Two years of work by European parliamentarians on the Protection of Media Freedom in Europe have culminated in a new resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) , adopted on 29 January. It calls on Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Hungary, Italy and other named states to remedy alleged violations of press freedom and to fulfill their legal obligations to protect the lives and work of journalists.
The Assembly condemned Russia’s ‘grave violations of international law’ with respect to Ukraine and renewed the suspension of the Russian delegation’s voting rights which it imposed last year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The Russian delegation responded by walking out of the Assembly until the end of 2015.
In the Resolution members of parliament from the Council of Europe’s 47 member states condemned the alleged targeting of journalists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine and called on Russia to release Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film producer who was taken to Moscow in May 2014 after being detained in eastern Ukraine; highlighted their concern at the detention of journalist Khadiya Ismayilova and others Azerbaijan as well as the closure of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Baku; and called on Turkey to carry out full judicial investigations into attacks against journalists during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013.
The Resolution also asked Hungary to reform its legislation to improve the independence of the country’s media regulators, and called on Italy to re-consider its plans for reforming its defamation laws in the light of concerns identified by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s body of legal and constitutional experts. The PACE Assembly also expressed its concern at the threat to open democracy posed by the lack of transparency in media ownership in some states. It called for a new system of ‘Media Identity Cards’ to identify the real owners and others who wield decisive influence over media outlets, and asked each of Europe’s national parliaments to hold hearings or full-dress debates to scrutinise the state of media freedom in their country.
The Assembly also approved a Recommendation addressed to member states, asking European governments to review their implementation of Council of Europe commitments in the media field, to properly implement judgements from the European Court of Human Rights, and to work closely with media and NGOs to remedy serious violations of media freedom when they appear. In April last year the states that make up the Council of Europe publicly acknowledged the ‘alarming’ increase in violence and threats directed against journalists and urged national governments to review their laws and practices to ensure that they can respond with the necessary kinds of protection.
A committee of experts is working to produce the draft text of a Recommendation that will set out detailed proposals on how such reviews and measures of protection in the members states can genuinely safeguard the lives of journalists and eradicate impunity. Impunity is the persistent failure of state authorities to prosecute and convict the perpetrators of such attacks. Impunity is seen as a key factor in the high incidence of violence and intimidation directed at journalists in Europe and beyond.
In a related initiative, next month will see the actual launch of a new Council of Europe Freedom of Expression website , on which verified information from journalists’ associations and NGOs about attacks on the media will be published, and remedial actions sought from member states concerned.
A factual report on Protection of Media Freedom in Europe written by the AEJ’s media freedom representative William Horsley was presented, together with other collected evidence, to the Parliamentary Assembly by its Rapporteur on Media Freedom, Gvozden Flego. Mr Flego has appealed to governments whose shortcomings in protection media freedom were criticised not to react with denials or rejection. He asked them instead to regard the Assembly’s attention as ‘friendly expertise’ to help them uphold their commitments as members of the Council of Europe, the continent’s primary guarantor of fundamental human rights.
The Assembly renewed its intention to maintain awareness and scrutiny on the part of parliamentarians and governments throughout Europe over serious violations of media freedom.