Restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet: censorship or necessity

18 November 2020 – Freedom of expression on the Internet must have some limits, as does freedom of speech, said participants in today’s online panel Freedom of expression on the Internet: A common challenge for Serbia and the EU, organised by European Policy Centre (CEP).

The panel consisted of Paul-Henri Presset, Head of Information, Communication and Media at the EU Delegation to Serbia, Paul Butcher, a political analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels, Viktor Marković, one of the editors of the njuz.net, Nevena Krivokapić Martinović, lawyer and coordinator for freedom of expression and online media at the SHARE Foundation,  as well as a youth representative Irina Radosavljević. The discussion was moderated by the programme manager and senior researcher at CEP, Sena Marić.

Irina Radosavljević conveyed the conclusions from the consultations with youth that CEP held the day before this event, and where it gathered 20 young people aged 16 to 24 from all over Serbia.

Most young people, she said, believe that the best solution for regulating speech on the Internet would be the formation of a new independent body specialised for regulating the problematic content on social media platforms such as hate speech and fake news and that REM (Regulatory authority for electronic media in Serbia) should be included in the work of that body. But also, parents need to be informed as much as possible on this topic, she believes.

Establishing a legal framework is something that the SHARE Foundation is also committed to. “And people should definitely be more informed about these topics, especially parents – most parents are not even aware of what is happening on social networks. Media literacy is something that should be mandatory in schools, so through that, both parents and teachers will be more aware of potential problems,” said Krivokapić Martinović. She also mentioned that the owners of large platforms are among the richest people in the world, as well as that they have enormous power to influence world events. “One of the good ways in which EU regulations have helped ordinary citizens protect themselves is the GDPR,” said Krivokapić Martinović. She added that SHARE is in favour of passing a new Law on Public Information and Media, which would recognise and thus regulate social media platforms, although they are not “media” in the traditional sense of the word.

Viktor Marković, an editor of the website which deliberately makes “fake news” and reacts to real events with satire, noted that older people are most often “victims” of fake news and that it is necessary to talk more about the problem. “I think that education is the most important thing here. Regulation by the state or an international organisation is not the solution, I think things would get worse then. The problem is that people who have no experience are ready to believe in everything, and it is necessary to educate them to check the source before they believe in something and share it further. We, for example, do not believe in any news at first glance and we always check the sources well, because several times we have reacted with satirical fake news to the news that was actually – fake,” he said.

The way people communicate on the Internet is a relatively new way of communicating and we are still not aware of all the negative sides, Presset believes.

“The European Union is working to identify problems and reduce negative practices seen online – fake news, breaches of privacy, cyberbullying…,” he said.

He also mentioned that none of these things are new – only the environment in which it takes place has changed, that is, it is no longer live.

“Article 10 of the European Declaration of Human Rights talks about restrictions on freedoms, when, for example, security is at stake. Freedom of speech, therefore, has been restricted for a long time, in a way – now we are only trying to apply that in another environment. The EU has a responsibility not to control the internet, but to protect human rights.”

Paul Butcher said that we must not forget that social media platforms have many advantages and that there is a reason why we spend so much time on them. “The question is how to establish borders – what is just humour, as in the example of njuz.net in Serbia, and what is false guidance of people.” He noted that, despite the fact that the EU encouraged the platforms to be more responsible, it did not give enough results.

“So, it is necessary to regulate the Internet with a framework in which there will be clear guidelines on what we can and cannot do. Platforms would be required to sign that document,” Butcher suggests.

“The Western Balkans and Serbia are in an even more vulnerable position than the EU, because media literacy is lower than in other parts of Europe, and the political situation is such that, unfortunately, it affects the flourishing phenomenon of fake news and the spread of misinformation, “Bucher said.

“Unfortunately, no one is immune to this phenomenon – and now, during the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen how fake news can also endanger public health, and not just affect political attitudes,” he said.

Watch the video from the event here.

This event is part of the project Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective, implemented by a network of think tanks from 6 countries in the region (Think for Europe Network – TEN) together with International Affairs Institute in Rome, Bronislaw Geremek Foundation in Warsaw and European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels. The project is funded by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA) through the Europe for Citizens program.

Are social networks actually connecting us? Youth consultations

17 November 2020 – As a part of the project Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective, European Policy Centre (CEP) organised nation-wide youth consultations in order to find out the youth’s perspective on internet freedoms and regulations of online content. Throughout the two hours, the youth gave their opinions and provided significant input based on their personal experiences and attitudes.

Consultations brought together 12 motivated youth representatives, aged between 16 and 24 from different cities and municipalities in Serbia. In order to facilitate these consultations, Zoom platform was used, which allowed for the connection of this diverse group and their exchange of ideas.

Discussion began in a group setting where the participants reflected on their use of the internet and social networks. Throughout the discussion, the youth concluded that they spend majority of their time with their phone in their hands. Moreover, they realised that during the COVID-19 pandemic, they relied upon technology and the internet and their social media profiles in order to function, keep in contact with their peers and family, but also to gather important information. Therefore, three best and most important aspects when it comes to navigating the online world is the availability of information, ability to use the platforms for activism and to share one’s opinion with others. On the other hand, alongside with these positives, youth indicated the existence of several negative aspects of the internet – fake news and disinformation, data privacy, the possibility of addiction and the worrying effects on mental health.

Second part of discussion focused on finding ways and mechanisms in which these negative aspects can be mitigated and who would be entrusted with such a serious task. Results and conclusions indicated that the youth does not trust national-level institutions due to a fear that someone’s interests will be represented, rather than remaining objective and neutral. On the other hand, the participants recognized the importance of self-regulation of big social network platforms such as Facebook and Twitter with their fact-checking mechanisms. Additionally, they acknowledged the importance of working on our own media literacy skills in order to mitigate the above mentioned issues. Participants recommended including civil society organizations in the system of formal and informal education and approaching the issue on a holistic level where everyone could be included – from marginalized groups, parents, states to multilateral organizations such as the European Union. One of the conclusions also indicated that a creation of an independent regulatory body for the freedom of expression on the internet could somewhat contribute to the resolution of the issues.

Irina Radosavljević, one of the participants from the consultations, earned an opportunity to present these findings obtained during the consultations at a panel filled with experts in the field. She also got the opportunity to ask important questions posed by her peers – does anyone have the power to control individual expression online and who would that be.

The second day of “Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen?”

12 November 2020 – The two-day activity of the Foreign Policy Initiative BH Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen? as a part of the project Make Future Together: The EU and the Western Balkans from Youth Perspective, which consisted of yesterday’s focus group with young people from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina and today’s panel discussion that included experts and youth representatives from yesterday’s event with the goal to raise awareness of the Internet and the socio-political engagement of young people towards a wider audience, and to provide concrete solutions.

Over the last few years, the scope and use of digital tools such as social media has expanded significantly in many areas of our daily lives. One of them is the political sphere, where citizens get involved in discussions and debates and gather information about political events. The aim of the event is to explore the practices and attitude of young people on this issue, in order to determine how social media can be used as a tool to strengthen democracy. Topics discussed were internet freedom, misinformation and fake news.

Today, representatives of young people who discussed at yesterday’s event, had the opportunity to present their views, opinions and conclusions about social networks and the Internet in general, as a means for their daily activities. By talking to people who work directly in this field, such as Irhana Čajdin from Group 9 and Emir Zulejhić from the Raskrinkavanje.ba portal, they came to new insights into practices concerning young people online. Of course, on behalf of the Delegation of the European Union in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vladimir Pandurevic, Head of the Civil Society Program, EIDHR, also addressed us, emphasizing that active cooperation with young people is what makes such projects successful.

Some of the conclusions from yesterday’s discussion include “two sides of the same coin” (that is, the Internet), where young people singled out the following: positive sides include information gathering, online social activism and connecting with family and friends, whereas fake news, bad influence on the mental state of users, and hate speech depict the negative sides. In addition, young people dedicated their discussions to proposing possible solutions, highlighting the reporting of negative content, continuous education of young people, and indicating the use of beauty filters in published photos.

Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen? is a part of the project Make Future Together: The EU and the Western Balkans from Youth Perspective which is implemented by the Foreign Policy Initiative BH in cooperation with other members of the regional Think For Europe Network (TEN), the Institute for International Relations in Rome, the Bronislaw Geremek Foundation Center in Warsaw and the Centre for European Policy in Brussels. The project is funded by the European Union as a part of their Europe for Citizens program.

The first day is over – Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen?

11 November 2020 – Today, our member from Sarajevo, the Foreign Policy Initiative BH (VPI BH) held a virtual roundtable discussion with a group of young people from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a part of the event: Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen?

Together with this young group of participants, we explored their practices and attitudes related to citizen involvement in discussions and debates, as well as information gathering on political developments on the Internet. In this way, we have identified ways in which social media can be used as a tool to strengthen democracies. In general, the main focus was on the topics of internet freedom, misinformation and fake news.

On the second day, young people will present their ideas and perceptions to the public, and together with experts in the field of media literacy, as well as those who work together with young people, further discuss these topics.

Youth Online: Can you hear me from the screen? Is a part of the project Make Future Together: EU and the Western Balkans from the Youth Perspective, implemented by the Foreign Policy Initiative in cooperation with other members of the regional Think For Europe Network (TEN), the Institute for International Relations in Rome, the Bronislaw Geremek Foundation Center in Warsaw and the Centre for European Policy in Brussels. The project is funded by the European Union as a part of their Europe for Citizens programme.

European Commission: Montenegro Remained Average

As in the previous five years, based on the methodology of the European Commission, IA transformed the report’ assessments into numbers in order to see scores in a simpler way, and compare the situation with previous years. Although this is the first report of the new commissioner Várhelyi and his team, it does not differ significantly from the previous one.

Assessments given by Commission are: “backsliding” (1), “no progress” (2), “some/limited progress” (3), “good progress” (4) and “very good progress’’ (5). We assigned them numbers from 1-5 and got the grades that we will compare in the coming days with the grades that our neighbor-countries got, and make a regional cross-section.

New report from the European Commission (EC) shows that Montenegro continued to have moderate results in the European integration process. This year, as well as last year, we did not receive any excellent grade, but we did not receive any “backsliding” grade, which means there were no 5s and no 1s. The lack of ”fives” also explains the slowness in closing the chapters.

The average assessment for Montenegro is 3,18 – which is slightly better than last year when the total score for all chapters was 3,09. However, this grade Montenegro also had in 2016, so that after four years it has only returned to the previous level. The 3,18 score is maximum that Montenegro has ever reached since the introduction of this scoring system.

The better assessment compared to the one from last year implies from the fact that seven chapters received a very good grade this year, although, twenty-five chapters remained at the middle level, ie. 75% of chapters have a triple.

Worst of all rated chapters is Chapter 14 ,,Transport policy’’. This chapter received a lower grade than last year and it is also the only chapter of 33 that received assessment of two.

When it comes to chapters related to the rule of law, Chapter 23 is noticeably in worse position than Chapter 24. Namely, although both chapters received an average assessment three, metaphorically speaking, Chapter 23 has a weak three, and Chapter 24 a strong three score. This implies from the three sub criteria assessed in these chapters, so Chapter 23 has two assessment of “limited progress’’ and one of “no progress’’, while Chapter 24 has three ratings of “some progress’’.

Out of 25 chapters that received score three, 8 received a “weak” three and 17 a “strong” three score.

Good progress with the assessment ”four” has been noted in the following seven chapters: chapter 6 ,,Company law’’, chapter 9 ,, Financial services’’, chapter 11 ,,Agriculture and rural development’’, chapter 12 ,,Food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy’’, chapter 16 ,,Taxation’’, chapter 19 ,, Social Policy and employment’’ and chapter 25 ,,Science and Research’’.

This confirmed IA’s opinion on the worrying stagnation, especially bearing in mind that we have entered the ninth year of accession negotiations with the EU. Same problems are being rewritten from year to year, without major progress. The report is very comprehensive and in addition to a precise description of the situation, a qualitative analysis of the problem, it contains clear guidelines and recommendations that the new government should adhere to very strictly, if we want the next report to be better.

 

EVENT: Common Regional Market for the Western Balkans – a road to a genuinely integrated region

📅 Wednesday, 4 November 2020

⏲️ 10.00 – 11.30

Deeper economic integration of the region seems indispensable for the Western Balkans to recover from the COVID-19 crises, become more competitive on the global market and attract foreign investments. Some estimates say that regional economic integration in the Western Balkans could generate up to 2.5% of GDP growth should the level of integration reach the level of EFTA, and even 6.7% of GDP growth, if it reaches the EU level of integration. Building on the successes of the Regional Economic Area, the Common Regional Market aims to connect the Western Balkans’ economies through free movement of people, goods, services and capital; create regional digital, industrial, investment and innovation space, and green agenda. As such, it would further align the region with the EU’s single market rules and instigate the region’s authorities to engage in comprehensive regional cooperation.

In light of the expected endorsement of the Common Regional Market by the leaders of the EU and the Western Balkans at the November 10th Summit in Sofia, this panel discission aims to bring together the experts from the Regional Cooperation Council with the region’s civil society in an open discussion about the way forward towards the Common Regional Market.

To take part in these consultations, please register here. Only registered participants will receive a link for the event!

AGENDA:

AGENDA:

10.00-10.05 Welcome note – Dr. Simonida Kacarska, Director, European Policy Institute, Skopje (EPI)

10.05-10.20 Introduction on the Common Regional Market: Majlinda Bregu, Secretary-General, Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)10.20-

10.35 Initial reactions by representatives of the Think for Europe Network: Njomza Arifi, Group for Legal and Political Studies, Pristina (GLPS), Ranka Miljenovic, CEP, Anida Sabanovic, Foreign Policy Initiative, Sarajevo (FPI BH)10.35-11.30 Open moderated discussion with civil society representatives from the Region. Responses will be provided by RCC experts, including Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova, Pranvera Kastrati, Bojana Zoric, and others.

Moderator: Dr. Simonida Kacarska, EPI 

Q&A on the Call for Proposals

Local Civil Society PAR Enabling Small Grant Facility

The Local Civil Society PAR Enabling Small Grant Facility (SGF) of the WeBER 2.0 Project will be implemented in the period January 2021 – January 2022. A total sum of 225.000 EUR will be allocated to support up to 30 grants. The answers to all questions raised by the potential applicants are published below. The integral Q&A list is available in English as well as in local languages.

ENGLISH

SERBIAN

BOSNIAN

MONTENEGRIN

MACEDONIAN

ALBANIAN

A better economic situation without the rule of law is not possible

October 13th, 2020 – An Economic and Investment plan for the Western Balkans, with which the EU has dedicated up to 9 billion euros for “the Western Balkans long-term economic recovery and regional economic integration”. This is the amount that the EU, or European Parliament, should approve under the next EU budget from 2021 to 2027.

The plan identifies key areas for projects and investments in the Western Balkans. These include the creation of sustainable transport and energy networks, environmental and digital renewal, strengthening the competitiveness of the private sector, support for health, education and social protection. Although there are no conditions for receiving this assistance in the plan itself, it is clear that these funds should be used by the Western Balkan countries to meet the criteria for EU accession – to improve the rule of law, public administration, democratic institutions and judiciary, economic reforms and so on, which is clearly determined by the EU Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans. This is the conclusion of today’s event organised by the Dutch institute Clingendael with the Think for Europe Network (TEN).

Allan Jones from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, one of the speakers at the panel, said that the EU adopted the plan because it recognised the need to support and accelerate “economic convergence”, approaching the economic standard of the EU and the Western Balkans.

“The EU wants to increase competitiveness, support the green and digital economy, unleash the economic potential of the region, increase the scope of economic cooperation among the countries of the region and encourage reforms,” he said. “However, the rule of law is a necessary condition, and if there is a setback, stagnation or insufficient progress, we will have to find ways to solve this problem,” he said.

“The region has made great progress when it comes to post-conflict transition, but we need to work on both political and economic criteria. The Western Balkans are still far from being able to withstand the pressure of the EU market economy,” Jones said.

European Policy Centre – CEP Programme Director, Milena Lazarević, said that the guarantee fund, which will be provided by the Economic and Investment Plan, has additional value, especially bearing in mind that economic aid has often come from parts of the world that are “not the most democratic”, with often disguised conditions.

“This plan shows the ‘human face’ of the accession process and aims to make the benefits of EU accession more tangible to the people,” said Simonida Kacarska from Macedonia’s European Policy Institute (EPI). “The EU’s desire is to work on building future EU member states, and this is shown by this plan,” she explained. 

Gjergi Vurmo from the Tirana-based think tank, Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) says that many civil society organisations and other stakeholders have “urged” for the plan like this, given the growing pressure from the presence of other actors and countries in the region, such as China and Russia.

Wouter Zweers from Clingendael Institute told that the Economist estimated the difference between the average income in the EU and the Western Balkans was 15 times larger in 2017 than in 1989, and that some scenarios predict that the Western Balkans will need “200 years to move closer to the EU in economic terms. “The question is whether this plan will be enough to achieve economic convergence, ” he added.

Watch full discussion here.

A better economic situation without the rule of law is not possible

October 13th, 2020 – An Economic and Investment plan for the Western Balkans, with which the EU has dedicated up to 9 billion euros for “the Western Balkans long-term economic recovery and regional economic integration”. This is the amount that the EU, or European Parliament, should approve under the next EU budget from 2021 to 2027.

The plan identifies key areas for projects and investments in the Western Balkans. These include the creation of sustainable transport and energy networks, environmental and digital renewal, strengthening the competitiveness of the private sector, support for health, education and social protection. Although there are no conditions for receiving this assistance in the plan itself, it is clear that these funds should be used by the Western Balkan countries to meet the criteria for EU accession – to improve the rule of law, public administration, democratic institutions and judiciary, economic reforms and so on, which is clearly determined by the EU Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans. This is the conclusion of today’s event organised by the Dutch institute Clingendael with the Think for Europe Network (TEN).

Allan Jones from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, one of the speakers at the panel, said that the EU adopted the plan because it recognised the need to support and accelerate “economic convergence”, approaching the economic standard of the EU and the Western Balkans.

“The EU wants to increase competitiveness, support the green and digital economy, unleash the economic potential of the region, increase the scope of economic cooperation among the countries of the region and encourage reforms,” he said. “However, the rule of law is a necessary condition, and if there is a setback, stagnation or insufficient progress, we will have to find ways to solve this problem,” he said.

“The region has made great progress when it comes to post-conflict transition, but we need to work on both political and economic criteria. The Western Balkans are still far from being able to withstand the pressure of the EU market economy,” Jones said.

European Policy Centre – CEP Programme Director, Milena Lazarević, said that the guarantee fund, which will be provided by the Economic and Investment Plan, has additional value, especially bearing in mind that economic aid has often come from parts of the world that are “not the most democratic”, with often disguised conditions.

“This plan shows the ‘human face’ of the accession process and aims to make the benefits of EU accession more tangible to the people,” said Simonida Kacarska from Macedonia’s European Policy Institute (EPI). “The EU’s desire is to work on building future EU member states, and this is shown by this plan,” she explained. 

Gjergi Vurmo from the Tirana-based think tank, Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) says that many civil society organisations and other stakeholders have “urged” for the plan like this, given the growing pressure from the presence of other actors and countries in the region, such as China and Russia.

Wouter Zweers from Clingendael Institute told that the Economist estimated the difference between the average income in the EU and the Western Balkans was 15 times larger in 2017 than in 1989, and that some scenarios predict that the Western Balkans will need “200 years to move closer to the EU in economic terms. “The question is whether this plan will be enough to achieve economic convergence, ” he added.

BiEPAG’s Experts react: EC 2020 Progress Report on Albania

Many of us in Albania had very mixed feelings when reading the last EC report. Let me explain why.

If the executive summary of the report hypothetically were to read “this year, the wolves decided to spare the life of the sheep”, apparently, the wolves would be praised as heroes. Nevertheless, if one also considers the other finding (buried somewhere between pages 90 and 95) that “the wolves, however, tried every trick to hunt down every single sheep”, then it is clear that the sheep are the true heroes (for surviving the wolves’ hunt) and the wolves are, of course, “les mechants”.

Commission reports are increasingly seen as political and biased. To a large extent, the EC has helped to build such a perception by highlighting findings in its reports which will not make WB governments uncomfortable. Of course, one cannot accuse the EC of deception. After all, the problematic findings are usually stated in the report, although not in the highlights section. Such an approach, however, misleads the audience – whether specialised or not. Furthermore, it brings into question the credibility of the EC and its reports.

To illustrate with a few examples. The summary of the EC report for Albania notes “no progress” in relation to the freedom of expression and civil society during the reporting period. However, on page 33 the same report underlines that the counter-terrorism police (!?) arrested a 25 year old civil society activist and held her in custody for 4 days for sharing an article on her Facebook page; or that the police has beaten journalists and other civil society activists attending protests against the demolition of the national theater, and so on and so forth. These findings, combined with the fact that the Government of Albania misused the pandemic in open attack of (what’s left of Albanian) democracy, make one wonder why the freedom of expression in Albania has not declined according to the EC? Why has the defamation package which the EU itself opposed, and which is partially in force in Albania, not affected the freedom of expression systematically?

The EC report’s assessments are sometimes confusing, to say the least. As an example, take the 5 June agreement between ruling and opposition parties on electoral reform and the amendments to the electoral code adopted on 23 July. The EC argues that this implies that the condition for “consensual electoral reform”, set by the Council to open accession talks with Albania, has been met, regardless of the fact that on 5 October 2020 the ruling party adopted other amendments to the electoral code without a consensus with the opposition. It is unclear why the EC thinks that the non-consensual change of the rules on 5 October is unrelated to 5 June.

Here is another example. The EC truthfully reports that the Venice Commission issued an opinion on a dispute about the appointment procedure of one of the judges nominated in late 2019. However, the EC report neglects to mention that on the same dispute, the EU Delegation (hence the EC itself) wrongfully sided with the Government and supported the attempted illegal procedure. Why is this important, beyond its factualness? It is because the EU needs to build its credibility in the eyes of the people, and not to please WB autocrats.

The EU needs to ally with the ambition of WB citizens instead of praising the fake achievements of autocrats. If the EC reports pay lip service to the current autocracy…what will stop them from doing the same with the next autocrat?

Unfortunately, parts of the EC 2020 report for Albania seem like a Machiavellian report which sides with the ambition of daily politics in Albania but not with that of Albanian citizens. And just to be more explicit, Albanians’ ambition is not “EU membership at any cost today”. Rather, our ambition is “democracy and rule of law at any cost first… Once done with that, let’s talk about EU membership too”.

Gjergji Vurmo is the Programme Director of Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM), Tirana-based think tank.

This blog is originally published on biepag.eu.