The Council of Europe has released its annual report, examining the progression and regression of European press freedom over the course of the last year.
Unfortunately the report, titled the “Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists”, primarily consists of regressions, presenting a bleak picture of the condition of press freedom and independent media across the region in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The report is jointly written by 14 international organisations and is based on media freedom alerts submitted throughout the year.
Some of the sources for major concern and key development areas outlined in the report are:
The pandemic was highlighted as a serious contributor to diminished freedom of the press, with state authorities’ implementation of restrictive measures often inhibiting the ability of journalists to cover the public health situation freely or safely.
“in some cases measures were proportionate or quickly corrected, others took advantage of the public health emergency to intensify hostile pressure on critical and independent media”
The imposition of new laws, concerning the circulation of “fake news”, placed independent media at risk of fines or criminal penalties, restricted access to information and infringed upon the rights afforded to journalists under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Greater surveillance, as part of public health measures to contain the pandemic, also limited the freedom of the press. Journalists’ right to work privately and protect their sources was jeopardised, with phone tapping and hacking of other devices reported on several occasions.
The report reiterates the significance of the entrenchment of impunity over the last year, calling the lack of accountability in the cases of many murdered journalists “emblematic of the vulnerability of journalists’ personal safety”
“Impunity has deadly consequences by signalling that the perpetrators of serious crimes can escape unpunished. It can encourage further acts of violence against journalists.”
In the past 6 years, 30 journalists have been killed in the Council of Europe area and 24 cases of impunity for the murder of journalists are still active.
Attacks and harassment
The report found that cases of physical attacks, harassment and intimidation increased substantially in 2020, with a high number of attacks from both state and non-state actors reported during protests and rallies.
“The highest numbers of attacks on the physical integrity of journalists were reported in the Russian Federation, Italy and the United Kingdom, while France, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine saw a high number of cases of intimidation and harassment of journalists.”
The online abuse suffered by journalists was reported to have surged in 2020. Often fuelled by politicians, it was found that internet platforms and authorities remained slow in securing accountability for instigators.
Judicial harassment and abusive legal proceedings also increased in frequency, with lawsuits designed to intimidate and impose burdensome legal costs introduced by powerful individuals and companies.
“Journalists were subject to judicial harassment, imprisoned or detained because of their work and European Court decisions were not implemented in some cases.”
The findings of the report also indicated that content moderation measures involved “outsourcing censorship to tech platforms”, severely limiting press freedom and having a wide-reaching impact on online space.
“In countries, like the Russian Federation or Turkey, online platforms provide an opening for free expression amid a state-led takeover of the mainstream press.”
The report offers an array of recommendations intended to prevent the continued deterioration of European press freedom, including: facilitating reforms to laws and practices, protecting the safety of journalists at public events, ensuring strict judicial independence and taking further action against abusive legal practices.
European states have an obligation to preserve the fundamental rights and freedoms of their citizens – impeding the autonomy of independent media is antithetical to the protections guaranteed by the ECHR. Governments across the continent must implement the recommendations outlined by the report.
Report participation partner organisations:
- European Federation of Journalists
- International Federation of Journalists
- Association of European Journalists, Article 19
- Reporters Without Borders
- The Committee to Protect Journalists
- Index on Censorship, International Press Institute
- International News Safety Institute
- The Rory Peck Trust
- The European Broadcasting Union
- Pen International
- European Centre for Press & Media Freedom
- Free Press Unlimited