Freedom of expression and peaceful protests are in dangerous decline even in “established democracies” in Europe, according to the 2021 edition of the annual CIVICUS Monitor index published on Wednesday (December 8).
“What we’re seeing year on year is that the right to peaceful assembly is under threat in Europe,” Aarti Narsee, Europe civic space researcher said.
The latest edition of the index rates 197 countries and territories on the level of civil liberties.
Among the twelve countries that have been downgraded in 2021, three are EU member states – Poland, Belgium and the Czech Republic.
The report shows that the main violation of civil liberites in Europe is the detention of protesters. According to Narsee, this has been a growing trend in the continent over the past few years.
Commission spokesman Christian Wigand said that “peaceful protests are a fundamental right in every democracy,” and added that “it’s for member states’ authorities to ensure that they can take place in a safe and secure environment.”
However, detentions during protests are on the rise even in countries rated as ‘open’, Narsee said.
COVID-19 and civil liberties
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has further diminished civic freedoms, according to civil society representatives.
“People’s freedoms have been curtailed in a bid to stop the spread of the virus,” said Linda Ravo, senior advocacy consultant at the Civil Liberties Union for Europe.
While some measures were necessary to protect people’s health, she said that “several governments have placed disproportionate restrictions on civic space, media freedom and democratic participation.”
One example is the Czech Republic, where some COVID-19 restrictions were passed “without proper justification,” she said.
According to Narsee, governments’ measures to protect citizens from the pandemic often had “a contradictory nature.”
“We’re seeing that governments are saying that they’re trying to protect people from the pandemic, but then authorities are going ahead and detaining people, at times in close, confined spaces,” she said.
In her view, governments often used the pandemic as a pretext to curb rights.
“Specifically, when it comes to the right to peaceful assembly, we’ve seen very conflicting and disproportionate measures implemented in Europe,” said Narsee.
Media freedom in Europe
The pandemic has also led to increased attacks against journalists. In Germany, for instance, reporters were attacked during protests against COVID-19 measures.
Attempts to curb media freedom were also seen in the Czech Republic, where president Miloš Zeman announced that it would stop providing information to several investigative media outlets.