1st Oct 2023

EU 'failed' to safeguard civic freedoms during pandemic

  • Only a few member states, such as Denmark or the Czech Republic, weighed the importance of the right to protest against introducing bans on public events and gatherings - while more than half of EU governments failed to safeguard the right to protest (Photo: Ivan Shishiev / Sketches of Sofia)

EU member states put forward "disproportionate" restrictions on civic freedoms from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, hindering activism and democratic participation, according to a new report published on Thursday (24 September) by NGOs Liberties and Greenpeace.

"EU countries with stronger democratic traditions have shown some worrying signs, while others with more authoritarian trends have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to hamper activism and roll back democracy," said Linda Ravo, advocacy officer from Liberties.

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"Restoring and promoting people's freedoms and supporting civil society actors should be a key element of the EU's action in the post-Covid-19 recovery," she added, saying that the EU should be more vocal against those member states which have exploited the health crisis.

After the World Health Organization declared coronavirus as a global pandemic, all EU countries introduced restrictions on free movement and assembly, limiting or banning public gatherings.

Only a few member states, such as Denmark or the Czech Republic, weighed the importance of the right to protest against introducing bans on public events and gatherings - while more than half of EU governments failed to safeguard people's right to peaceful assembly, the report says.

As a result, courts had to intervene on several occasions to clarify that public health concerns cannot automatically outweigh the freedom of assembly.

Additionally, the report indicates that the unprecedented use of surveillance technologies, such as drones or facial recognition, as well as privacy rules for Covid-19-related law enforcement purposes is likely to further dissuade people from exercising their right to protest.

Since the beginning of the first outbreaks, the rapidly-evolving situation triggered a high degree of uncertainty - accompanied by an "infodemic" of misinformation and disinformation.

As a result, some EU countries introduced criminal provisions and sanctions that clamped down on the right to free speech.

In Poland, for example, two activists were charged with offences carrying up to 10 years' imprisonment for a poster campaign challenging the government's statistics on the pandemic.

While Hungary introduced a criminal offence of spreading fake news punishable with up to five years in jail.

"For governments with clear authoritarian tendencies, like Hungary and Poland, the public health emergency was a free pass to accelerate a deliberate erosion of civic space and democracy that has been going on for some time," reads the report.

The Strasbourg-based watchdog, the Council of Europe, warned in July that "freedom of expression is greatly influenced by the legal climate for journalists and the media and the long-existing risk of a chilling effect saw further growth as a result of Covid-19 related regulatory and law enforcement measures".

The new report also criticises many governments for moving press conferences online, restricting physical access as well as the possibility to ask questions or follow-up questions, and delayed deadlines to reply to freedom of information requests - undermining media freedom.

'States of Emergency'

Meanwhile, the report also warns that authorities tried to use the crisis to lower levels of transparency and weaken democratic oversight.

The majority of EU governments declared some sort of "state of emergency" to pass restrictive laws and regulations, while others used other accelerated procedures - such as regulation by governmental decrees.

Earlier this year, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban gave himself and his government a 'carte blanche' mandate to rule by decree. That was later withdrawn.

And while no other EU government followed Hungary, emergency laws were challenged before constitutional courts in countries like Romania, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia.

At an EU level, the European Ombudsman sent requests to the European Medicines Agency, the European Commission and the European Investment Bank to monitor how transparent the functioning of the EU's frontline institutions has been during the pandemic.

Additionally, the EU watchdog opened two inquiries into the work of the European Council and European Centre for Disease and Control.

According to Ariadna Rodrigo, democracy campaigner at Greenpeace, "the commission must urgently act to protect these rights and freedoms by calling out EU governments that impose excessive restrictions on our democratic rights and by restricting access to EU funding if governments do not immediately rectify their ways."


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