The AEJ’s Media Freedom Representative, William Horsley, has presented proposals for the attention of European governments to establish new and effective safeguards against the unacceptably high level of violence, intimidation and harassment which obstructs the work of journalists in many parts of Europe.
He has drawn on the AEJ’s experience with the work of the Council of Europe, including the mandate recently given by member states to proposals for reviewing their laws and practices to bring them into line with treaty obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. William Horsley outlined these ‘blueprint’ proposals on 2 July at the international conference hosted by the Italian Senate in Rome and organised by Ossigeno per L’Informazione and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.
These radical proposals are in line with political commitments already made by governments at European and global level. At their heart is a call for a higher level of parliamentary and civil society participation in the making and reform of laws related to freedom of expression and media freedom, as well as independent, verifyable oversight of state agencies, government transparency and guarantees of citizen’s rights of access to official information.
The 2015 Report on the State of Democracy, Human Rights and Rule of Law in Europe by the Council of Europe’s Secretary-General states that genuine media independence has diminished and now flourishes in only one quarter of the states of Europe, while protection against arbitrary application of laws works well in fewer than 40 percent of European countries. Abuse of defamation laws and a lack of freedom of information are among the most serious barriers to free, independent media, according to the Council of Europe’s own findings. This dark picture is backed up by recent reports by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, the OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media, as well as leading NGO and media reports.
Key points in the new call to action by governments, law-enforcement bodies and media organisations include corrective actions by governments in response to alerts about serious threats to press freedom on the Council of Europe’s online Platform for the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists and actions to follow up the important ‘Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists and other media actors’ of 30 April 2014
That Declaration urges every European state to undertake an urgent review of national laws and practices to uphold their commitment to Article 10 (freedom of expression) as well as other key protections under the European Convention. A committee of experts is currently working on a set of draft Guidelines for this purpose which is to be presented to Member States for adoption early in 2016.
William Horsley’s presentation is also based on the four UN Resolutions on the safety of journalists adopted since 2012. He highlights the common priority given by the UN General Assembly as well as the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers to the need for effective legal safeguards, proper awareness of international law obligations on the part of state officials, effective early warning and rapid response mechanisms, and effective actions to end impunity in cases involving violent crimes and abuses against journalists.
The AEJ Media Representative’s proposals analyse recent events, including many killings and cases of wrongful imprisonment of journalists, judicial and administrative harassment aimed at silencing journalists, and abuses of state power revealed by the Edward Snowden revelations about surveillance and interception of communications. These demonstrate that current ways of working by governments are inadequate to meet the urgent need to provide genuine protection for journalists and maintain public trust in the independence of state institutions.
Later in 2015 the Council of Europe is to reveal details of a two-year top-priority programme of actions to defend journalists’ security and their safe working environment.
In conclusion the AEJ report says: ‘ Silence and secrecy breed injustice. We must look to the politicians to put their own houses in order by fulfilling their obligations to protect free speech and press freedom. Journalists and the media should raise their game, too, by firmly resisting all attempts to silence the truth, and requiring that governments should deliver on their promises to uphold free speech and press freedom.’
William Horsley is an AEJ Vice-President and its Media Freedom Representative. He is one of two independent, non-State members of the Council of Europe’s Committee of experts on protection of journalism and safety of journalists and the author of the OSCE’s Safety of Journalists Guidebook (2ndedition, 2014)