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Europe - Central Asia
2019 RSF Index : Europe - Central Asia

Has a dam burst in Europe?

The murders of three journalists in Malta, Slovakia and Bulgaria in the space of a few months has made the world realise that Europe is no longer a sanctuary for journalists. This is especially true for those who take an interest in corruption, tax evasion and misuse of European Union funds, often involving the mafia, who are among investigative journalists’ most dangerous predators.

Paolo Borrometi, a Sicilian journalist who has specialised in covering organised crime, owes his survival to protection from the Italian police, who thwarted a mafia attempt on his life in May 2018. Asked why they had tried to kill him, a detained mafioso replied: “One small death serves as a good lesson to all the others.” In Italy (up 3 to 43rd place), around 20 journalists, including Borrometi and Roberto Saviano, are currently protected by police bodyguards day and night. It is therefore all the more disturbing that interior minister, Matteo Salvini suggested that Saviano’s protection could be withdrawn after he dared to criticise the League party leader.

In a steadily worsening security climate, the need for police protection for journalists is even felt in the countries at the top of the Index. In the Netherlands (down 1 to 4th place), two journalists who have specialised in covering criminal gangs are getting full-time police protection, while Sweden (down 1 at 3rd place) has seen a surge in cyber-harassment of journalists who cover organised crime or religious issues.

Threatened by both organised crime and venal officials

Montenegro (down 1 to 104th place), a candidate for admission to the European Union, has seen a surge in serious attacks on journalists, but protecting them does not seem to be a priority. It took several months for the authorities to arrest the first suspects for injuring Olivera Lakic, a journalist who investigates crime and corruption, in a shooting attack outside her home in May. Jovo Martinovic, a reporter who specialises in Balkan organised crime, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in January 2019 despite overwhelming evidence that his contact with criminals was due solely to his research into arms trafficking in the region.

These journalists are targeted because they investigate corruption and trafficking at the international level, between politicians and organised crime, or the misuse of EU funding, as in Bulgaria (ranked 111th, still the lowest in the EU and the whole region). Bulgaria is constantly criticised for its endemic corruption and the ineffectiveness of its judicial system. Its journalists are targeted by both organised crime and the authorities, who heap abuse on them instead of defending them. In September 2018, the police arrested two journalists from independent media outlets who were investigating the misuse of EU funds.

Corruption-linked harassment

From one end of Europe to the other, journalists are harassed as soon as they shed light on sensitive subjects. In Romania (down 3 to 47th place), the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, journalists with the RISE Project investigative website had been looking into the misuse of EU development funding for the past several months. They were harassed by the authorities, who invoked the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as grounds for making them reveal their sources.

Physical violence is sometimes used to deter investigative reporting. In 2018, RSF repeatedly denounced a surge in violent attacks against journalists investigating corruption in Serbia (down 14 to 90th place). One of them, Milan Jovanovic, had to flee his home when it was set ablaze in December. The instigator of the arson attack, a mayor who is a member of President Aleksandar Vucic’s party, was briefly arrested and Jovanovic was placed under full-time police protection.

In Malta, which has continued to fall in the Index (down 12 to 77th place), a handful of journalists are trying to continue the work of anti-corruption blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia. They are shedding light on the island state’s rampant corruption and money-laundering, despite an oppressive and worrying climate still marked by Caruana Galizia’s murder in October 2017. As well as having to live in fear, they are subjected to intense judicial harassment.

Poland, which has fallen in the Index for the fourth year running (down 1 to 59th place), is no exception. After Tomasz Piatek’s prosecution before a military court for revealing the defence minister’s links with Russian organised crime, the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza’s journalists are now threatened with the possibility of jail sentences for linking ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński with a questionable construction project.

Anti-media rhetoric

Another disturbing phenomenon took hold in Europe in 2018 – the adoption of an anti-media rhetoric in democracies. Journalists are being vilified, insulted and threatened by persons at the highest level of the political establishment. One of the countries where this trend is growing is France (down 1 to 32nd place), where Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), said it was “healthy and just” to hate journalists.

In Hungary (down 14 to 87th place), officials in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz continue to refuse to talk to journalists who are not from “friends of Fidesz” media. A few months ago, Orbán refused to answer questions from the critical TV news channel HírTV, dismissing it as nothing more than a source of “fake news.” Some journalists no longer even have the right to address members of the government or ask questions during press conferences.

Criticism of the media is becoming a political weapon that weakens journalism when systematic. To this end, political leaders have had no scruples about using state-owned media that have been turned into propaganda outlets or at least enlisted in their cause. Use of state-owned media to harass journalists is not new, but the practice has been stepped up. In Poland, where the conservative PiS government has turned the public broadcast media into its mouthpiece, questions are being raised about the state-owned TVP channel’s role in Gdansk mayor Pawel Adamowicz’s murder. TVP named him 1,800 times in the course of the year, always with the aim of denigrating him. The head of the channel has promised to sue all journalists who try to establish a link between these hate messages and Adamowicz’s murder.

From words to acts, a line is crossed

The verbal attacks and threats against media throughout Europe is encouraging acts of violence against reporters in the field. These verbal attacks constitute hatred of journalism and pluralism, and are form of anti-democratic blackmail. Hatred of the media, a leading characteristic of the angry “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vest) protests in France, is the most worrying example and has resulted in unprecedented acts of violence and intimidation. A female reporter for La Dépêche du Midi was insulted and threatened with rape by a pack of angry protesters in Toulouse in January 2019. In all, several dozen serious incidents have been reported since the start of the protests. There have also been dozens of cases of police violence and excessive firing of flash-ball rounds, usually against photojournalists.

Aside from threats and intimidation of this kind, more and more journalists are being harassed and worn down financially. In an effective dissuasive tool whose use is growing throughout Europe, journalists are being subjected to SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), in which the aim is to use the threat of sizeable legal defence costs to silence the targets, rather than obtain actual damages. In France, many journalists have been sued by big corporations such as Bolloré and Vinci. In response to print and broadcast media reports, Bolloré has brought many defamation suits in France and abroad that circumvent France’s 1881 press freedom law.

The technique of threatening to exhaust journalists’ financial resources is also widely used in Malta. Caruana Galizia was subjected to all-out judicial harassment until her murder and now the rich and powerful have turned their sights on The Shift News, an investigative website. Despite rising in the Index, Croatia (up 5 to 64th place) is beating all records in this regard. The Association of Croatian Journalists (HND) has registered more than 1,000 lawsuits against journalists and media outlets, most of them by politicians and public figures. Ironically, at least 30 of them were brought by the state-owned TV broadcaster HRT.

Glimmers of hope amid overall decline in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

The Eastern Europe and Central Asia region maintains its ranking at second from the bottom in the World Press Freedom Index. However, 2018 saw an unusual diversity of changes at the national level. Moscow and Ankara continued to set a bad example, and the region’s worst despots behaved even more appallingly, but some countries improved their individual ranking, showing that deterioration is not inevitable.

Russia and Turkey, the regional heavyweights, were of course not among those that improved, and instead they maintained their role as pioneers of repression. In Turkey (157th), the biggest media group was taken over by a pro-government business conglomerate and the grip of repression continued to tighten on the few critical media outlets that remain. The world’s most prolific jailer of professional journalists, Turkey systematically resorts to preventive detention and imposes long prison sentences, sometimes as long as life imprisonment. Even RSF’s representative, Erol Önderoğlu, has been accused of supporting “terrorist propaganda” just for defending a Kurdish newspaper. Not content with blocking thousands of articles every year and jailing people for nothing more than a social network “like,” Ankara is now trying to bring online video services under its control.

Corruption, a dangerous subject for reporters

Turkey is also the world’s only country where a journalist has been the subject of a criminal prosecution in connection with their reporting on the Paradise Papers. Pelin Ünker was sentenced to 13 months in prison and received a heavy fine. It serves as just one of many examples of how investigative journalism, which the government labels as “destructive” or “anti-patriotic,” is persecuted. Corruption in particular has been off limits ever since a scandal almost brought down Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in 2013.

Investigative journalism is also a major irritant to the regimes in a number of former Soviet countries, where corruption has long been a major problem. Most of the journalists who are in prison in Russia and Azerbaijan were covering this dangerous subject. It was after accusing senior officials of embezzlement that former journalist Khayrullo Mirsaidov was jailed in Tajikistan, and two media outlets that had previously been left alone were raided in Kazakhstan. While doing similar investigative reporting in Ukrainian, journalists were placed under surveillance or were forced to hand over information to the authorities in violation of the principle of the confidentiality of sources.

No reservations about blocking the Internet

Russia (149th) has fallen one place in the Index, and unfortunately with the harassment of independent media growing low positions are in high demand this year. What with an avalanche of draconian laws, arbitrary arrests and searches, impunity and police violence, Vladimir Putin has begun his fourth term in the worst possible manner. By trying to block the encrypted messaging service Telegram, despite significant collateral damage, Moscow has demonstrated its determination to achieve a “sovereign Internet.” Pending resolution of the technical obstacles in the way of this goal, the Kremlin keeps tightening its grip on the Internet, the main source of news and information for young Russians, who are increasingly escaping the reach of the country’s TV propaganda. Its methods include censoring search engines, blocking censorship circumvention tools, and forcing online platforms to cooperate with the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Internet censorship is now widespread. Blocking critical news sites is the very least that the region’s authoritarian regimes do. As in many countries throughout the world, the Tajik, Kazakh, Azerbaijani and Ingush authorities no longer hesitate to temporarily disconnect mobile Internet, social networks or instant messaging services in order to rein in protests and reduce media coverage of them.

Affected by political transitions

In a largely ossified region, sudden shifts in Index rankings, especially rises, are rare. Uzbekistan (up 5 to 160th place) is no longer in the black zone, the mark of a “very bad” situation on the World Press Freedom map. The thaw that began after dictator Islam Karimov’s death in 2016 has continued. The journalists who were still in prison have been released and a few media outlets have begun to cover sensitive subjects. But much remains to be done to end the censorship and self-censorship that have prevailed for so long.

The other significant rises are those of Armenia (up 19 to 61st place) and Kyrgyzstan (up 15 to 83rd place) – rises magnified by the fact that this is a very volatile area of the Index. Widely covered in the media and social networks, Armenia’s “velvet revolution” loosened the government’s grip on  TV channels. Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev and his successor withdrew their requests for the imposition of astronomical damages on critical journalists, turning the page on elections that had impacted heavily on the media. However, in the absence of lasting reform, journalists remain exposed to the possibility that the pendulum could swing back.

The imminence of important elections in 2019 sharpened the polarisation in Ukraine (down 1 to 102nd place) and Moldova (down 10 to 91st place), hurting the climate for journalism, encouraging manipulation, and highlighting the influence that oligarchs continue to exercise over the media. This tension is the main reason why these two countries fell in the Index.

Turkmenistan ranked last

More than half of the region’s countries are ranked somewhere near or below the 150th position in the Index, and the situation continues to worsen in those that are ranked lowest. Turkmenistan (down 2 to 180th place) is now ranked last in the Index, below North Korea and Eritrea. This disgraceful performance is the outcome of several years of increasingly ruthless repression in which the authorities have relentlessly persecuted journalists working clandestinely as the correspondents of Turkmen exiled media.

Tajikistan (down 12 to 161st place) is getting dangerously close to being in the black zone on the World Press Freedom map. Most of its independent media have been forced to close or to relocate abroad. The few that have survived inside the county have to cope with the blocking of their websites and are subjected to constant harassment, which encourages self-censorship. Contrasting with the Uzbek thaw, the deterioration in Tajikistan has made it Central Asia’s second worst ranked country.

On the other side of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan (down 3 to 166th place) continues to persecute the few remaining critical journalists. The crackdown also continues in Belarus (153rd), with repeated fines being used to punish the correspondents of exiled media outlets, the blocking of leading news websites, the harassment of independent publications that had previously been spared, and tougher legislation. Only the fall in the number of arrests from 2017’s record level, and the even greater declines in many other countries around the world account for Belarus’s paradoxical rise in the Index.