I. Introduction

 

Press freedom in Europe is more fragile now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Journalists increasingly face obstruction, hostility and violence as they investigate and report on behalf of the public. Urgent actions backed by a determined show of political will by Council of Europe member states are now required to improve the dire conditions for media freedom and to provide reliable protections for journalists in law and practice.

 

The 2019 Annual Report by the partner organisations of the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists provides a clear picture of the worsening environment for the media across Europe, and its underlying causes[1].

 

The 12 partners, including journalists’ and media organisations as well as freedom of expression advocacy groups, reported 140 serious violations in 32 Council of Europe member states to the Platform in 2018. The Platform was launched in April 2015 to provide information which may serve as a basis for dialogue with member states about possible protective or remedial action.

 

The Annual Report paints a disturbing picture. Impunity routinely protects those responsible for violent crimes who deliberately target journalists for their work. Legal protections have been progressively weakened and denied. The space for the press to hold government authorities and the powerful to account has been diminished.

 

In addition to providing an overview of the urgent threats to media freedom identified in 2018, the Annual Report also takes an in-depth look at particular issues or country contexts that individual partner organisations have identified as especially salient during the past year. These include the situation in Turkey, which remains the world’s biggest jailer of journalists; the Russian Federation, where state actions and policies continue to severely restrict the space for free expression; Italy, the state which saw the sharpest increase in the number of media freedom alerts reported in 2018; and Hungary, in the light of the very high concentration of media in the hands of pro-government oligarchs. The report also assesses disturbing new trends, including impunity for journalists’ murders inside the European Union (EU) as well as elsewhere; attacks on freelance journalists; and efforts to undermine the independence of public service media, including in countries once considered ”safe harbours” for such media.

 

In the spirit of cooperation of the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding signed by the partner organisations and the Council of Europe, we call on member states to urgently take account of the findings and recommendations presented here. We ask them urgently to take all measures necessary to create a favourable environment for free and independent media and to end the many acts of violence, harassment and intimidation which journalists face as a daily reality in some member states.


[1] This report represents a joint effort by the 12 partner organisations to the Platform to raise awareness about key developments related to press freedom in the Council of Europe region highlighted by the alerts. Different sections have been contributed by different organisations. Each Partner Organisation reserves the right to make its own assessment of any particular issues or case, including those that are referenced in this text.

 

II. Significant features of the assault on press freedom in the Council of Europe region

 

Ján Kuciak and Jamal Khashoggi were killed in retaliation for their work.

 

The number of attacks on journalists’ physical safety and integrity is growing.

 

  • At least two journalists were killed in 2018 in relation to their journalistic work: Ján Kuciak in Slovakia[1], and Jamal Khashoggi (after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate) in Turkey[2]. In the deaths of two other journalists, Viktoria Marinova in Bulgaria[3] and Maksim Borodin in the Russian Federation[4], questions and concerns have been raised over the thoroughness of the respective police investigations or around the circumstances which led to the murder.
  • Overall, 35 alerts regarding attacks on journalists’ physical safety and integrity were posted on the Platform in 2018, confirming an upward trend in the number of attacks. Of these, 29 are classified as “level 1”, which covers the most severe and damaging violations to media freedom. In addition to the killings noted above, the alerts include the detonation of a car bomb in front of a journalist’s home[5]; a knife attack on a journalist in front of his apartment door[6]; an arson attack against the headquarters of an investigative news website[7]; and the ramming of a van into a building housing a major national newspaper[8].

 

The number of recorded threats, including death threats, doubled in 2018.

 

  • The number of alerts about serious threats to journalists’ lives has sharply increased, almost doubling on an annual basis, since the launch of the Platform in 2015. Notably, 2018 saw a clear trend towards verbal abuse and public stigmatisation of the media and individual journalists in many member states, including by elected officials and especially in the run-up to elections. Such actions, which are frequently propagated over social media, brand media workers as potential targets, in some instances triggering hostility, hate and violent actions against them[9]. This is unacceptable and must be vigorously condemned. Worryingly, the Platform alerts highlight cases where authorities have failed to adequately respond to journalists’ complaints[10]. Examples of verbal abuse by political leaders in 2018 include voicing regret that journalists were not yet “an extinct species”[11], publishing lists of journalists who dared to be critical of the government and describing them as “traitors”[12], and making threats to reduce sources of public funding to the press on the ground that it “pollutes public debate …with public money”[13].

 

Impunity – the lack of proper police and judicial follow-up to crimes against journalists – has been allowed to become a “new normal”.

 

  • The Platform details 17 long-standing cases of impunity for the murder of journalists – a disturbing indication of how state authorities often fail to fulfil their strict obligation under Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention of Human Rights to conduct prompt and effective investigations and bring those responsible to justice. To highlight this deplorable lack of progress, the Platform launched a special page on impunity for murder cases.
  • Three new alerts[14] were submitted in 2018 on impunity for serious crimes against journalists. None of the previous alerts relating to impunity for murdered journalists have seen significant progress.
  • The Platform provides ample evidence of failings, unexplained delays and omissions in domestic investigations which point to a lack of political will by member states to bring the perpetrators and masterminds of these crimes to justice. They also reveal failings related to inadequate legal frameworks, a lack of judicial independence or capacity, and negligence or corruption.

 

At the end of 2018, the Platform recorded 130 journalists in detention in the member states of the Council of Europe.

 

Journalists continue to be arbitrarily and unjustly detained or jailed.

 

  • As of 31 December 2018, the Platform recorded 130 cases of journalists in detention. This figure includes 110 journalists jailed in Turkey, 11 in Azerbaijan, five in the Russian Federation and four in Ukraine.
  • In 2018 several alerts concerned alleged abuse of the Interpol “Red Notice” system by some member states[15] to pursue journalists who had moved abroad to avoid domestic repression and the threat of arbitrary imprisonment.

 

Repressive legislation is seriously eroding media freedom.

 

  • Ten new alerts on problematic legislative or administrative measures were reported in eight member states in 2018[16]. They include the closure or banning of media outlets by decree[17]; new legislation allowing the blocking of Internet sites on national security grounds without independent oversight[18]; rules requiring foreign-funded media outlets to register as “foreign agents”[19]; a bill that would criminalise the viewing of certain online content and publishing certain pictures or video clips; and measures that potentially criminalise the legitimate work of journalists reporting on terrorism issues[20].

 

States seek to block Internet sites and social media platforms.

 

  • In 2018, the Platform recorded three alerts in two member states concerning unnecessary or disproportionate control of online communications and access to information[21]. Although this figure remained stable in comparison to previous years[22], the implications of the acts highlighted by the alerts are significant. The Russian authorities, for example[23], restricted access to the Telegram messaging app as well as to a large number of news portals, causing massive temporary Internet disruption. Almost 20 million Internet protocol addresses were temporarily blocked, including at least six media outlets. Notably, none of the alerts previously submitted to the Platform regarding the arbitrary blocking of Internet or social media in various member states[24] has been declared ”resolved” or ”showing progress” in 2018.

 

The independence and sustainability of public broadcasters is being increasingly undermined.

 

  • Adequate financing is essential to ensuring the independence and sustainability of public service media (PSM). In 2018, alerts to the Platform confirm a trend of cuts to PSM funding in several Council of Europe member states and highlight political interference in the work of PSM supervisory boards[25]. In general, the alerts bore witness to a marked trend towards increased political pressure on public broadcasters, making it difficult for reporters and editors to exercise editorial independence.

 

Journalists’ ability to protect sources is in jeopardy.

 

  • The 2018 alerts show a clear deterioration regarding the protection of journalistic sources. In several member states, administrative authorities filed requests aimed at disclosure of information identifying journalistic sources without any judicial involvement[26]. Raids were carried out at newspapers’ premises and at journalists’ homes[27]. Police confiscated mobile phones belonging to investigative journalists[28]. Judicial decisions granted public prosecutors access to journalists’ phone records[29].
  • In addition, legislative moves by several member states[30] to assume more extensive powers for mass surveillance have created grave risks to journalists’ rights including the protection of confidential sources. None of the alerts posted on the Platform regarding such legislative initiatives have been declared “resolved” or showing progress.

 

Laws that threaten to criminalise journalists’ work continue to exert a major chilling effect.

 

  • Defamation still carries a risk of imprisonment in more than half of the Council of Europe member states[31], running counter to the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Despite some progress, such as Malta’s decision to repeal its criminal defamation law, the 2018 alerts show that this risk remains real, with journalists facing jail sentences for defamation[32] or for insults to the head of State[33]. Journalists continued to be sued by government officials for defamation[34], despite the fact that public officials and politicians must display a greater degree of tolerance toward criticism. In Malta[35], over 30 defamation lawsuits against murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia before her death remain pending; the continued pursuit of many of those cases by the plaintiffs, including government officials, illustrates a deep structural injustice.

 

 

[1] Platform alert, “Slovak Investigative Journalist Killed at Home”, posted 26 February 2018, replied 27 February, 12 March and 1 October 2018.

[2] Platform alert, “Saudi Journalist Disappears During Visit to Saudi Consulate in Turkey”, posted 5 October 2018.

[3] Platform alert, “Bulgarian Journalist Viktoria Marinova Killed”, posted 7 October 2018, replied 25 October 2018.

[4] Platform alert, “Russian Journalist Dies under Suspicious Circumstances”, posted 24 April 2018.

[5] Platform alert, “Montenegrin Journalist Targeted in Car Bombing”, posted 5 April 2018, replied 28 August 2018, resolved 6 December 2018.

[6] Platform alert, “Journalist Enrico Nascimbeni Attacked with a Knife in Milan”, posted 6 August 2018.

[7] Platform alert, “Arson Attack on News Website in Northwestern Ukraine”, posted 5 March 2018, replied 2 May 2018.

[8] Platform alert, “Dutch Biggest Daily De Telegraaf Attacked in Latest Incident Involving Media”, posted 27 June 2018, replied 14 November 2018.

[9] Platform alert, “Journalists Attacked by Far-right Radicals”, posted 30 November 2018; Platform alert, “Threats against Slovenian Journalists”, posted 11 June 2018, replied 9 October 2018; Platform alert, “Turkish Far Right Leader Threatens 80 Journalists, Pollsters and Academics”, posted 27 June 2018; Platform alert, “BHRT News Team Attacked by a Group of Fifteen Persons in Konjic”, posted 24 August 2018.

[12] Platform alert, “Serbian Weekly Describes Independent Media as “Traitors”, posted 19 November 2018.

[13] Platform alert, “Minister Di Maio Threatens to Reduce Indirect Public Funding to the Press”, posted 18 September 2018.

[15] Platform alert, “Turkish Journalist Kamil Demirkaya Detained in Romania”, posted 6 December 2018, replied 20 December 2018, resolved 7 January 2019; Platform alert, “Israeli-Russian Blogger Aleksandr Lapshin to be Tried in Azerbaijan”, posted 7 March 2017.

[16] Ukraine, Turkey, "The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", France, Russian Federation, Poland, United Kingdom and Lithuania.

[17] Platform alert, “Three Newspapers and one TV Station Closed by Decree-law”, posted 9 July 2018; Platform alert, “Russian Media Organisations Banned for Three Years in Ukraine”, posted 25 May 2018, replied 31 July 2018.

[20] Platform alert, “Media Freedom Advocates Raise Alarm over UK Counter-terror Bill”, posted 25 September 2018, replied 3 December 2018.

[21] Platform alert, “Ukraine: New Draft Bill Risks Interfering with the Editorial Policy of the Public Service Media”, posted 7 February 2018, replied 6 June 2018, resolved 7 July 2018; Platform alert, “Russia: Blocking of Telegram and Collateral Temporary Blocking of Media Sites”, posted 29 April 2018.

[22] Two cases reported in 2017, one in 2016 and two in 2015.

[24] Platform alert, “Administrative Blocking of Websites ‘Inciting Terrorism’”, posted 7 April 2015, replied 12 May 2015; Platform alert, “Germany: Draft Bill on Social Networks Raises Serious Free Expression Concerns”, posted 28 April 2017, replied 29 August 2017; Platform alert, “Kurdish Journalist Berzan Güneş Arrested for Social Media Posts”, posted 15 June 2018; Platform alert, “Draft Bill to Allow Blocking of Internet Sites without a Court Order”, posted 6 July 2018; Platform alert, “A Reference Information Website Arbitrarily Blocked in Russia”, posted 2 April 2018.

[25] Platform alert, “Government Plans to Strongly Reduce Funding for Public Service Media”, posted 19 March 2018; Platform alert, “Government Plan to Strongly Reduce Funding for Public Service Broadcasting”, posted 20 September 2017, replied 18 December 2017; Platform alert, “Romania to Eliminate Public Broadcast Fee”, posted 21 October 2016; Platform alert, “Threat of Closure of the Public Broadcast Media Service”, posted 18 April 2017; Platform alert, “Greece Halves the Number of National TV Broadcasting Licenses”, posted 21 September 2016, resolved 6 December 2016; Platform alert, “Threats to the Independence of the Lithuanian LRT”, posted 14 November 2018, replied 8 January 2019.

[26] Platform alert, “Financial Regulatory Authority Requests the Disclosure of Journalistic Sources”, posted 9 November 2018, replied 19 November 2018, resolved 6 December 2018; Platform alert, “Data Protection Authority Requests the Disclosure of Journalistic Sources”, posted 12 November 2018, replied 19 November 2018.

[27] Platform alert, “Police Raid Sendika.org Newsroom”, posted 2 July 2018; Platform alert, “Police Searched the Home of Journalist Salvo Palazzolo”, posted 19 September 2018.

[28] Platform alert, “Slovak Police Seize Mobile Phone of Czech Investigative Reporter”, posted 16 May 2018, replied 4 July 2018; Platform alert, “Ukrainian Journalist Detained and her Equipment Seized by Rome Police”, posted 23 January 2018.

[29] Platform alert, “Ukraine Court Allows Prosecutors Access to Investigative Journalist’s Phone Records”, posted 5 September 2018, replied 4 October 2018.

[30] Platform alert, “Poland Legalises Mass Surveillance of its Citizens”, posted 25 January 2016, replied 26 February 2016; Platform alert, “UK Draft Bill on Surveillance Threatens Protection of Journalists” Sources”, posted 16 November 2015, replied 15 December 2015; Platform alert “France Legalizes Mass Surveillance of its Citizens”, posted 6 May 2018, replied 12 May 2015, Platform alert, “New Proposed Law Set to Increase the Power to Surveil Foreign Journalists”, posted 8 July 2016, replied 10 August 2016.

[31] Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe: “Defamation and Insult Laws in the OSCE Region: a Comparative Study”, Vienna: OSCE, 2017, p. 7 et al.

[32] Platform alert, “Slovak Journalist Gets a Suspended Sentence for Defamation”, posted 4 April 2018, replied 4 May and 4 July 2018.

[35] Platform alert, “Malta Economy Minister Issues four Libel Suits and Warrants against Blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia”, posted 10 February 2017, replied 16 February and 17 November 2017.

 

III. Are member states responding to alerts adequately in terms of the Council of Europe’s agreement with the partner organisations?

 

In 2018, the rate of response to alerts from states was 39%.

 

The overall response rate from states after serious and verified threats to media freedom were reported to the Platform in 2018 was only 39%, a level which is much too low. Relatively few state replies have so far led to genuine remedial actions or to necessary reforms of laws and practices. More evidence of efforts to resolve problems is essential in order to bring about real improvements in the protections for media freedom in the Council of Europe area.

 

  • Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, Russian Federation and Turkey did not respond to any alerts in 2018.
  • Some member states took significant steps to reply effectively by creating domestic mechanisms to respond to alerts. France established an inter-ministerial working group to coordinate responses, composed of representatives of the Permanent Representation of France to the Council of Europe and the Ministries of Interior, Justice and of Culture. Ukraine’s Ministry of Information Policy has also put in place a system to coordinate responses to alerts, and several other countries have signalled their intention to follow suit. Such moves are an important step towards better transparency and accountability for handling Platform alerts.
  • The problems or cases raised in a number of alerts have been adequately resolved, including individual cases in Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Georgia, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine.
  • Constructive measures were adopted in several member states to strengthen frameworks of protection for journalists under threat. Following several shocking assaults against crime reporters and media offices in the Netherlands, for instance, the public prosecution, the police authorities and media outlets concluded an agreement to adopt preventive measures and coordinate responses to instances of violence.
  • The Platform partners welcome every prompt and constructive reply by member states to alerts, and applaud steps by some member states to put in place new organisational arrangements to ensure adequate responses.