The Czech Republic has taken over the rotating EU Presidency at a crucial time. Threats to European values, democracy and the rule of law continue to worsen in many EU countries. And while the EU has made some good steps to address these issues, such as its anti-SLAPP proposal and the Media Freedom Act, pressure must be kept up to get them over the line.
The Czechs now have the power to help make that happen. As holders of the Council’s high chair, they are able to dictate its agenda and significantly influence the work of the Commission and the member states. Liberties hopes they are ambitious enough to see through changes in several key areas. Specifically, here’s what we’d like to see Prague do to help bolster democracy, rule of law and human rights in Europe.
Rule of law
Liberties’ 2022 Rule of Law Report revealed little progress in correcting the myriad threats to rule of law in many member states. Justice systems, the state of the media, civic space, corruption and systemic human rights violations all remain areas of concern inside the EU.
While the EU has a range of tools to apply legal and political pressure to governments threatening the rule of law and human rights, little has been done. Action by the Council has been particularly disappointing. And this is the body the Czechs now lead – a body that could be a game changer in reversing the worrying situation we see in many countries. Here’s how:
· Turn the peer review dialogue into a genuine and transparent mechanism to monitor and prompt action on problematic issues, building on a comprehensive and contextualized analysis of the findings and recommendations included in the Commission’s rule of law reports – as Liberties already called for;
· Make the Council use the powers EU governments gave themselves to protect citizens against regimes that attack their democratic rights and freedoms, including the power to impose political sanctions under Article 7 and to block the flow of EU money to countries misusing EU funds to feed corrupt and antidemocratic regimes, as allowed by the new conditionality regulation;
· Engage in a genuine and open dialogue with rights and democracy groups on rule of law challenges and how to address them.
The Czech Presidency should make the protection of journalists and other watchdogs a priority. SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) are abusive lawsuits that aim to silence critical speech, bar accountability, and undermine fundamental rights.
The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE), formed by Liberties and other civil society groups, has welcomed the recent EU anti-SLAPP initiative presented by the European Commission to stamp out these abusive lawsuits and properly protect journalists and watchdogs.
The Czechs now have a key role to play in prompting EU governments to swiftly agree on the strongest possible set of anti-SLAPP rules and accompanying measures at EU and national level. The Czech Presidency should:
· Put SLAPPs high on the Council’s agenda and seek a common Council position on the Commission’s proposal for an EU anti-SLAPP directive;
· Steer discussions on the Commission’s proposal so that the most ambitious solutions proposed are kept and any loophole is addressed, building on the expert guidance provided by rights and press freedom groups;
· Prompt the Council to come up with a strategy on the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations, to be supported and closely monitored by the EU expert group against SLAPPs, and lead by example by taking concrete steps to prevent and address SLAPPs at national level.
Civil society organizations and activists make democracy work for all of us. They ensure that our governments govern in a way that prioritizes the wellbeing, rights and freedoms of all people. But concern is growing over the severe challenges facing civil society organizations. As Liberties’ research shows, these include smear campaigns, hostile regulations, criminalization, harassment and intimidation, funding limitations, and restricted access to information and law and policymaking processes.
Left without adequate support and protection against threats and attacks, the efforts of civil society cannot be sustained in the long term. The EU is in a key position to drive initiatives to support, promote and protect a vibrant civic space. That is why Liberties has been calling for a full-fledged EU strategy on the development and protection of civic space across Europe. As an increasing number of civil society groups mobilize on this call, the Czech Presidency of the Council must give a voice to civil society concerns and help turn awareness into action. How?
Here are our key recommendations:
· Be vocal about the key role of civil society for our democracies and speak out against attacks targeting civil society organizations and activists across the EU, while leading by example in improving protection of, support for and engagement with civil society at national level;
· Gather political support of EU governments for an EU strategy on the development and protection of civic space, including a Commission’s proposal on regulatory standards, by means of a public event on the topic and by facilitating Council conclusions to that effect;
· Initiate a regular and structured Presidency dialogue with civil society organizations on rule of law, democracy and human rights issues, including challenges facing civil society and the exercise of civic freedoms.
Media freedom and pluralism, the core safeguards for well-functioning democracies, are declining across Europe, as shown in our annual Media Freedom Report 2022. Media freedom implies that media outlets can report on current affairs independently from government interference or influence. Freedom to access various information sources is the precondition to making informed decisions while casting votes.
Many EU member states are dealing with a high concentration of media ownership or governments who exert pressure on publishers. They are also becoming increasingly unsafe for journalists, as harassment and physical attacks rise, but in real life and virtually.
Clearly, much needs to be done to protect media freedom and ensure media pluralism in Europe. The Commission is finalizing its proposed European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), which could help restore media freedom and pluralism in Europe. EMFA would combat anti-democratic trends like government-captured media systems, biased state subsidies and aids, harassment of journalists and the media concentration.
Now the Czech Presidency could use its influence to pressure EU and national-level legislators to support the EMFA. Here are our key recommendations:
- Be vocal about the importance of well-balanced and independent media systems where independent authorities oversee the media system and support a free and plural media market;
- Gather political support of EU governments for a strong EMFA;
- By the time the proposal is published, take the lead to elaborate an EU-level media law that focuses on a fair and transparent distribution of funds, supports editorial independence from any form of public or private interference and establishes a proper and independent enforcement mechanism.
Moving forward with the Artificial Intelligence Act should be one of the Czech Presidency’s main priorities. It is vital to recognize AI’s steeply increasing role in the online sphere in our lives. Regulators need to step in and protect Europeans from the harm they currently face from intrusive, discriminatory, or harmful technologies.
AI can help create a better world in many ways, from fighting climate change to improving health care and reigniting economies. But it can also be used by governments and corporations in ways that deprive us of our rights to privacy, of free expression and of being treated equally and with respect.
The Presidency should put a special emphasis on the need to regulate AI in a human right-respecting manner and urge the Council to recognize this need during the trilogue of the law.
Here are our key recommendations:
- The Czech Presidency should use its influence with the Commission and other governments to secure an EU ban on technologies that harm the very basis of our democracies. For example, remote biometric identification, a technology that puts those expressing dissent at risk, is not to be allowed in Europe.
- The absence of affected individuals is striking. The Czech Presidency should use its influence to clarify complaint rights. Without clear complaint rights, illicit uses of high-risk AI cannot be effectively enforced from bottom-up.
The proposed Regulation laying down rules to prevent and combat child sexual abuse material online (CSAM) contains measures that would force providers to develop and use technologies to surveil everyone’s private online communications. If the proposal is accepted in its current form, from the day of its entry into force no one would be able to communicate in a chat knowing that only they and the other party will be able to read what was sent. This is unacceptable. We do not allow governments to tap every private flat in order to have a better chance to catch perpetrators. Our online chat applications should enjoy the same level of privacy.
- We expect the Czech Presidency to counter the harmful "security" narrative the Commission embraces from time to time. Encrypted communication needs to be protected.