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Journalists covering public assemblies need to be protected

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 30/04/2021
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© Mate (Argentina)/Cartoon Movement

Journalism is a dangerous profession. Images of injured journalists on the fringes of protests have unfortunately become commonplace in Europe, and beyond. Cameramen, journalists, photographers and other media workers have been assaulted while they were just doing their job: reporting on public assemblies, including demonstrations, that are in the public interest. What is at stake here is the right to receive and impart information: journalists play a crucial role in providing independent coverage of public assemblies as well as information on the authorities’ handling of public demonstrations and the containment of possible disorder. They must therefore be given full access to all forms of public assembly and be able to report on them safely and without undue interference.

Press freedom and the right to receive and impart information

Obstruction of and interference with the coverage of public events by journalists and other media actors can take various forms, ranging from the seizing and/or damaging of their equipment to intimidation and physical attacks, sometimes resulting in broken bones and other serious injuries. In some cases, journalists have been arrested and jailed after covering unauthorised protests.

I recently spoke out about incidents involving police brutality against journalists covering demonstrations in the Russian Federation, Bulgaria and Albania, stressing that violence against journalists, especially at the hands of state officials, is contrary to states’ duty to uphold press freedom and to protect the safety of journalists.

The European Court of Human Rights has found that violence committed against journalists, particularly by agents of the state, may constitute a breach not only of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, but also of the right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by Article 10, which includes the right to receive and impart information. In the case of Najafli v. Azerbaijan for instance, the Court held that any measures which prevent journalists from doing their work may raise issues under Article 10 and concluded that there had been a violation due to the use of excessive force against the applicant. The latter had been wearing a journalist’s badge on his chest and had told the police officers that he was a journalist. Irrespective of whether there had been any intention on the part of the police to interfere with journalistic activity or not, what matters is that the journalist was subjected to unnecessary and excessive use of force, despite having made clear efforts to identify himself as a journalist who was simply doing his job and observing the event.

The Court also noted that, in the context of public demonstrations, the presence of journalists is a guarantee that the authorities can be held to account for their conduct vis-à-vis the demonstrators and the public at large, including the methods used to police large gatherings, to control or disperse protesters, or to preserve public order.

An alarming trend

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated an alarming trend: violence against journalists is on the rise. Journalists covering anti-lockdown protests, for instance, have increasingly been subjected to physical assaults in recent months.

In many cases the violence was committed by bystanders and the demonstrators themselves. In Germany for instance, at least 43 journalists were prevented from carrying out their work by protesters at a Querdenker demonstration which took place in Leipzig last November. Many journalists were threatened with violence, while others were chased and physically attacked. The police, however, reportedly failed to take appropriate action to protect them and, in some cases, even impeded journalistic work.

But Germany is not the only member state facing attacks on journalists covering anti-lockdown protests. A recent study recorded at least 58 incidents involving assaults, physical aggression, threats and intimidation against journalists covering demonstrations linked to Covid-19 between September and December 2020 in Italy, Slovenia, Austria and Portugal in addition to Germany. While these attacks were predominantly the work of anti-mask, anti-lockdown or conspiracy theory groups, others were carried out by members of far-right groups which hijacked rallies to push their own agenda.

The fact that in most cases, the attackers knew that their victims, many of whom were wearing press badges or holding cameras, were journalists signals a growing sense of hostility and mistrust towards journalists and their work, in a context of increased polarisation and disinformation. There is a risk that this could lead to self-censorship: I was particularly struck to hear from some journalists that they had stopped covering certain public events due to fear of attacks or reprisals.

In times of crisis more than ever, public assemblies and the right to protest are crucial in making one’s opinion heard, articulating grievances and aspirations, and influencing public policy. While the pandemic has precipitated a human rights crisis, increasing isolation, fear and anxiety, assemblies should be preserved as places for democratic debate and discussion and not become another zone of fear and anxiety.

Police violence

This trend is all the more worrying when it is the police themselves who carry out the attacks. In many Council of Europe member states, policing of demonstrations has increasingly become an issue of concern, not least due to restrictions introduced to curb the spread of Covid-19 and to the way in which the applicable rules are being enforced by the police. At a time when we are seeing a growing willingness to use force when policing assemblies, I am deeply worried by numerous reports of physical attacks on journalists covering demonstrations by law enforcement officers, or of police hindrance and disruption of media workers’ reporting of demonstrations.

In France, there has been a disturbing rise in such incidents. In order to tackle this issue, the French Minister of the Interior presented on 17 September 2020 the new National Policing Plan, which recognises the need for “more consideration to be given to the presence of journalists during law enforcement operations, based in particular on better mutual understanding.” Several journalists’ trade unions and associations, however, have criticised the plan as discriminating between journalists “in possession of press cards and official accreditation”, who are the only ones authorised to wear protective equipment, and others. According to them, “the offence consisting in remaining in a crowd after having been warned does not suffer any exception, including for the benefit of journalists.”

These are important points, as the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity recognised when it stressed that “the protection of journalists should not be limited to those formally recognised as journalists, but should cover others, including community media workers and citizen journalists and others who may be using new media as a means of reaching their audiences”. Freelancers and citizens reporting are in a particularly vulnerable position in this regard, as they do not have press cards to prove their status and are thus more likely to be assaulted or roughed up by police or protesters.

In addition, a recent report by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media reiterated that journalists have a right to cover any form of public assembly, irrespective of its legal status. In the case of spontaneous demonstrations, for instance, which should not in principle be regarded as illegal, journalists are especially important as police behaviour is a particular issue on such occasions and problems are not uncommon.

What governments should do

As stressed by the Council of Europe 2016 Recommendation on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors, “member states should take into account the specific nature and democratic value of the role played by journalists and other media actors in particular contexts, such as in times of crisis, during election periods, at public demonstrations and in conflict zones. In these contexts in particular, it is important for law enforcement authorities to respect the role of journalists and other media actors covering demonstrations and other events.”

To uphold this role and ensure the rights of media workers to safely report on public assemblies, there are several steps member states can take.

Firstly, governments and politicians should give a strong signal that any attacks against journalists are unacceptable and will not go unpunished.

Secondly, the authorities need to initiate prompt, thorough and transparent investigations and bring perpetrators to justice, with punishments that reflect the seriousness of the crime. If journalists have been threatened, the authorities should act quickly to protect them.

At the same time, the authorities should promote co-operation between police and journalists. Dialogue between state authorities and journalists’ organisations should be encouraged in order to avoid friction or clashes between police and members of the media. In this regard, institutions such as media contact officers (Medienkontaktbeamte, or MKB) in the Federal police in Austria would seem to be a promising initiative.

In times of pandemic in particular, policing of assemblies should be based on communication and co-operation with the organisers and participants, so that appropriate measures are taken to ensure compliance with the existing restrictions (such as wearing masks and social distancing), with a view to preventing any problems related to possible spread of the disease, de-escalating tensions and avoiding the need to use force.

Lastly, I cannot overemphasise the importance of training. Police officers should be adequately trained in the role and function of journalists, especially during a public assembly. Journalists and media workers should be equally trained to cover public assemblies safely, including as regards the need to clearly identify themselves when reporting, for instance by displaying the word “press” on their clothing.

State authorities, law enforcement officials, media professionals: we all have a role to play in this.

The right to peaceful assembly is vital for a functioning democracy, and so is the public’s right to know about public assemblies. As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, it is time to reiterate our commitment to defend journalism as an essential part of information as a public good. However, when journalists are assaulted or their work otherwise obstructed, their ability to cover demonstrations in person and to inform society is greatly diminished. To ensure access to information, they must therefore be protected.

Dunja Mijatović

Useful references:

  • Report by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media
  • OSCE/ODIHR – Venice Commission Guidelines on freedom of peaceful assembly
  • Guide on Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights - freedom of expression
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom - Press Freedom Police Codex