High-minded words will not be enough by themselves to correct the illiberal and sweeping measures put in place in many European states in the name of anti-terrorism measures in recent years.
But at least it is a start that Council of Europe ministers on Friday made a public and collective pledge to review national laws, to ensure that they conform with existing guarantees for freedom of expression and information as set out in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
There were moments of tension and drama in the preparatory meetings, before delegates representing 46 of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states accepted the key part of a Resolution on the impact on freedom of expression of the large number of national laws anti-terrorism laws and practices enacted in recent years in virtually every European country.
A handful of states had earlier insisted on watering down many details of the Resolution. But the text does still contain a clear acknowledgement of the fact that government laws and actions risk making freedom of expression into a victim of anti-terrorism laws.
In the end only Russia announced that it would abstain. The others all pledged, in the words of the Resolution, to “Review our national legislation and/or practice on a regular basis” to make sure that any impact of anti-terrorism measures is consistent with Council of Europe standards.
Article 10 guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom “to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authorities and regardless of frontiers.” But the same text lists a wide range of restrictions on freedom of expression, including concerns for national security and the prevention of disorder or crime.
The Council of Europe’s own research has amply demonstrated that member states have alrfeady curtailed the principle of freedom of expression in many ways — through the anti-terrorism laws that create offences such as aiding “extremism” or “glorifying” terrorism, laws extending the scope of state secrecy or shielding public figures from criticism, and laws giving the police and state new powers in relation to street protests. Many journalists have also been assaulted or even killed in Council of Europe member states while investigating corruption or abuses of power. Yet all too often those responsible enjoy effective immunity, while the voices of protest are cowed or silent.
All these things have done enormous harm to the ability of journalists to inform the public on matters of legitimate public interest. Some governments themselves have in many cases applied anti-terrorism laws in unrelated situations, to increase secret wiretapping or surveillance of media workers, and to threaten criminal prosecution to journalists unless they reveal the confidential sources for their reports.
The most powerful document, listing scores of such excesses and misuses of state power, is David Banisar’s research paper “Speaking of Terror”, which is available on the Internet. It is hard to comprehend why many leading European news organisations have so far failed to focus more seriously on this assault on fundamental freedoms, or report it to the wider public.
The consequences for the survival of professional journalism as an effective watchdog on government power across Europe are alarming. That is the view of the Association of European Journalists, one of the representative media bodies that sits as an Observer in the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on the Media. The Association’s concerns arise from the evidence from our members in countries across the continent, published in our own Surveys of the state of the media.
Governments are part of both the problem and the possible solution. The Open Society Institute’s recent publication, Television Across Europe: More Channels, Less Independence, describes a new political malaise in Europe in which freedom of thought and impartiality of information are in retreat.
The Reykjavic agenda correctly identified the twin dangers to a healthy media and information environment in Europe. They are the arrival of a new age of do-it-yourself media, in which trusted and reliable news sources are already being swept aside, and the distorting effects of the terrorism threat to our societies, made more damaging in many cases by the actions of governments.
In debating A New Notion of Media? at the conference, ministers agreed to seek new, imaginative ways of fostering viable forms of accountable and trustworthy news and information media. In the view of the AEJ and other representative journalists’ organisations, politicians can help, first, by taking their own self-interested hands off the existing and future forms of independent media, both public and private. Russia and Italy are two of the many current examples of government regimes that stand accused of seeking to stifle independent and diverse media.
Journalists and media organisations also need to raise their professional standards and innovate in order to regain ebbing the public’s trust. They must find new business models in the face of a crippling economic crisis in the industry and the new media revolution, in which everyone can publish their views on the Internet and journalists are no longer the exclusive gatekeepers of information.
The Reykjavik conference highlighted the importance of rolling back the various invasions of media freedom and independence that arise from political or commercial interference with the work of journalists. The delegates paid respect publicly to the idea that this must be done for the future health of European democracy.
The reviews of national anti-terrorism laws across Europe that have now been promised by governments need to be urgent, thorough and transparent. They could become another wasted opportunity. Or they could be the start of Europe’s recovery of a justified pride in its example to the rest of the world in protecting the “mother of all liberties” – the freedom of the press.
Click here for the statement by the NGO civil society Forum on freedom of expression, including the AEJ.