Europe’s journalists face growing dangers
Press freedom is high on the agenda of the new European Commission, appointed in 2019, in accordance with recommendations published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) during the campaign for the European elections. Europe was shaken by a series of serious abuses, including murder, carried out against journalists and now is the time for it to focus on the battle for press freedom. RSF welcomes the action plan announced by the European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, which provides for strengthening media freedom, making social networks more accountable and protecting the democratic process. However, it is regrettable that the EU enlargement portfolio, crucial for integrating the countries of the Western Balkans, was attributed to the commissioner from Hungary, one of the EU’s most repressive governments.
If the new EU institutions place such importance on press freedom, it is because the the danger of backsliding is fully recognized. The drift towards authoritarianism has strengthened in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has assumed full powers indefinitely, using the coronavirus epidemic as a pretext. Anyone convicted of publishing fake news faces a prison term of up to five years. This provision gives Hungarian courts and the political authorities another means of putting pressure on independent media. The government had earlier established control over most of the media with the formation of the Central European Press and Media Foundation. The allocation of government advertising to media outlets regarded as loyal is another means of pressure. The election of members of the ruling party Fidesz to the Media Council, the broadcasting watchdog, further strengthened the government’s control over the media. This explains Hungary’s two-point decline in the 2020 Index to 89th.
In Poland (down three at 62nd), which lost three places this year, the government’s control over the judiciary has adversely affected press freedom. Some courts use article 212 of the penal code which allows sentences on journalists of to up to a year in prison on defamation charges. Up to now judges have only imposed fines but the damage has been done and an underlying climate of self-censorship has now come to the surface.
In southern Europe, a crusade by the authorities against the media is very active. In Bulgaria (111th), which remains in the region’s lowest position, an attempt by the public radio management to suspend the experienced journalist Silvia Velikova, a government critic, has highlighted the lack of independence of Bulgaria’s public broadcasting media and the hold some political leaders have over their editorial policy.
EU candidate countries Montenegro (105th) and Albania (84th) each fell two places after a year which saw journalists detained on the pretext of the fight against disinformation, and instances of legal harassment exemplified by the Kafkaesque trial of investigative reporter Jovo Martinovic.
During the same period, many abuses directed against reporters in the Balkans went unpunished. In Serbia (93rd), down another three places in the 2020 Index, those who set fire to the house of the investigative journalist Milan Jovanovic have yet to be convicted in court.
The fight against impunity for violence against journalists has made progress in two EU countries. In Slovakia (up two at 33rd), where those alleged to be behind the murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová have been brought to trial, the country has moved up in the Index for the first time in three years, while in Malta (down four at 81st) the investigation into the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is finally making progress, although journalists there are still coming under intense judicial pressure.
Verbal and physical attacks
Journalists also face violence by police officers as well as by demonstrators. In France (down two at 34th), for example, many journalists were injured by flashball rounds and teargas grenades fired by the police during the “yellow vest” protests, and were assaulted by angry protesters. This phenomenon has become more widespread throughout Europe as a result of hate campaigns and declining trust in journalists on the part of the public. In Spain (29th), the worrying electoral breakthrough by the far-right VOX party and attacks against journalists by its supporters came on top of violence carried out by pro-independence demonstrators in Catalonia. In Austria (down two at 18th), Italy (up two at 41st) and Greece (65th) the far right regularly attacks reporters on the ground in a growing climate of hostility towards migrants.
Reporters have even lost their lives in the course of their work, as in the case of journalist Lyra McKee from Northern Ireland, who was shot dead as she covered rioting in the city of Derry. Her death was the third murder of a journalist in Europe in three years, after those of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Ján Kuciak in Slovakia.
Online harassment and surveillance
Online threats such as harassment and surveillance undermine the work of journalists throughout the continent, even in countries where freedom is held in high regard. Online harassment is growing in Norway (1st), which nonetheless holds on to its top position in the Index, as well as Finland (2nd) and Estonia (down three at 14th). This new threat led to Sweden’s drop in the rankings (down one at 4th) and the Netherlands (down one at 5th), which led to the automatic promotion of Denmark (up two to 3rd) into the top three.
In Scandinavia, the most aggressive harassment of journalists comes from China and Iran, while Baltic reporters are targeted by Russian trolls.
Challenges to the confidentiality of sources are another threat facing journalism in Europe. In Germany (up two at 11th), the government has proposed measures that would criminalize the handling of leaked data, as well as a draft bill allowing the intelligence services to hack into computers and smartphones and to intercept encrypted communications without judicial oversight.
In Romania (up two at 48th), which has already chalked up a series of violations of freedom of information, the new EU General Data Protection Regulation has been subverted to permit the authorities, as well as companies and individuals, to deny journalists access to information and to prosecute news organizations that publish investigative stories.
Throughout Europe, financial difficulties have led to the concentration of media ownership, and consequently new threats to journalism. In Latvia (up two at 22nd), which has maintained its high position in the Index, the oldest commercial television channel fired 30 journalists after a change of ownership. The purchase of Central European Media Enterprises (CME) by the company of Petr Kellner, the wealthiest man in the Czech Republic (40th), has aroused concerns in several Eastern European countries where CME controls a number of influential television stations.
Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, broadcast journalism has been undermined by constant attacks by governments on the editorial independence of public media outlets. Examples are the radio station BNR in Bulgaria (111th), TVP in Poland (down three at 62nd) and the state broadcaster RTVS in Slovakia (up two at 33rd), where journalists still come under pressure from management, despite the progress of the country in other fields.
Things have also deteriorated in Western Europe, where new financial management methods among public broadcasters show little regard for freedom of information. In Luxembourg (17th), some members of the editorial staff at the public broadcaster staged an unprecedented revolt, accusing the government of interfering in the way it is run. In Belgium (down three at 12th), journalists held a march - unseen before - in protest against a lack of resources caused by budget cuts, which contributed to its three-point drop in the Index.
Eastern Europe and Central Asia – clampdown continues
Behind the lack of any major movement by the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the latest World Press Freedom Index, there are disturbing signs. The increasing expertise in new technologies that the region’s authoritarian or unstable regimes are acquiring could result in more censorship of the media. The regional heavyweights, Moscow and Ankara, continue to set a bad example.
Almost everywhere in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, strongmen are consolidating their grip on news and information. They include Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey (up 3 at 154th), where censorship of the media, especially online media, has been stepped up. Turkey’s three-point rise in the Index is just the result of other countries falling, and the decrease in the number of imprisoned journalists following changes to judicial procedure in October 2019 was only temporary. Turkey is more authoritarian than ever. Quoting a communiqué by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or the Syrian Democratic Forces, or taking issue with the government’s security policies on social media can lead directly to imprisonment. The jailing of six journalists for their coverage of the Libyan crisis – three of them reporters for Odatv.com, a website that was shut down – is just one example among many.
Turkey’s neighbours, led by Russia (149th), are also persevering in their efforts to control the Internet, using ever more elaborate methods. Russia’s “Sovereign Internet” law will allow the government to disconnect the Russian Internet from the rest of the world. The declared aim is to protect Russia from cyber-attacks in the event of conflict. Internet service providers will be required to direct traffic through a centralized system of devices controlled by the state. Even if technical difficulties have so far delayed implementation, the prospect of a Chinese-style scenario is alarming. Large-scale Internet traffic disconnections were trialled during protests in Moscow and Ingushetia.
Russia’s zealous media control agency Roskomnadzor, which RSF has included in its list of Digital Predators of Press Freedom, is already totally or partially blocking news sites and social media. Crimea, a news and information black hole since its annexation, is particularly affected.
The closure of the national Internet is already a reality in Turkmenistan (up 1 at 179th), which is second from last in the Index. The few Internet users can only access a highly censored version of the Internet, often in cafés where they have to show ID before connecting. In Tajikistan (161st), the authorities also assumed an Internet access monopoly in 2018. New blocking techniques are being used that sometimes prevent use of a VPN to access the few independent media outlets such as Asia-Plus. In Kazakhstan (up 1 at 157th), a country in transition, cuts are becoming more effective, with Radio Azattyk, Google and Telegram being favourite targets.
Although the new Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, talks about reform, the authorities have tried to install real-time online monitoring. Last summer, Internet users had to download and install a “national security certificate” to avoid losing their Internet access. Described as a “trial,” It was finally dropped but “certificates” that have not been uninstalled can still act as spies. On national sovereignty grounds, Moscow has ordered platforms to store the data of Russian users on servers inside Russia, allowing the authorities to spy on journalists and social media users.
The troll armies run by pro-Kremlin businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and by the Tajik government offer an additional censorship mechanism, spreading fake news and targeting journalists in particular. Even in Georgia (60th), which has the region’s highest ranking, Facebook has closed hundreds of fake accounts posing as media outlets that were involved in a pro-government disinformation campaign. Troublesome media outlets are subjected to cyber-attacks, as in Kyrgyzstan (up 1 at 82nd), whose pluralism is an exception in Central Asia. In January 2020, the authorities refused to investigate a series of DDoS attacks on various websites including Factcheck.kg that were clearly a reprisal for their investigative coverage of a major corruption case.
Information harder to access
What with ever longer official response times to requests for information, documents suddenly “classified” to restrict access and denial of accreditation to cover events, reporters for independent media outlets find it hard to access state-held information in most of the region’s countries. This is the case in Azerbaijan (down 2 at 168th) and Belarus (153rd), where denial of access to public events is common. In Kyrgyzstan, important subjects are increasingly discussed behind closed doors, in parliamentary committees, for example, or in places from which journalists are in effect barred, such as trials held in very small courtrooms.
Denial of accreditation to journalists working for foreign media outlets or the threat of rescinding accreditation blocks access to information and encourages self-censorship. The local operations of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are especially affected in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (156th), which has nonetheless risen four places thanks to reforms undertaken since President Islam Karimov’s death in 2016. Some foreign journalists are finding it harder and harder to get accreditation for Russia even if the procedures are officially unchanged. Freelancers working for foreign media outlets now risk being branded as “foreign agents,” a label already placed on some media outlets and leading media defence NGOs.
At least 37 Russian professional journalists have been killed in connection with their work since 2000. In the overwhelming majority of cases, as in other countries, the investigations have drawn a blank and the instigators have never been identified. At the same time, hate speech is getting more violent. The president of the small Russian republic of Chuvashia publicly called for journalists to be “wiped out.” After Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Milashina was physically attacked during a visit to Chechnya, an information black hole, local TV channels unleashed a wave of hostile propaganda against her, voicing approval of the violence and even calling for her to be killed – all this with complete impunity.
The six-place rise by Ukraine (96th), the region’s biggest, is due more to other countries falling than to any real progress. The hopes raised by Volodymyr Zelensky’s election as president are taking time to realize. The media are as polarized as the rest of Ukrainian society and the prevailing impunity has fuelled an increase in violence against journalists. Nationalist groups in particular target independent media outlets such Bellingcat, which has received death threats. In Armenia (61st), hostility towards journalists, which previously took the form of direct physical violence, is gradually being replaced by judicial harassment. The disturbing increase in prosecutions tends to criminalize journalism and force media outlets to dedicate resources towards a legal defence instead of reporting.
The state itself often sets an example, exploiting vaguely-worded and selectively-applied legislation to convict journalists and bloggers on such charges as extremism or endangering territorial sovereignty. This is the case in Russia, which used radio commentary by the journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva as grounds for adding her to its list of “terrorists.” In Central Asia and in Azerbaijan, the authorities are happy to use bans on inciting social, religious or inter-ethnic hatred in this way.
Excesses in the fight against disinformation
Editorial independence is clearly still a problem when the editorial line of media outlets reflects their owners’ interests in most countries in the region. In Moldova (91st), the media empire built by former billionaire and Democratic Party boss Vladimir Plahotniuc has lost its influence but has been quickly replaced by a media group affiliated to the Democratic Party’s rival, the pro-Russian Party of Socialists. The oppressive influence wielded by pro-government or pro-opposition oligarchs and the accompanying disinformation campaigns result in laws that pose an ever-greater threat to press freedom. In Ukraine, a new bill would criminalize “disinformation” by journalists and create a new body with discretionary powers to verify the accuracy of content. In Armenia, social media users have been arrested on the grounds of combatting fake news and defending the national interest and some ministries have tried to draft anti-disinformation legislation without prior discussion with civil society and the media.
At a time when many independent media are struggling to survive and economic precarity prevents expansion, investigative journalism is barely developing because of a lack of resources. Denied state subsidies and advertising, and with few readers, listeners or viewers, they have also been subjected to a series of fines in Belarus. In Uzbekistan, businesses fear reprisals if they place ads in the independent media, which are meanwhile banned from receiving subsidies from abroad. In Moldova, politicians or their allies control the advertising market. All these restrictions increase the problems for journalists working for independent media, who are paid much less than their counterparts working for the state media.