2023 Digital Rights Update: Eastern Partnership CSO Meter

Countries of the Eastern Partnership region continue digitalisation efforts and some implemented promising data protection legislation. However, the expansion of surveillance and spread of disinformation put digital rights under constant pressure in 2023.

By European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (guest author) · April 3, 2024

The civil society organisation (CSO) Meter project assesses the civil society environment in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The 2023 Regional Report focuses on digital rights.

Digital rights have continued to evolve in the region but political developments, in particular the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, put protections under constant pressure. In 2023, several EaP countries saw the expansion of surveillance powers of the state and the restriction of freedom of expression online, including attempts to silence activists and government critics. Disinformation remains a significant challenge in the region: CSOs in Georgia and Armenia noted disinformation attacks against civil society and at times, government responses to disinformation unduly restrict freedom of expression. There is significant progress in terms of developing comprehensive data protection legislation, notably in Moldova and Georgia, but countries are struggling with the implementation and enforcement of new rules. Digitalisation efforts continue in the region with several best practices emerging in terms of civil society participation in these processes.

Key digital rights trends identified include:

  1. Digital rights remain under pressure during war and military conflicts, contributing to the further shrinking of the digital civic space.Ukraine noted an unprecedented escalation of cyberattacks against civil society and independent media, and a lack of clarity on platform’s content moderation policies related to Russian disinformation. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh deeply affected civil society both in Armenia and Azerbaijan, notably through attempts to silence activists on social media and through disinformation attacks targeting civil society. In Armenia, civil society was spied on with the use of the Pegasus spyware.
  2. State-mandated restrictions to freedom of expression online had chilling effects on civil society.Authorities cracked down on activists based on their use of the internet and social media. Restrictions ranged from putting people in prison for speech critical of the government (Belarus) to holding people supporting environmental protests on social media in administrative detention (Azerbaijan), bringing defamation lawsuits against journalists (Armenia) and blocking websites threatening national security under unclear criteria (Ukraine).
  3. Continued expansion of surveillance powers without appropriate oversight raises fears among civil society.The full extent of surveillance capabilities often remains opaque, but such powers were used to monitor financial transactions and internet resources, access digital devices, and monitor people’s homes without judicial approval across the region.
  4. Disinformation campaigns and misguided government response intensified.Some of the disinformation attacks were led by foreign actors, others by the state itself. Civil society organisations reported campaigns to discredit them in Georgia and Armenia. Some of the government attempts to regulate disinformation unduly restricted freedom of expression, notably in Moldova, which chose to address the issue by criminalising speech considered to be disinformation or fake news.
  5. Positive legislative developments in data protection and the protection of digital assemblies. 

    Moldova and Armenia took positive legislative steps towards data protection. Moldova also increased the protection of digitally mediated assemblies.

  6. Digitalisation increases, but its full potential and meaningful civil society engagement are yet to be realised.Governments in the region have been continuing to invest in digitalisation, and launch tools to support various civil society areas:

    E-platforms for public participation;
    Online access to information and public registries;
    Electronic filing of documents;
    Digital platforms to facilitate access to state support for CSOs;
    Online volunteerism;

    Unfortunately, access to digital fundraising sources remains restricted.

  7. The growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) without safeguards poses a threat to human rights.Civil society documented the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, notably in Moldova and in Ukraine, where the war intensified the use of AI. At the same time, there have been no developments when it comes to introducing legal guardrails for the development and deployment of AI systems. In particular, there are no specific mechanisms for assessing the human rights impacts of the use of this technology, let alone explicit redlines for AI systems which are incompatible with human rights.

Contribution by: EDRi member, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law

The “CSO Meter: Empowered for Action” project is funded by the European Union. It is implemented by the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law Stichting (ECNL) and its partners: Transparency International Anticorruption Center in Armenia; MG Consulting LLC in Azerbaijan;Civil Society Institute in Georgia;Promo-LEX Association in Moldova; and ISAR Ednannia in Ukraine.https://csometer.info/