Constraints on Liberty

Democratic Security Monthly Foresight: February 2021

4 February 2021

February will see related ideological and cultural battles waged across the Atlantic while media freedoms will be greatly challenged in Poland and Hungary. Vaccination problems will persist throughout the continent with unequal access to the much-needed medications, and academic freedoms throughout the region are being squeezed from multiple fronts.

  • The Visegrad Group will celebrate 30 years of cooperation and democratic transition on 9 February and 17 February. Expect to hear highlights of their successes and how they became a model for expansion.
  • The 17+1 summit between countries of Central and Eastern Europe and China will finally commence on 9 February. Hopes for greater economic cooperation will have to be balanced by the, thus far, lacklustre investment.
  • Domestic energy plans in Poland, Czechia and other pockets of Central Europe show divergent and conflicting strategic schemes in the region which will create tensions between the nations.

Introducing media censorship through the backdoor

Central Europe has been ideologically divided over who should be moderating critical independent voices to function in the public sphere, whether this is in the guise of traditional media or online forums – and once again the issue has risen to the forefront with the case of recent social media ban on Donald Trump.

The core of the problem is that elected politicians repeatedly grow appetites to limit dissenting voices in hopes to secure their reelection. Poland has recently seen a government takeover of local press publishers along with a vast 17 million large database of users opening doors to new types of digital gerrymandering. Now, PiS plans to limit revenues from advertising – following the footsteps of Viktor Orbán – but also to introduce a new political body that would decide on taking down digital media content as well as preventing content removal if it was useful for political goals. Hungary is quick to follow through.

Using the events in the US (Donald Trump’s impeachment and subsequent ban on social media) as an excuse, Poland’s recent media law will force social media companies to adhere to what the government deems as legal free speech; regardless if it runs afoul of the companies own policies or user agreements. Essentially, the law creates a “Freedom of Speech Council” which will mandate to private companies how they can operate in the public sphere. Worries over governmental overreach have increased as the situation could lead to alterations to the law governing media in general. The council will have the ability to levy fines on social media operators, oversee procedures against online defamation, place restrictions on online electoral campaigns and also require media editors to publish public apologies. Hungary is pursuing a similar track as Poland to fine social media that either bans or removes posts which are deemed acceptable by country officials. The CE countries are repeating Trump-supportive talking points from the US which argue platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are censoring conservative voices.

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