EU struggles to defend values at home
The entire European continent has been fully engaged in combatting the Covid-19 pandemic but only some of its countries – including the three at the top of the Index, Norway (1st), Finland (2nd) and Sweden (down 1 at 3rd) – can claim to have defended press freedom with the energy needed to ensure the media environment is adequately supported. Although reliable information is essential for combatting the virus, violations of the right to inform and be informed were evident in several European countries. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán managed to complete his country’s adaptation of an alternative European model that dispenses with press freedom altogether (see box below).
Disinformation and official secrets
In both the east and west of the continent, new legislation limiting the right to inform has facilitated arrests and detentions of journalists. Several countries have tried to limit the impact of information on sensitive subjects including the pandemic. In Serbia (93rd), for example, news website reporter Ana Lalić was arrested at her home late at night after covering a hospital’s battle with Covid-19 without taking account of a decree putting a government unit in charge of disseminating all information about the virus. In Kosovo (down 8 at 78th), KoSSev news website editor Tatjana Lazarević was arrested arbitrarily in the street while covering the pandemic’s impact.
Migration has also proved to be a sensitive subject within the European Union. In Greece (down 5 at 70th), authorities arrested journalists in an often violent manner to prevent contact with migrants. Various forms of obstruction were used by authorities in the Canary Islands in Spain (29th) to restrict coverage of migrants, including withholding information about people who had been rescued at sea and their arrival points on the islands, using physical obstacles to hamper photography and the introduction of additional security regulations.
There was a different kind of setback for journalism in the United Kingdom (up 2 at 33rd), where a judge based her decision not to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States on the potential threats to his mental health rather than the need to protect public interest journalism and free speech. Her decision not to release Assange and leave him in Belmarsh high-security prison, where his physical and mental health continues to worsen, was an additional blow.
Countries that block journalism
Hungary (down 3 at 92nd): Coronavirus coverage blocked
Emergency legislation in force in Hungary since March 2020 – which was renamed without any change to its scope – continues to criminalise “fake news” about the coronavirus and to block access to information. Journalists and their sources suffer from its chilling effect and from a ban on reporting in hospitals. When around 30 news media called for this information blockade to be lifted in an open letter in March 2021, the government refused and accused independent media of spreading disinformation, which is subject to criminal penalties. Foreign media have also been the target of an intimidation campaign. Independent media outlets censored by Viktor Orbán’s government include Index, a news website from which almost all the journalists resigned after it was taken over by allies of the prime minister, and Klubrádio, a radio station that was stripped off its broadcast frequency on a minor administrative pretext. The EU, for its part, seems powerless. The sanctions procedure against Hungary for violating the rule of law has not progressed and a newly-created mechanism making access to EU funding conditional on respect for the rule of law takes no account of press freedom.
Hungary’s unabashed political decision to throttle free speech and press freedom is a source of inspiration to certain other EU members and sets a bad example to EU accession candidates. State-owned media in neighbouring countries are the leading victims of such aggressive policies. Some have been turned into government propaganda outlets, such as TVP in Poland (down 2 at 64th), while others say they have been deprived of state funding if they refuse to toe the government line, such as the news agency STA in Slovenia (down 4 at 36th). Privately-owned media are exposed to tax, commercial and legislative pressure, as seen in Poland’s “repolonisation” of the media, which has so far included a proposed tax on advertising income, the acquisition of local media by a state-controlled company, and the proposed political regulation of social media. Some EU accession candidates have used judicial pressure: the government of Albania (up 1 at 83rd) took control of two independent TV channels on the grounds that their owner had been charged with drug trafficking, while in Montenegro (up 1 at 104th), investigative reporter Jovo Martinović has continued to be prosecuted on similar, trumped-up charges.
Impunity making journalism dangerous
A lack of justice for crimes of violence against journalists – a problem not limited to the southeast of Europe – can have a chilling effect on journalists. Impunity has been especially flagrant in Slovakia (down 2 at 35th), where the trial of those accused of murdering the investigative reporter Ján Kuciak resulted in the acquittal of the businessman accused of ordering his murder. In Malta (81st), just one alleged hitman was convicted in 2020 for journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. Interminable judicial proceedings contribute to impunity: the convictions of four people accused of murdering Serbian newspaper publisher Slavko Ćuruvija in 1999 were overturned by a Belgrade appeal court in 2020, 21 years after his murder, requiring a retrial. The inability or reluctance of states to protect threatened journalists contributes to the perception of danger. In Bulgaria (down 1 at 112th), Nikolay Staykov was given police protection only after a public appeal by RSF.
Hate and incomprehension
Investigative journalists are not the only targets of violence; reporters covering demonstrations are also targeted. Many reporters have been physically attacked by members or supporters of extremist and conspiracy-theory groups during protests against coronavirus restrictions, especially in Germany (down 2 at 13th) and Italy (41st). In other countries, especially Greece, reporters have been the victims of police violence and arbitrary arrest that have restricted coverage of law enforcement operations during demonstrations. In France (34th), similar press freedom violations took place, above all during protests against a new set of regulations for policing demonstrations and against a so-called “global security” bill that would restrict the publication of photos and video footage of police officers.
Police violence has also been seen in eastern EU countries, especially Poland, where several journalists were harassed or arrested during anti-government protests, and Bulgaria, where the authorities went so far as to refuse to investigate a case of police violence against freelance journalist Dimiter Kenarov. The growing trend for abuses against journalists has been confirmed in Serbia, which aspires to join the EU. The various press freedom violations have contributed to a sharp deterioration in the EU/Balkans Abuses indicator. Acts of violence have more than doubled in the region, compared with a 17% deterioration worldwide.
No antidote to disinformation, media control virus in Eastern Europe and Central Asia
The Covid-19 pandemic’s lasting impact on press freedom, unprecedented crackdowns on reporters covering protests, and a war in the Caucasus, in which at least seven journalists were injured and reporting was obstructed, all helped to keep Eastern Europe and Central Asia in second from last position in the 2021 Index’s ranking of regions.
A dangerous fever swept some countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that for the most part were already suffering from information suppression syndrome. Three of them experimented with a radical treatment for silencing journalists – total Internet shutdowns with the help of cyber-security software, provided in some cases by international tech companies such as Israel’s Allot and Canada’s Sandvine. This was the case in the Caucasus, in Azerbaijan (up 1 at 167th) during the war in the autumn of 2020 in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory disputed with Armenia (down 2 at 63rd). It was the case in Kyrgyzstan (up 3 at 79th) after the disputed parliamentary elections in October 2020, although this is Central Asia’s best-ranked country. And it was the case in Belarus (down 5 at 158th), where the Internet was completely inaccessible for three days after the controversial results of the presidential election were announced, and then intermittently in the following months. According to the #KeepItOn coalition, which monitors Internet shutdowns, the Internet was shut down for a total of 121 days from August to December 2020 in Belarus.
Belarus (down 5 at 158th): Regional crackdown champion
With censorship, mass arrests, harassment and violence,journalists working for independent media were specifically targeted by the police following the fraudulent presidential election on 9 August 2020. Arrested while covering protests or to prevent them from covering protests, journalists were initially given short “administrative” jail sentences on spurious grounds. The authorities later began to bring criminal charges against them that were punishable by several years in prison, and to conduct sham trials chaired by politically pliable judges. In their determination to crush all independent journalism, the police also began harassing its defenders, especially the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), RSF’s local partner.
Government lies, information monopoly
The most visible symptoms of governmental mendacity were seen in Turkmenistan (up 1 at 178th), the only country in the world, aside from North Korea, to still deny any Covid-19 presence in its territory, although the president himself popularised the use of liquorice and a traditional plant, harmel, as protection against an astonishing “pneumonia” wave. In this Central Asian country that has remained near the bottom of the Index year after year, there is no vaccine against the regime’s disinformation. Independent domestic media are non-existent and just a few journalists operating clandestinely manage to funnel scraps of information to exile media outlets based abroad.
The total censorship imposed by some governments was accompanied by a contagious desire to control information to varying degrees in all of the region’s countries. In Russia (down 1 at 150th), the independent media fought for months, despite a great deal of harassment, to report the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic and to combat the government’s claims and erroneous figures. In December 2020, Moscow finally acknowledged a coronavirus death toll that was three times the official figure. Not content with suppressing online articles by using the disinformation law in effect since 2019, the authorities beefed it up by means of a series of amendments.
Following the Russian model, other governments used the need to combat disinformation about Covid-19 as grounds for imposing additional curbs on press freedom. They included Tajikistan (down 1 at 162nd), an authoritarian Central Asian state where the cure was worse than the disease. Any “false” or “inaccurate” information about serious infectious diseases appearing in the media or on social media became punishable by a fine of up to twice the minimum monthly wage or 15 days in prison. The aim was clearly to make journalists self-censor any information about the pandemic that did not come from official sources – such as the death tally kept by a group of local activists that was much higher than the official figure.
Even countries that are normally less inclined to censor tried to create a state monopoly on pandemic-related information. In Armenia, the proclamation of a public health state of emergency was accompanied by draconian measures, including a requirement for the media to quote only government sources. In response to the ensuing outcry and protests by journalists, the controversial rules were softened and finally scrapped a few days later.
As well as the desire to monopolise information manifested in almost all of the region’s countries, some national or local authorities also restricted access to the information they provided. In Moldova (up 2 at 89th), for example, the health ministry’s press conferences at the height of the coronavirus crisis were conducted without any interaction with journalists. And according to the Independent Journalism Centre, the time taken by state agencies to respond to information requests tripled. The situation finally improved in mid-2020 after a campaign on social media.
Lockdown curbs, public animosity
Lockdown measures and social distancing rules provided authorities with additional grounds for obstructing journalists’ work. In Russia, some reporters were arrested for alleged social distancing and lockdown violations while covering protests. In Kazakhstan (up 2 at 155th), a KTK TV crew was arrested for allegedly violating the state of emergency law while covering working conditions in a hospital in a western city. They finally got off with a warning after being placed in quarantine for two weeks although the law specifically allowed journalists to continue working during the pandemic.
It wasn’t just governments that harassed journalists. The pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns fuelled social tension and expressions of animosity towards the media, especially when health crises coincided with elections. Reporters were attacked by unidentified individuals in at least seven of the region’s countries. They included Ukraine (down 1 at 97th), where journalists were attacked by exasperated local businessmen and passers-by. The Institute for Mass Information logged more than 170 physical attacks in Ukraine, representing three quarters of the press freedom violations registered in the country.
Of all these sombre developments, the most disturbing for the future of press freedom in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is the evolution in Russia, the region’s leader, towards a political model involving ever greater repression of independent journalists and media. Aside from the increasingly restrictive legislation, the police have never cracked down so extensively and systematically on journalists as they did in their efforts to prevent coverage of the protests in support of Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny. After the pandemic is over, press freedom in the region could be tested by a wave of social and political protests, and by responses from governments infected with authoritarianism.