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Comment 30 Apr 14

Press Freedom in Europe is in Great Danger

A dramatic turnabout is needed if press freedom in Europe is not to succumb to the twin pressures of overt violence and defamation lawsuits.

Nils Muiznieks
BIRN
Strasbourg

Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks. Photo by: CoE

To work as a journalist today, you need a great deal of courage. In the last twelve months, hundreds of journalists, photographers and camera operators in the world have been killed, injured, kidnapped, threatened or sued. Europe is no exception: worrying patterns are eroding press freedom here too. We must reverse them.

A free, safe, independent and pluralistic press is a core element of any functioning democracy because it is instrumental in protecting all other human rights. Instances of torture, discrimination, corruption or misuse of power have many times come to light because of the courageous work of journalists. Truth-telling is often the first, essential step to start redressing human rights violations and help hold governments accountable.

Press freedom is an acknowledged human right enshrined both in national and international laws, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, which also protects the physical integrity of journalists. And yet, Europe is no safe haven for the press.

Among the most widespread threats to press freedom in Europe is police violence against journalists covering demonstrations. I raised this issue with the Turkish government right after the Gezi events when the police used excessive force against demonstrators and journalists, some of whom were injured or had their equipment damaged. Journalist Ahmet Şık, who is facing two separate trials related to opinions he expressed, was injured twice with gas canisters fired at close range, indicating that he was likely targeted specifically.

In Ukraine, with tensions heightening during the demonstrations in February, more than a hundred journalists were attacked, including by stun grenades and rubber bullets. While there, I heard stories of severe violence against journalists who had been shot in the face or legs and been beaten.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, too, some journalists and TV operators covering the demonstrations against corruption and austerity have been treated violently by the police. This was the case of Branislav Pavičić, for example, who was beaten by a policeman while shooting images in Tuzla.

Policing of demonstrations has sometimes impinged on press freedom in Spain as well. At the end of March, for example, a group of journalists and photographers were beaten by the police in spite of having identified themselves as members of the press.

Apart from the police, journalists are also frequently targeted by non-state actors. Ossigeno per l’Informazione, which carries out valuable awareness-raising work on press freedom in Italy, told me over 1,800 journalists in the country have been victims of some sort of violence, including arson and threats, since 2006.

In the first three months of 2014, more than 150 cases have been reported, well above the average of previous years.

Lack of safety for journalists and impunity for crimes committed against journalists remain a serious problem in Montenegro, as I observed during my visit to the country last March. While several cases of the past are still unsolved, including the murder of Duško Jovanović, editor-in-chief and owner of the daily Dan, new cases occur. Among the most recent victims is Lidija Nikčević, another journalist for the newspaper Dan, who was brutally beaten by masked assailants wielding a baseball bat.

In Bulgaria, in April, journalists organised a protest in solidarity with bTV journalist Genka Shikerova, after her company car was set on fire outside her home. Her car suffered the same fate last September.

In Ukraine, Vyacheslav Veremyi, a journalist for Vesti newspaper, was shot dead in the chest by unknown thugs during the demonstrations in February.

Streets are not the sole battleground where press freedom is undermined. Courts are, too. In the majority of European countries, defamation or libel remains part of criminal law, which is scarcely reconcilable with international standards. Legislation on state secrets or terrorism is also invoked to muzzle journalists.

In Azerbaijan, where journalists expressing critical views are often harassed with legal challenges, nine journalists are in prison because of their reporting.

Many more are behind bars in Turkey, two in the Russian Federation, while in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia the detention of Tomsilav Kezarovski, from the newspaper Nova Makedonija, has, more than other cases, exposed the extent of political interference with press freedom.

Lawsuits against journalists are common practice in Italy, where the defamation law introduced by the Fascist regime remains in place. Under this law many journalists are sued and sometimes sentenced to prison terms, like Francesco Gangemi, a 79-year-old journalist, who last October was sentenced to two years in prison for libel and perjury.

In Slovenia, another country where defamation remains a criminal offence, the Prosecutors’ office in April indicted Anuška Delić, a journalist for the newspaper Delo, for having published allegedly classified material in 2011 while researching the rise of extremist groups in the country and the involvement of army and police members with these groups. She may pay for this with up to three years in prison.

The Greek criminal code also allows for the arrest of journalists in cases of libel. Though guidelines require police officers to inform the prosecutor before arresting a journalist for libel, evidence shows that the police often disregard this requirement.

Just recently, after a Greek MP sued several journalists for criticising her statements, the police went to newsrooms to arrest them without the prior consent of a prosecutor. A journalist from Eleftheros Typos was kept overnight in police custody before being freed by a judge the following day.

Another EU country where inadequate legislation threatens press freedom is Croatia. Under the country’s new penal code, anybody, including journalists, can be convicted for causing humiliation, even if what they report on is true.

This was the case of Slavica Lukic, a journalist for Jutarnji list, who has been fined 4,000 euros by the courts for having disclosed the mishandling of public funds by a private healthcare company.

Such monetary fines, very often disproportionate, are another widespread threat to press freedom. Excessive damages awarded in civil defamation cases have put some European media and journalists under heavy pressure and threatened their economic survival.

Conflicts zones are also dangerous places for journalists. The case of Crimea is emblematic: press members have been kidnapped, intimidated, denied access and had their material confiscated by armed people. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have had further repercussions on the media in both countries. Pressures on independent journalists in Russia have increased, while Ukraine has prevented some Russian journalists from entering the country, thus sparking new tensions after its decision to block a number of Russian television broadcasters. In the east of Ukraine, journalists have been threatened and harassed by masked and armed men.

I could add many more examples, showing that press freedom in Europe is dramatically deteriorating. If European states want to be serious about their obligation to ensure press freedom and journalists’ safety, an urgent turnabout is necessary.

A first step is to free all journalists imprisoned because of the views they expressed and to clean the criminal records of those who have been condemned for their reports.

Secondly, the law must change. Only proportionate civil sanctions must apply to defamation and libel because the mere risk of imprisoning or imposing disproportionate fines against journalists induces self-censorship among the press. 

It is also particularly important to eradicate impunity by effectively investigating all cases of violence against journalists, including those involving state actors like law enforcement officials. Such a move should be reinforced by specific instructions and training for the police on the protection of journalists.

Finally, policy and opinion makers, as well as public personalities, must always condemn violence against journalists and accept a higher degree of public criticism and scrutiny, refraining from violent or intimidating reactions. This is crucial to help the press operate freely.

It is dismaying that 21st-century Europe still needs such recommendations. However, this deplorable situation should not weaken our determination to defend a free press. By defending journalists and keeping the press free we make democracy stronger.

Nils Muiznieks is the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights

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