By Mike Harris
A colleague was in Maidan in Kiev last week and saw for himself Ukrainians, young and old, wrapped in the flag of the European Union in the freezing cold. As a Belarusian, he told me just how powerful the lure of the values we take for granted is. Ukrainians know that joining the EU means signing up to strong protections for human rights, including the right to free expression. Yet, as the Index on Censorship report released today demonstrates, within the EU the right to free speech is under sustained siege.
Europe has seen no co-ordinated action to stop the mass state surveillance of the US and Britain. Journalists face prison for libel. Media monopolies go unopposed. This continent’s history forged the desire to build a new set of European values which actively protected human rights and a club to do so: the European Union. It’s time for the EU to step up, otherwise this siege is likely to become a crisis.
One problem the EU has faced is how to deal with countries that meet the membership criteria, are able to join the union, but then begin to clamp down on their citizens’ right to free speech. While he was prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi owned the country’s largest private television and advertising companies, and also had a role for him and his party in the state broadcaster. Italians were subjected to a media diet of parading models and Berlusconi crooning, with his political opponents sidelined in comparison. In Hungary, under Viktor Orbán, the media came under assault through a new media law that handed over media regulation to his party’s cronies, introduced million-euro fines for breaches of a highly restrictive code of practice and clamped down on whistleblowers.
It’s not only Hungary and Italy that have threatened free speech. In 24 of the 28 EU member states, journalists face prison due to criminal defamation laws. Just yesterday, Romania’s parliament voted to reintroduce prison sentences for libel and insult, to the despair of the country’s civil rights groups. The European Commission hasn’t helped. In January it suggested that Romania should protect reputation better, to the bewilderment of Romanian NGOs.
On the biggest recent challenge to free speech, the EU has been left wanting. No EU member state seriously considered granting Edward Snowden asylum. The commission has been notably silent after the Guardian found the police in its offices with orders to destroy its computers. While Claude Moraes MEP’s committee on surveillance is admirably pursuing this agenda, member states remain unresponsive.
Our report finds that while the EU has worked on various digital freedom projects, it is yet to develop a comprehensive strategy that would protect Europeans from breaches of their rights such as the US and UK government’s Prism and Tempora programmes. Mass population surveillance is a breach of the rights of all Europeans which can’t be left to single states to decide upon. The commission is developing a new data protection regulation; it should act on excessive state surveillance.
The EU also has a considerable role in defending the right to free expression globally. While it thinks of itself as weak, the EU has considerable leverage as the world’s largest trading block that accounts for about a quarter of total global economic output. It is one of the world’s largest “values block” with a collective commitment to the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights and perhaps more significantly, the European convention on human rights. Significantly too, Europe accounts for two of the five seats on the UN Security Council (Britain and France), so has a crucial place in the global security framework. All of this amounts to a lot of soft power that can and has been used effectively to protect free speech, but only where the member states act collectively.
The EU’s targeted sanctions on Belarus have been effective in isolating the regime and securing the release of political prisoners. Enlargement has been incredibly effective at promoting free speech in countries that for years fell under the curse of Soviet totalitarianism. It’s easy to forget that not even 25 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin wall. Yet, the EU’s member states often act in their own selfish short-term interests. The lack of unity of member states particularly towards Russia and China has hampered any leverage the club may have with these global giants.
The EU today contains some of the world’s best places for free expression, namely Finland, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, but also laggards, such as Italy, Hungary, Greece and Romania, who sit behind new and emerging global democracies. The EU’s member states and institutions have all made a concrete commitment to protect free speech, for the sake of those in the freezing cold in Maidan who are struggling for this right; it’s time for the EU to step up and honour this commitment.