4 October 2021
“Digitising Europe” is the new ELF Blogposts series that engage with policymakers, industry experts, and academics in order to contribute to a better understanding of how technological change is also driving social, political, and regulatory affairs.
By Miroslava Sawiris, Senior Research Fellow, Democracy & Resilience at GLOBSEC
When the European Commission presented the European Democracy Action Plan in December 2020, it was welcomed as a much-needed initiative to address issues around election integrity, media freedom and proliferation of disinformation.
In her recent State of the Union 2021 speech, President von der Leyen also highlighted the need to protect access to information as a public good which means supporting the safety of journalists across the EU so that they can carry out their duties without the risk of their lives. As four journalists have been murdered across the EU within the last four years, elimination of such a risk is by no means a given.
However, there are many other ways to silence dissenting voices, and these do not necessarily have to cause bodily harm or even be directed at journalists in order to be effective. One insidious way of censoring media and civil society actors are through strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). According to the European Democracy Action Plan, SLAPPs are:
‘a particular form of harassment increasingly used against journalists and others involved in protecting the public interest. They are groundless or exaggerated lawsuits initiated by state organs, business corporations or powerful individuals against weaker parties who express criticism or communicate messages that are uncomfortable to the litigants on a matter of public interest. Their purpose is to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence’. [EDAP]
While strengthening protections for journalists is essential, it is also of the utmost importance to ensure that these less violent means of censoring criticism are addressed as soon as possible.
Attacks on civil society
Across Central and Eastern Europe, efforts aimed at demonising civil society are often coming from several sides simultaneously. In the political arena, legislators are inspired by the Russian law from 2012 forcing all NGOs receiving foreign funding to register as ‘foreign agents’. These NGOs are subsequently persecuted by the state, which in Russia has led to ‘tightening of space for civil society.
Hungary passed a similar law in 2017, which the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled as unlawful, while the Polish version is currently being worked out. In Slovakia, several attempts to adopt foreign agents law on civil society were unsuccessful.
Certain political circles, however, are not the only ones attempting to limit the scope of civil society’s activities. Another branch of power, the judiciary, is in some cases being utilised to prevent civil society initiatives from expressing criticism through SLAPPs.
Konspiratori.sk is a civic association created to disrupt economies of disinformation. This is done through a process where expert review board is notified about an online website for an assessment on a scale between 0 to 10. By way of an average, a given website is ranked based on whether the outlet produces content containing conspiracy theories, disinformation, hate speech and fraudulent content.
The result is a list of websites which the civic association advises against advertising at, given the significant reputational damages associated with promoting products and services next to such content. This is a model used by other initiatives such as the Global Disinformation Index as well, and one which Věra Jourová, EC Commissioner for Values and Transparency, hailed as a way forward.
However, such activities are naturally met with pushback from the affected parties which generate significant profits from peddling harmful content. Konspiratori.sk’s initiative has been sued several times.
The first time, Hlavné správy, a website criticized for spreading disinformation on numerous occasions, achieved significant success when the Bratislava District Court ruled in 2020 that until a decision on the case is made, the association has to remove the name of the website from its list of problematic sources. As of now, the case is still pending and konspiratori.sk are censored from informing users and advertisers about the nature of the content on the web.
Not only is the civic association forced by preliminary judicial rulings to stop informing the public about the nature of these enterprises, but it is also burdened with time and financial costs, which can seriously threaten its future prospects. It also acts as a warning to those who would try to do something similar and hence effectively contributes to self-censorship among civil society actors.
CSOs are key actors in countering disinformation
As the negotiations on the Digital Services Act and the strengthened Code of Practice on Disinformation are in full swing, now is the right time to consider the importance empowered civil society plays in general and in curbing the impact of disinformation and hate speech in particular.
Civil society actors often operate with limited human and financial resources, especially across Central and Eastern Europe. As SLAPPs against NGOs fighting against information operations accumulate, the European Commission must ensure that the measures currently in the making to protect journalists and rights’ defenders against abusive litigation must be wide enough to include initiatives tirelessly working towards creating healthier information space. Access to the information, after all, is a fundamental human right.
Within the Democracy & Resilience Programme of GLOBSEC, Miroslava Sawiris analyses malign efforts to undermine democratic societies, as well as strategies, tools and actors involved in influence operations. She has led research projects focusing on the impact of disinformation campaigns on electoral processes in Europe, public opinion poll surveys and societal vulnerabilities towards information manipulation. She holds a BA degree in Arabic and Russian Civilisation from the University of Leeds and an MA degree in International Relations from the University of York.
Published by the European Liberal Forum. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the European Liberal Forum.