Published: 18 June 2020
Below we have highlighted some of the current challenges and give examples of the ways in which our grantees are responding to them.
Our grantee partners working for a strong and resilient civil society
In many countries across Europe, restrictive laws had already narrowed the space for civil society before the pandemic hit. Civil society groups are worried that governments could use the current crisis to (further) threaten the rule of law and democracy. Illiberal leaders in some countries have already taken advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to tighten their political grip by weakening checks and balances, imposing censorship, and expanding state surveillance. Moreover, given that a cure or an effective vaccine for the virus may not be developed for a while, countries will be forced to hold elections with various coronavirus-related restrictions still in place. This raises many questions, not just in relation to health and feasibility, but also fairness.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Civitates-supported coalitions have closely monitored the situation in their respective countries. They intervene when common European values are challenged, speaking out against cases of overreach and abuse of power and throwing their weight behind efforts to preempt further government restrictions on democratic rights.
For example, the partners of one of the coalitions in Hungary reacted immediately against the Hungarian law enabling rule by decree. They coordinated action, facilitated a petition by lawyers and constitutional experts against the new law (signed by more than 110.000 people), and organised the first online protest ever in Hungary, which was attended by tens of thousands of people. Both the government and opposition mentioned the campaign in the Parliament before the voting procedure took place.
Additionally, many coalitions use the crisis as an opportunity to fortify policy stances on the value of civil society generally and to highlight the vital role of civil society in sustaining vibrant and healthy communities and democracy more widely. They highlight how civil society is filling in gaps left by governments to provide essential services, protecting marginalised groups, while also holding governments to account.
One of the coalitions in Bulgaria, for example, has encouraged local civil society groups to adopt a proactive mindset and to actively emphasise the positive influence of citizen initiatives in communities.
Moreover, all coalitions try to respond to the changed needs and concerns of civil society groups in their countries, for example by sharing useful resources and best practices when it comes to NGO operations in times of crisis. Especially in times of emergencies, there is a real need for cross-sectoral discussions about what happens when civil society groups are facing restrictions to their rights to associate, operate, express views, seek and provide information, receive funding, and campaign.
Our grantee partners working for a healthy digital public discourse
The internet is an important forum through which people can voice their concerns, form opinions, and provide input for decision making processes. Technology has allowed us to stay connected to our loved ones and keep our important work going. While our dependence on these methods of communication and tools has grown, so has the importance of building a healthy and safe digital public sphere, where democracy and fundamental rights are upheld.
Unfortunately, the crisis has accelerated many pre-existing problems in the online space. We are seeing a flood of mis- and disinformation, which spreads faster than the virus itself. Not only is it hampering the response efforts, it also contributes to assaults, arsons, and attacks. These days, access to reliable and accurate information can literally be a matter of life and death. Moreover, many attempts to deal with the pandemic, both by governments and the private sector, have sparked major human rights concerns, for example in relation to content moderation on social media or the use of contact-tracing apps.
Our grantee partners have responded to this in many ways. For example, the Oxford Internet Institute, which is trying to advance the policy conversation around misinformation and social media, has pivoted its research to better understand the scope and scale of Covid-19 misinformation. The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, which was already monitoring digital rights violations, intensified its work during the pandemic, adding Kosovo and Montenegro to their list of countries, which already included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia. Brussels-based European Digital Rights (EDRi) has been a very active player in the debate on surveillance, stressing that actions to tackle the Covid-19 virus using personal data should have proper safeguards. Similarly, Algorithm Watch, which is working to hold social media platforms to account, provided a set of possible principles and considerations on which to ground an informed, democratic and useful discussion regarding the use of automated decision-making systems in the pandemic.
These are just some examples of the many ways in which our grantee partners are trying to ensure that we will emerge from this crisis in the best shape possible. If you want to learn more about the work of our grantees, sign up for our newsletter where we share their stories.