Democracy & Justice

The EU Must Take Action to Protect Fundamental Rights & Rights Defenders

Liberties' 'Online Civic Space Report 2023' shows that the EU and its member states have not been able to fulfill their obligation to protect and enable citizens to freely exercise their fundamental rights in the digital space.

by LibertiesEU

The Liberties Online Civic Space Report, the first report specifically focusing on the state of the online civic space in the European Union (EU), shows that our fundamental rights are not well enough protected in the online sphere and calls on the EU to take urgent action to address the causes of this.

The report offers a comprehensive overview of the most striking developments within the past five years concerning the online civic space in 11 countries across the EU. From online smear campaigns and doxxing to ongoing efforts to rein in Big Tech companies, the report details the myriad ways our online rights continue to suffer.

Why digital civic space matters

Defenders of digital rights hold a simple belief: that we should have the same rights online as we do offline. Defending our online rights is thus every bit as important as protecting our rights everywhere else – especially as everyday life increasingly moves online. Now more than ever, the digital space is an invaluable tool to share or receive information and ideas, connect with other people, and make our voices heard.

Yet malign actors continue to use the internet to spread misinformation and disinformation. Given the vast amount of information that is found online, it is impossible to verify the accuracy. This undermines the access to reliable information, obstructing constructive political debates. Media freedom and the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are also undermined by attacks against those who speak up on matters of public interest, including journalists and civil society actors. They include hate speech, online harassment, intimidation and smear campaigns, which affect the victim’s mental health and have a chilling effect.

Worrying trends

There have been concerning developments in all the areas covered in the report. In Hungary and Poland, government officials and politicians are using online smear campaigns against journalists and CSOs who oppose their autocratic regime. They sometimes resort to dishonest and deceiving methods, for example by fabricating evidence to discredit journalists, or try to label critical voices, including politicians, CSOs and journalists, as “Russian agents”. Disinformation campaigns with a pro-Russian narrative have spread in several countries, including Slovakia and Sweden.

There is evidence of increasing online attacks against journalists and human rights defenders across the EU. This is the case for almost all countries included in this report, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and Slovakia. For many activists, these attacks have an important psychological impact and may lead to changes in career plans. In many cases, online threats and hate speech have served as a precursor to physical violence.

Digital surveillance in the online civic space also continues. In Hungary, the Orbán regime has been using the Pegasus spyware to monitor hundreds of people, including journalists and activists. Once the scandal was revealed, the government attempted to justify the covert surveillance by labeling the local NGOs as "foreign agents." Pegasus has also been used in Poland, where political opponents and critics of the governments were systematically surveilled.

The report also makes clear that online censorship is increasingly across the EU. For example, in Germany the Facebook account of one NGO was blocked and another deleted in the company’s content moderation decisions that were criticized for their arbitrariness and lack of transparency.

The EU can – and must – act

The Liberties Online Civic Space Report urges the EU to take quick action to stem the growing threats to our rights on the internet, offering concrete recommendations. These include but are not limited to:

  • enhanced monitoring and reporting of challenges affecting activists and other civil society actors in the online space within its annual rule of law audit;
  • ensuring that member states who have taken steps to prohibit hate speech, incitement to violence and the spread of disinformation are not using them as an excuse to curb free speech;
  • protecting civil society actors from undue digital surveillance and violations of privacy, including in the context of regulatory efforts such as the EMFA and the AI Act.

“Our fundamental rights deserve the same protections online as offline, and the EU and member states have thus far failed to live up to this basic standard. We call on EU policymakers to implement new safeguards to make this happen and create a truly safe environment online”, said Jascha Galaski, advocacy officer at Liberties, who co-authored the report with advocacy and research assistants Malcolm Biiga and Autumn Mozeliak.

Read the full list recommendations and in-depth reports on each of the 11 countries covered in the Liberties Online Civic Space Report.

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