More than half of EU countries failed to safeguard people’s right to peaceful assembly during the pandemic, peaceful protests were violently disrupted by police, and tight restrictions on fundamental rights remained in place even after social distancing measures were scaled back for businesses, a new report by civil rights watchdogs found.
The report by Civil Liberties Union for Europe and Greenpeace Europe also said that governments from west to east — including Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Italy — restricted the right to access public interest information, making it harder for the public to scrutinise how authorities have been using bolstered executive powers.
According to the report, executive branches used “the need to prevent the spread of misinformation as a pretext to censor free speech, with Hungary and Romania as the most staggering examples, which Bulgaria attempted to replicate.”
Courts had to frequently intervene to prevent national governments from instituting blanket bans on protests, drawing the ire of the executive branch, the report suggested.
In Slovenia, for instance, when the Constitutional Court questioned the restriction that included a ban on assemblies, Prime Minister Janez Janša accused the judges of being politically biased.
The growing number of online protests pushed the United Nations’ human rights monitor to clarify that the freedom of assembly also protects demonstrations entirely held in the online space.
The report said that some EU countries punished dissenting voices in their drive to tackle disinformation and misinformation by introduced criminal provisions or making use of existing ones.
In one case, a Romanian student was fined about 200 euros after criticising the town mayor for failing to adequately respond to the crisis.
Governments were reluctant to give back special powers acquired during the height of the pandemic and “some governments also appeared keen to consolidate changes to law-making processes and maintain the possibility to quickly re-impose limitations on rights and freedoms.”
NGOs found that criticism over the risk of substantial extension of exceptional powers granted to governments during the state of emergency was voiced in Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Hungary, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, prompting some governments to change their approach.
The governments also backtracked on their transparency commitments by arbitrary extension of deadlines for responding to freedom of information requests, which in Romania prompted watchdogs to label the government’s moves as an “unprecedented information blockade.”
The watchdogs said their report shows that it was not only “governments with clear authoritarian tendencies, like Hungary and Poland” that disproportionately restricted rights, “be it the result of erroneous decisions or conscious attempts to exploit the emergency to silence critics.”
The civil society organisations called on national governments to audit their legislation and make a commitment to mull over the state of civic space at the EU level.
A three-way pact?
The NGOs called on the European Parliament to step up and look into ways to ensure EU political families and their national member parties strictly adherence to the bloc’s values.
During the next plenary in early October, MEPs are set to vote on a proposal for a so-called “interinstitutional agreement” that would bring together the Parliament, Council and Commission to monitor democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights developments in all EU countries, with help from independent experts.
Such agreements are a form of joint rules of procedure brought about by a consensus between the institutions and, if all parties agree, may be legally binding.
The MEP leading the push, Michal Šimečka (Renew), said the Commission’s forthcoming annual rule of law report — which is set to cover rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and anti-graft matters — is needed, but its scope should be expanded to all values of the bloc, including democracy and fundamental rights.
The Slovak lawmaker added that while the report is currently supposed to be an annual exercise, itself is based on the Commission’s initiative communicated in 2019, and as such “is subject to changing political dynamics and depends on the goodwill of the particular Commissioner in question.”
Šimečka said that a pact between the institutions would be a more systemic, solid mechanism, “making the whole structure durable, as well as symbolically more visible.”
“Defence, reinforcement and protection of EU values should become a proper policy,” he told EURACTIV in an interview this summer.
“Member states or the Commission are hardly squeamish when it comes to criticising each other or weighing in on each other’s decision making on deficits, on debts, on structural reform,” he added.
“But when it comes to the rule of law, to freedom of media or independence of judiciary, it suddenly becomes this hypersensitive, taboo issue about which we can only talk in a vague, diplomatic language. We should normalise it, we should have that debate out in the open.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]