Liberties report by Linda Ravo & Jascha Galaski, published on 09 March 2021, available here.
Authoritarians in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia abused the pandemic to continue eroding democratic standards, but traditionally strong democracies also disappoint.
Democracy and the rule of law have regressed across a large number of European countries in 2020, according to Liberties’ new report ‘EU 2020: DEMANDING ON DEMOCRACY’. The report, covering 14 EU countries, responds to the Commission’s request for information as it prepares its second annual audit of EU countries’ democratic records.
Some countries with otherwise serious failings, like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, are considering reforms that could potentially result in some improvements. Overall, the report points to a number of alarming trends common to many EU countries, including some with traditionally strong democratic records. And authoritarian governments in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia have used the pandemic as a pretext to intensify their efforts to dismantle democratic standards
It gets increasingly difficult for journalists, campaigners and citizens’ groups to do their job
There is rising political pressure on media freedom. The situation is particularly worrying in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. For example, in Slovenia journalists are routinely threatened and subject to smear campaign. Many now self-censor to avoid harassment or violence. Corporations and governments are also increasingly trying to prevent investigations and campaigning by journalists and activists by abusing the legal system, through Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). The problem is on the rise in many countries including Croatia, Italy and Slovenia.
Several governments have made it increasingly difficult for citizens to participate in their democracies. Accelerated law-making procedures introduced during the pandemic have meant fewer consultations on new laws and policies. The tactic of smear campaigns against rights and democracy groups has spread beyond Hungary and Poland to now include Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia. In countries like Germany and Ireland, outdated rules governing charities threaten the ability of civil society organizations (CSOs) to campaign.
Some governments are also using criminal law to clamp down on free speech. For example, activists and artists in Spain have been prosecuted for publishing satirical cartoons, burning a flag or making a provocative use of religious symbols during a protest.
Delivering justice: one step forward, two steps back
The independence of the judicial system has been shaken further in countries like Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, while also being questioned elsewhere. Concerns about the integrity of the judiciary and the transparency of appointments arise, for example, in Ireland and Spain.
Many countries continue to accumulate a heavy backlog of cases as under-resourced courts take longer and longer to deliver justice. The push for digitalisation of justice systems is a potential solution to this. But if not done in the right way digitalisation risks exacerbating problems with the fairness of criminal proceedings in countries like Italy, Poland, Slovakia and Spain.
New rules on court fees in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic and poor legal aid systems in Romania and Spain also make it difficult to access justice and get a fair trial.
Too soft on corruption, too many systemic rights violations
Corruption remains serious in a number of countries. Certain practices that hinder oversight by NGOs suggest the authorities are reluctant to ensure transparency and accountability, such as in Bulgaria and France.
Several EU countries suffer from widespread human rights violations. In Hungary and Poland, the governments are rowing back on equality for women and LGBTQI persons while promoting divisive, nationalist rhetoric. Spain is exhibiting the symptoms of structural racism including racial profiling and police brutality, and Croatia is engaging in pushbacks and violence against migrants.
Responses to COVID-19 exacerbated existing problems
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly played a part in the weakening of the rule of law. Measures taken to address the outbreak have affected democracy and rights across the EU. People’s freedoms have been curtailed in a bid to stop the spread of the virus. Some measures may be necessary to protect people’s health. But our report shows that several governments have placed disproportionate restrictions on civic space, media freedom and democratic participation.
Law-making has often gone through fast-track procedures. Unlike normal legislative procedures, these are not transparent, and do not allow for consultations with the public or civil society organisations. This has even occurred in countries with strong traditions of democratic participation, such as Ireland, Germany and Sweden.
These problems were often coupled with severe limitations on access to information, obstacles to media reporting, disproportionate restrictions on the right to protest and censorship in the name of the fight against misinformation. Taken together, such practices have seriously hindered journalists, activists and citizens from monitoring, reporting to voters and voicing citizens’ concerns about how governments and corporations are using their powers. This is particularly disturbing during a crisis when it’s crucial that governments are accountable and responsive to the people about how they use public resources to tackle the pandemic.
In the worst cases, we can see a a calculated strategy to weaken democratic oversight, facilitate corruption and cement their grip on power. Governments with authoritarian tendencies in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are systematically weakening the judiciary, the media and civil society to prevent them from holding them accountable to legal standards and their citizens.
These steps include: political appointment of judges, and discrediting or sanctioning judges that try and protect the rule of law; smearing, stigmatising and cutting off funding to rights and democracy groups; restricting the right to protest; harassing and silencing journalists and activists that expose corruption and wrongdoings; scapegoating attacking marginalised groups; and taking placing the media in the hands of allies to control public debate.
What the EU must do
The EU has a crucial role to play in protecting our democracies. The European Commission has taken the important step by initiating a regular audit of EU countries’ democratic records. But that is not enough to reverse these alarming trends. The EU must start making clear recommendations to individual countries, apply serious sanctions to governments that damage the rule of law and provide real support to journalists and activists who help promote and protect democracy on the ground.
About the report
The report covers 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.