State of Press Freedom in Europe : launch of the annual report of the Safety of Journalists Platform

The launch of the annual report “Press Freedom in Europe” by the Safety of Journalists Platform, serves as a critical juncture for assessing the state of press freedom across the European continent. The report meticulously examines the multifaceted challenges undermining journalistic integrity, ranging from overt threats and intimidation tactics to insidious legal manoeuvres and systemic media capture.

Against the backdrop of geopolitical upheavals, such as the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the escalating violence against journalists in Gaza, the imperative to safeguard press freedom has never been more urgent. The report casts a discerning eye on the various manifestations of press freedom violations, including surveillance practices, erosion of source protection, media capture strategies, and the pernicious use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Through incisive panel discussions, experts delve into these pressing issues, elucidating the intricate dynamics at play and offering pragmatic solutions to fortify journalistic freedoms.

Personal testimonies from journalists like Szabolcs Panyi and Arianne Lavrilleux lend a human dimension to the discussion, highlighting the tangible threats faced by those on the frontlines of investigative journalism. From clandestine surveillance operations to coercive legal measures, their experiences underscore the pervasive nature of the challenges confronting press freedom advocates across Europe.

The ensuing dialogue underscores the imperative for concerted action to confront these threats head-on. Recommendations put forth in the report include imposing a moratorium on the export and use of intrusive surveillance technologies, enacting robust legislation to safeguard journalists’ sources, and bolstering the implementation of the European Media Freedom Act to counteract media capture and ensure editorial independence. While there are glimmers of progress, the road ahead remains fraught with challenges.

To uphold the foundational principles of press freedom and democratic governance, sustained advocacy, international solidarity, and unwavering commitment from governments and civil society stakeholders are imperative. The launch of this report serves as a clarion call for action, urging stakeholders to redouble their efforts in defence of press freedom and the vital role of journalism in upholding democratic values across Europe and beyond.

The journalist Tasos Telloglou provides insight into Greece’s situation, where institutional weaknesses often result in the arbitrary application of rules, especially concerning the surveillance of journalists. This sets the stage for a broader discussion on the state of media freedom across the continent.

The conversation expands to encompass Hungary, a country grappling with media capture and pervasive surveillance practices. Szabolcs Panyi, a Hungarian investigative journalist, shares his experiences of working under surveillance, emphasizing the critical importance of secure communication methods and how critical the situation is in a contest where all investigation concerning people in power is hampered.

The discussion also touches upon the prevalence of spyware technologies, including notorious examples like Pegasus and lesser-known tools such as Hermes. The revelation of these surveillance mechanisms raises concerns about privacy violations and government overreach. Panyi’s insights underscore the need for journalists to remain vigilant and adaptable in the face of evolving surveillance tactics.

An additional layer to the conversation is introduced through the role of technology companies. While these companies play a pivotal role in uncovering misuse of their products, questions arise about their level of cooperation with governments. Telloglou draws attention to Greece’s experience, where tech companies’ cooperation in revealing misuse of spyware sheds light on the extent of government surveillance practices.

Oliver Money-Kyrle provides insights from Turkey, where progress has been made in reducing journalist imprisonments. However, he highlights ongoing challenges, particularly concerning working conditions and government interference. The discussion underscores the importance of addressing systemic issues and protecting journalists’ rights across the region.

A significant portion of the conversation revolves around Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), a tactic used to intimidate journalists and stifle investigative reporting. Flutura Kusari, legal advisor at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, provides a comprehensive overview of SLAPP cases across Europe, pointing out the alarming trend of baseless lawsuits filed against journalists and media outlets. The recent approval of the EU’s Anti-SLAPP Directive is lauded as a positive step towards safeguarding press freedom and protecting journalists from legal harassment.

Jessica Ni Mhainin offers insights into the situation in the UK, which has been dubbed the “SLAPP capital of Europe.” Despite recent legislative efforts to address SLAPP cases, challenges remain in ensuring comprehensive protection for journalists and media organizations. Ni Mhainin emphasizes the need for robust anti-SLAPP measures and proactive government intervention to combat legal harassment in the media sector.

The discussion proceeds with a focus on the support that must be given to journalists in exile and the need to advocate for their rights and safety. The director of Justice for Journalists Foundation, Maria Ordzhonikidze, has highlighted the far-reaching implications of the war in Ukraine on press freedom and the urgent need for international solidarity and support. Her intervention delved into the grim realities faced by journalists around the world, particularly those forced into exile due to persecution in their home countries.

She began by noting the disturbing trend of even ostensibly democratic nations mistreating journalists, emphasizing that the perceived safety of Europe for independent journalists and political activists is not always guaranteed. The reasons for journalists fleeing their countries, she explained, often revolve around three central threats: physical danger to their lives, legal persecution, and various forms of harassment, including cyber-attacks.

Ordzhonikidze cited multiple instances to underscore her point. In 2021, a significant number of Afghan journalists fled their country following the Taliban invasion, seeking refuge in Europe and the United States. Similarly, over 200 Nicaraguan political dissidents, including media workers, had their citizenship revoked in February 2023 under the pretext of spreading false news. The situation in Turkey remains dire, with journalists seeking sanctuary in European countries, particularly Germany, due to ongoing persecution under an autocratic government.

She also highlighted the plight of Belarusian journalists, who faced forced immigration following the protests against the rigged presidential elections in 2020. Even in exile, they continue to face threats from the regime, with Belarus implementing measures such as banning citizens from renewing passports from outside the country.

Moreover, the alarming trend extends to Russia, where over a thousand journalists have been forced to leave, seeking refuge in various European countries. The Russian government has imprisoned at least 33 media workers, and an additional 14 journalists were captured in occupied Crimea and imprisoned in Russian camps, drawing attention to the torturous conditions prevalent in these facilities.

However, the challenges faced by exiled journalists do not end with their physical relocation. Even within Europe, they encounter risks ranging from physical attacks to surveillance and intimidation. Ordzhonikidze pointed out two particularly concerning incidents of suspected poisoning targeting Russian female journalists, Elena Kostyuchenko and Irina Babloyan, who continue to face threats and harassment in their new host countries.

Following Ordzhonikidze’s remarks, Irina Dolinina, a journalist from iStories, shared her firsthand experiences working under pressure in Russia, where independent reporting on corruption and human rights abuses led to surveillance, harassment, and legal persecution. Despite being forced into exile, Dolinina highlighted the persistent threats and surveillance faced by journalists, even in supposedly safe European countries like the Czech Republic. She recounted receiving threats, including the disclosure of her personal address, which exacerbated concerns for her safety and that of her colleagues.

Addressing potential solutions to the crisis facing journalists, William Horsley from the Association of European Journalists outlined the “Journalist Matter” campaign, aimed at defending press freedom and addressing the challenges faced by journalists across Europe. He emphasized the importance of implementing legal frameworks, prosecuting attacks on journalists, and raising public awareness.

Despite the efforts of initiatives like the “Journalist Matter” campaign, challenges remain daunting. The session underscored the urgent need for collective action and political will to protect journalists and uphold press freedom, not only within Europe but globally. Concrete measures, including addressing surveillance, providing support for journalists in exile, and holding perpetrators of attacks on journalists accountable, are essential steps toward ensuring the safety and freedom of journalists worldwide.

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