A wave of civic resilience is sweeping across Europe. From online protests to symbolic messaging within the confines of physical distancing, activists are finding creative ways to fight back against perceived injustices amid restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The extent to which civil society can succeed in these efforts will determine what kind of Europe emerges from the pandemic.
In Poland, activists protested against proposed bills that would curb abortion and sex education. The country is no stranger to pushback from feminist movements: mass protests over abortion rights took place in 2016 and 2018. This time around, public assemblies are banned. But that did not stop activists in Warsaw from forming a line outside a store, where they stood 6 feet apart with face masks and held up placards to express their opposition to the bills. Activists also conducted an uninterrupted eight-hour online protest.
In Germany, online protests organized by refugee solidarity group Seebrücke under the hashtag #leavenoonebehind attracted 6,000 people, who called for Europe to support refugees. Meanwhile, young climate activists collected over 1,000 placards from across Germany and laid them out near the federal parliament to remind the government of the climate crisis.
In the Netherlands, the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion protested by filling the square in front of the Dutch parliament in The Hague with 1,000 shoes from climate activists. Across Europe, young climate activists have taken their climate change protest movement Fridays for Future online with Talks for Future webinars.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has not loosened restrictions on civic space. On the contrary, while states have introduced emergency laws, national lockdowns, and limits on public gatherings, restrictions on civic space have intensified in many cases. The CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks civic space across the world, has compiled some alarming global trends during the coronavirus pandemic. These include unjustified restrictions on access to information and censorship, crackdowns on human rights defenders and media outlets, violations of the right to privacy, and overly broad emergency powers.
Europe has witnessed many of these tendencies. Many European states have passed emergency laws to tackle the pandemic. However, there is concerning evidence that countries with autocratic traits have grabbed the opportunity to curtail freedoms with both hands. Hungary is the most widely covered example of this: a new law adopted on March 30 extended the government’s power to rule by decree, allowing it to prolong emergency measures and evade parliamentary scrutiny. In the UK, civil liberties groups have labeled the Coronavirus Act, which suspended the right to assembly for two years from March 2020, “draconian.”
Many European countries have also seen threats to media freedom through censorship, including smear campaigns, the criminalization of fake news, or restrictions on access to information. Censorship is not a new threat in the region: the CIVICUS Monitor’s “People Power Under Attack” reports documented censorship as the number one violation in Europe in 2018 and 2019. But CIVICUS’s evidence shows that states are using the pandemic as a pretext to restrict media freedom further.
Censorship in the Czech Republic and Spain has taken the form of governments initially preventing journalists from attending press conferences or asking questions, silencing critical opinions of the government, or only recognizing government sources as credible. In Bulgaria and Hungary, the spread of fake news about the virus is a criminal offense that could result in journalists facing a fine or imprisonment. The government of Romania has introduced provisions under a state of emergency to remove false information from the public domain.
The World Health Organization has said that alongside the pandemic, it is also fighting an “infodemic”—an oversupply of both accurate and inaccurate information. There is a concern that what is considered fake may be open to interpretation by governments, some of which have not shied away from censorship in the past. In Hungary, before the bill allowing rule by decree was passed, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government and the pro-government media accused independent media outlets of spreading “fake news” when reporting that Hungarian doctors and nurses lacked proper personal protective equipment.
A tug-of-war between restrictions and resilience is playing out in Europe. On the one hand, greater restrictions on civic space point toward a Europe that may emerge from the pandemic more fragile and, in some cases, more authoritarian. On the other hand, stories of resilience suggest a future of optimism, in which activists and civil society organizations are stronger than before.
Aarti Narsee is a civic space researcher at CIVICUS.