Book of interviews with “journalists at risk” reveals harsh reality of the assault on press freedom in Europe
A book just published by the Council of Europe provides remarkable insights from 20 ‘journalists at risk’ about the growing dangers they face for reporting on crime and corruption, and publicises their appeals for more effective protection from threats of violence, harassment and even jail on account of their work. ‘A Mission to inform: Journalists at risk speak out’ came out in mid-October just before the third anniversary of the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017. The book is co-authored by AEJ media freedom representative William Horsley and Dr Marilyn Clark of the University of Malta.
Below is an expanded version of William Horsley’s address on 25 November to the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee on Media and Information Society (CDMSI). Speaking to officials from all 47 Council of Europe states responsible for media policy, he called for urgent and decisive actions, in line with the countries’ public commitments, to protect the lives and the right-to-report of journalists under threat across Europe:-
I thank the Council of Europe for giving high priority to putting in place effective policies to better protect journalism and the safety of journalists. ‘A Mission to Inform: Journalists at risk speak out’, is a unique Council of Europe project whose aim is to investigate and publicise the growing dangers and obstacles to the work of free and independent media as a basis for implementing remedies in line with Council of Europe standards and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. Co-author Dr Marilyn Clark of the University of Malta and I have worked on the project for three years, with expert support from Council of Europe staff; and the book was published last month.
We asked twenty journalists from 18 European states who often report about corruption, injustice, and abuses of power to describe their experience of the dangers and hardships they have faced as watchdogs for the public. The book is based on their first-hand accounts and the revelations are often shocking.
The book has special value for members of this committee and for all European governments. In 2016, Ministers of the Council of Europe jointly declared that attacks and abuses against journalists had reached an “unacceptable “level. On the evidence of this publication, since then by many accounts the situation has worsened further. .
EUROPE’S PROTECTION FOR JOURNALISTS “IS FAILING”
For policy-makers, the core message that comes out from the journalists’ stories and analysis is that they fervently want to believe in the European ideals of human rights protection and states’ public commitment to protecting press freedom as a cornerstone of democracy. But they say the system is often failing those who need it most.
Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in October 2017 ten days after she was interviewed for the book. She spoke lucidly of the ‘climate of fear’ among journalists in Malta. “People are scared”, she said, “because they see me under constant attack. They see what my life is like and they say, no way!”
Daphne recalled an extraordinary catalogue of attacks against her and members of her family. They included arsonists setting fire to her home, human excrement being put through her letterbox, constant harassment by officials and in the street, over 40 potentially crippling libel lawsuits, and multiple death threats, No-one was ever been arrested for those things. Now, three years later, her murder has become a textbook case of impunity for the targeted killing of a journalist — and those responsible have still not been brought to justice.
Others recounted incidents in countries from Russia to Italy and the UK when they had suffered beatings and other violent attacks because of their work. “I will come to your office and shoot you all”, one caller told Serbian journalist Stevan Dojcinovic. Turkish newspaper editor Can Dundar was arrested on terrorism charges, after he reported on an unlawful shipment of arms to rebels in Syria which was deemed to harm national security. He survived a gun attack by an assailant shouting ‘Traitor’ and managed to flee to safety in Germany.
JOURNALISTS FACE FALSE CHARGES, PROSECUTIONS, SURVEILLANCE AND HARASSMENT
At least three of the journalists had been in prison for their work. Nearly all had been threatened with violence; or else with fabricated criminal charges, or defamation cases that carried the risk of high fines or long jail sentences. Leading investigative journalists spoke of the severe risks and obstacles they faced to reveal the truth about questionable or corrupt global networks, as revealed in the Panama Papers, Luxleaks and the so-called Lagarde List.
A common theme was that many journalists had been demonised by public figures and had their reputations trashed in organised campaigns to discredit them. Greek journalist and editor Kostas Vaxevanis called it “character assassination”.
Khadija Ismayilova was imprisoned on false charges in Azerbaijan, and suffered jail and what the European Court of Human Rights later found was a gross violation of her rights to privacy and free expression. Secret video from a camera unlawfully hidden in her bedroom was maliciously circulated on the Internet as a reprisal for her anti-corruption reporting. Her courage in the face of persecution was recognised when she was awarded the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize.
She and other female journalists who took part in the project suffered torrents of online abuse and threats of appalling violence, often of a sexual nature. Jessikka Aro from Finland was constantly stalked in a nasty campaign of harassment in reprisal for her TV reporting that exposed the activities of a large Russian troll factory in St Petersburg.
British photojournalist and documentary-maker Jason Parkinson has fought a long legal battle against covert and overt surveillance by the police of his legitimate journalistic activities. “The police have been caught spying on journalists which is what they said they weren’t going to use the legislation for”, he said in his recorded interview.
This book provides much evidence of systemic failings in the framework of protections for journalist that should be guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights. Policy-makers should also take good note of the dismay and even outrage voiced by those journalists at risk. Many of them insisted that the lack of real protection stems from the neglect or public hostility of the state authorities themselves — and from the inaction of the same European authorities which promise to ensure those necessary protections.
BREAKDOWN OF THE RULE OF LAW: NEW COUNTER-MEASURES
As the Council of Europe considers urgently what actions to take as an urgent priority to better enforce member states’ legal obligations on media freedom, this project and the book shed important light on two fundamental problems.
The first is that these journalists say they are especially vulnerable now because of a wider breakdown of the rule of law, including of judicial independence and all the checks and balances on executive power that must function well in a democratic society. They say that arbitrary laws, and arbitrary actions by police and other state authorities, are now commonplace; and they result in lawless societies, where journalists become open targets for those who want to silence critical voices.
A leading lawyer has said: “Journalists can now be silenced in multiple ways, by states which simply accuse them of spying, or of terrorism, or of spreading fake news. By doing so, one way or another, the journalist’s life is ruined and the individual is silenced”.
Those words were spoken this week by Amal Clooney, a leading member of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts which is providing important and practical Recommendations to the Global Media Freedom Coalition. The Panel aims to “harness the power of international law” to protect journalists and media freedom, by establishing effective monitoring and oversight bodies in countries where the threat to journalists is acute; and by trying to ensure that serious or repeated violations are met with sanctions that have “real-life consequences”.
MEDIA CAPTURE BY POLITICAL FORCES
The second alarming shift which has taken place, most obviously in central and Eastern Europe but in other regions too, is the spread of “media capture”. Ownership takeovers, regulatory capture and partisan use of state resources mean that self-interested political forces and their allies have created quasi-monopolies in which they control large parts of the media markets and can dominate national narratives, excluding other viewpoints from the public debate and stifling media pluralism .
Erol Onderoglu, a Turkish journalist and representative of RSF, said journalists there face wide-ranging obstacles and obstruction because of government interference in the regulation of the media and “political interference in the judiciary”.
In many places governments and oligarch figures have also weaponised “captured” media to dominate national narratives; and conducted massive campaigns to delegitimise critical or independent media, attacking those journalists as “enemies of the state”, traitors and terrorists.
Authoritarian governments have closed down or disabled rival independent media enterprises, making it hard or even impossible for thousands of professional journalists with little chance of making a living without compromising their principles. Self-censorship has become commonplace. Elena Kostyuchenko, who works for the small opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Russia, remarked that ‘most so-called journalists don’t do journalism. They do information services for their parties or for business”.
So significant parts of the population even in European countries are deprived of the reliable and independent news sources they need to be informed on matters of public interest. Free and fair elections are not possible when the media are made into tools of political propaganda. It is a deadly challenge to the basic right of everyone to seek and receive information and ideas, which is meant to be guaranteed by the European Convention.
So what is to be done? The book presents practical recommendations, taking account of the Committee of Ministers 2016 Recommendation which was produced by the efforts of this Council of Europe committee, representing all the member state governments.
EUROPEAN INSTITUTIONS “NOT BRAVE ENOUGH TO DEFEND THEIR PRINCIPLES”
A common refrain from the journalists is that “Europe is not brave enough to defend its principles” and must show more courage and determination.
They criticise the political behaviour by European governments which maintain close and uncritical relations with member states which are seen to have systematically breached their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, through laws that criminalise journalism, the misuse of pre-trial detention, lack of due legal process and unlawful surveillance and official harassment.
The journalists, each in their own way, make a powerful appeal to political leaders to stand up for press freedom. Because, they say, when leaders choose political expedience over democratic principles, they betray the trust of those who sacrifice themselves to uphold those principles; and the result is lawlessness, which they say has even infected some of Europe’s established democracies.
They are also dismayed at the growing patterns of legal impunity – that is, the failure of European justice systems in the great majority of cases to arrest and prosecute the those who kill and attack journalists for their work. Impunity exists in the cases of murdered journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia; and most recently also Jan Kuciak, the victim, with his fiancee, of a mafia-style shooting in Slovakia in 2018. The legal process in Slovakia has so far failed to bring to justice the person or persons who actually ordered the murders. That way, the guilty go free.
The clear warning from the journalists’ interviews is that when states are allowed to defy what should be final judgements by the European Court of Human Rights – as Turkey is now doing following the Court’s ruling that journalist Osman Kavala is unlawfully detained and must be freed at once — the “chilling effect” is felt by journalists and societies everywhere.
The Ministerial Recommendation sets out clear Guidelines which have been accepted by member states. These ‘journalists at risk’ want them to be enforced without delay, in order to stop the violent attacks and to eradicate the “cultures of impunity” that have grown up within Europe.
URGENT ACTIONS ON PHYSICAL PROTECTION AND IMPARTIAL JUSTICE
The inter-governmental Recommendation make clear that all states have legal obligation to provide effective protection for journalists who face serious threats of violence or harm. Italy has developed an effective nationwide system of protection for scores of journalists whose lives are in danger because of threats from the mafia. The journalists’ in this project want to see European institutions like the Council of Europe take quick and concrete action to establish practical and effective measures of protection every time a journalist is threatened because of their work anywhere in Europe.
Member states have also promised to uphold the highest standards in the conduct of judicial investigations into the killings of journalists and other serious abuses. These include the exclusion of any figures or institutions potentially implicated in crimes that target journalists; aggravated jail sentences and other penalties should be imposed on any public official who blocks or interferes with the effectiveness of the investigation; the duty to establish any connection between the crime and the activities of the targeted journalist; and open, impartial and accountable justice.
To sum up, these agreed measures of protection and judicial safeguards must be strictly enforced and monitored in all European countries: that is the clear and urgent message to all European governments from the twenty “journalists at risk” who were invited to speak out through this book. They have spoken. It is now up to the governments to take the necessary decisive actions.
‘A mission to inform: Journalists at risk speak out’ is available here: https://rm.coe.int/prems-021220-gbr-2018-a-mission-to-inform-journalists-at-risk-speak-ou/16809ff1e2
For more information see the CDMSI committee webpage: https://www.coe.int/en/web/freedom-expression/cdmsi