAPP brought against the Swedish publication Realtid, its editor and journalists for exposing an impending stock market launch in Norway by businessman Svante Kumlin and his group of companies Eco Energy World last year.
Governments making it harder for citizens and activists to have their say in democracy
Governments with authoritarian tendencies have used the pandemic as an excuse to further crack down on activists and civil rights groups. They have commonly used tactics like restrictive laws, legal harassment, arrests of activists and smear campaigns.
The Hungarian government continues to harass and impede the financing of associations that promote equality, the humane treatment of newcomers, the fight against corruption and other democratic freedoms. The Polish government has presented a new draft law that aims to discredit associations receiving funding from abroad. The government, which has brought formerly independent public funding for charities under political control, now refuses to fund organisations that do not share its ultra-conservative agenda. And it has stepped up its attacks on associations and activists working on LGBTQ rights. In Slovenia, the government has been trying to turn public opinion against critical rights groups by portraying them as taking up public funds that should be going to help citizens. Media close to the ruling coalition use virulent smear campaigns to damage the reputation of associations.
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Civil society is increasingly under pressure elsewhere, too. In Slovakia, there is an increasingly aggressive narrative against rights groups, in particular in the area of gender equality. Croatia’s government has been hindering associations from accessing EU funds by deliberately failing to comply with rules on tender procedures. In Germany, civil liberties groups operate under the threat of losing their charitable status. Some politicians and commercial lobbyists are exploiting vague and outdated legislation to prevent campaigners helping the public to voice pro-environmental and anti-globalisation opinions. In March 2021, for example, the campaign group Change.org lost its non-profit status because it refused to delete a petition that presses Nestlé to stop the use of disposable plastic bottles. Italy and Spain have seen a rise in SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits) brought against rights activists and campaigners.
Associations across the EU are also increasingly excluded from public consultations, making it difficult to inform politicians about citizens’ concerns. This silences critical voices and makes it easier for governments to pass controversial laws.
Functioning democracies prevent poor law-making
Some countries went too far in dealing with the pandemic. A general ban on protests for example is a disproportionate measure. The right to protest should be upheld if participants respect health guidelines. In countries with strong democratic traditions and principles, where such measures are not an attempt to dismantle democracy, the courts and public pressure were sometimes, but not always, able to correct the problem.
In Spain for example, the government sent police and the military on the streets during the state of emergency that lasted from March to June 2020. During that time, there were numerous complaints about the use of racial profiling and police brutality. The government did prohibit some protests for legitimate health reasons. But Spain’s Constitution did not allow it to suspend the right of assembly and demonstration.
The French government presented a new draft law to address the “new challenges for French security”. Article 24 of the bill would make the dissemination of an image of a police officer “with intent to harm” illegal. Press freedom groups such as Reporters Without Borders criticized the controversial article. As a result of fierce public pressure, the French Parliament promised to amend the bill.
The deterioration of media pluralism and shrinking civic space is a phenomenon that occurred already before the pandemic. In poorly governed countries, these trends have accelerated and have made it harder to plot a course through the pandemic in a way that is best for the people.
What the EU must do
The EU has a range of powers it can use to protect our democracies. The European Commission’s annual report auditing EU countries' democratic records is a important step. But its report needs to include clear recommendations to individual countries. Governments that ignore recommendations and damage the rule of law should face sanctions, such as legal cases and suspension of EU funds. And the Commission should use its financial muscle to support journalists and activists who help promote and protect democracy on the ground.
Liberties’ new report ‘EU 2020: DEMANDING ON DEMOCRACY’ exposes harmful practices affecting the rule of law across 14 EU countries. It is the most in-depth exercise of this kind by an NGO network covering developments in 2020. The report was prepared by Liberties together with its member and partner organisations, to feed this year’s consultation by the European Commission on the state of the rule of law in the EU.