Continued attacks in Europe: journalists need protection from violence

[05/06/12 10:00] Journalism is a dangerous profession, including in Europe. Since the beginning of this year, journalists have suffered physical attacks in Azerbaijan on a number of occasions, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania and Russia. Governments should treat violence against journalists with the utmost seriousness, as such attacks aim at the core of our democracies.

Often, the perpetrators of the attacks are unknown assailants, usually several masked men, but sometimes they have been riot police or state sponsored security guards.

What were these journalist-victims reporting on? In Azerbaijan, the story was the demolition of houses and evictions of residents for government sponsored urban redevelopment. In Romania and Russia, it was anti-government demonstrations. In France and Germany, it was Turkish-language media outlets reporting on the Kurdish minority in Turkey. In Italy, it was stories focusing on Mafia affairs. In Montenegro, it was a journalist probing shady dealings in a tobacco plant.

The attackers knew that their victims were journalists, who were sometimes wearing press badges or held cameras in their hands. In another case, the perpetrators mentioned the employer of the journalist as they beat him. In Latvia, in a brutally symbolic move, the assailants put a knife in the journalist’s mouth and sliced his cheek, grossly disfiguring him.

Attacks on journalists = censorship

Attacks on journalists are not like many other assaults, where the motive is frequently materialistic or racism. These are political attacks. As the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic´, has recently written, “violence against journalists [..] remains a special category of crime, as it is a direct attack on society and democracy itself”.

Violence or threats of violence against journalists are intended to shut them up and make them stop doing their job, which can involve exposing corruption, abuse of power or discrimination against various minorities. Media freedom is the lifeblood of a democracy, as it is an essential prerequisite for other freedoms as well, such as freedom of association or assembly. Those of us who witnessed the end of the Soviet Union remember well how glasnost’ or increased openness and media liberalisation opened the floodgates for the emergence of civil society and political pluralism.

In a recent guidebook on the safety of journalists by the OSCE, it is stressed that “physical attacks and threats of violence or harm against journalists and members of their family represent an extreme form of censorship”. Thus, even if a government does not engage in “old-fashioned” censorship by screening and filtering media content, it can be involved in censorship if it does not take sufficient steps to combat violence against journalists. Impunity encourages repetition, which can be extremely damaging to free expression.

What governments should do

Governments and politicians need to signal very strongly that such attacks are unacceptable and will not go unpunished. They need to initiate prompt, thorough and transparent investigations and bring perpetrators to justice, where punishments should reflect the seriousness of this crime. If journalists have been threatened, the authorities should act quickly to protect them. Moreover, the authorities should promote cooperation between police and journalists.

As the Dink v. Turkey judgment of the European Court of Human Rights made clear, states have a positive obligation to create a favourable environment for journalists to express their opinions without fear, no matter how uncomfortable those opinions may sometimes be to those with economic, cultural or political power.

As yet, no journalists have been killed in the member states of the Council of Europe in 2012. It is my sincere hope that, unlike previous years, this will still be the case at the end of this year. A first step is for governments to treat violence targeting journalists as attacks against the core of our democracies.

Nils Muižnieks

Further reading: Positive obligations on member States under Article 10 to protect journalists and prevent impunity. Research report from The European Court of Human Rights.