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Nils Muižnieks: Stopping the deterioration of press freedom

The appeal of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe on the newspaper New Europe

By Nils Muižnieks – Belgium | Brussels: On 4 December 2014, at 23h37, my Office received an email from prominent Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. She pleaded for the case of a fellow Azerbaijani journalist sentenced to eight years in prison on trumped up charges. A few hours later, Khadija was arrested and sentenced to two-month pre-trial detention on charges of inciting someone to attempt suicide.
This episode is emblematic of the vulnerability of the press in Europe. In recent years I have observed a progressive deterioration of the conditions in which media professionals work, with a clear acceleration in 2014, during which hundreds of journalists, photographers and camera operators have been killed, injured, arrested, kidnapped, threatened or sued. The conflict in Ukraine stands out in this context, with six journalists killed while covering the events there. A recent report by the International Federation of Journalists identifies 2014 as the deadliest in decades for journalists in Europe. While in Ukraine, I have also met with journalists threatened, intimidated or whose equipment had been seized by armed people.

I have also followed with great concern the unsettling crackdown on press freedom in Turkey in mid-December. A number of journalists and media workers were arrested in a move that worryingly brings to mind the waves of arrests of journalists in 2011 and carries a high risk of undoing the progress painstakingly made on press freedom in Turkey in the last few years. This measure was not only disproportionate and unnecessary in a democracy, but also sent a new chilling message to journalists and dissenting voices in Turkey, who have been under intense pressure, including facing violence and reprisals.

While thugs threaten journalists safety, courtrooms are used to muzzle them
The arrest of Khadija Ismayilova in Azerbaijan did not catch the human rights community by surprise: her determination to uncover corruption involving public authorities had already resulted in threats and serious forms of harassment. It is the continuation of a dismaying trend in Azerbaijan to silence all critical voices, by putting them behind bars, with journalists and bloggers targeted first, followed by many other dissenting voices. At the time of writing, 10 journalists were in prison because of their reporting. In its last report, Reporters Without Borders emphasized that Azerbaijan is now Europe’s biggest prison for media personnel, while dozens of journalists have fled abroad in recent months to escape the threat of arrest.

Beyond such extreme cases, the erosion of press freedom in Europe has continued through other worrying patterns, including violence, repressive legislation, ownership concentration and weakening of the public TV sector.

Police violence increased in 2014, targeting journalists covering demonstrations, for example in Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Spain. In addition, journalists have been frequently targeted by non-State actors, including in Italy, Montenegro and Bulgaria.

While thugs threaten journalists’ safety, courtrooms are used to muzzle them. In the majority of European countries defamation or libel are still part of criminal law and inadequate media legislation is used to stifle dissent. Throughout Europe, too many journalists are still imprisoned in connection with their journalistic activity. Excluding the new arrests, seven journalists are still behind bars in Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, one in the Russian Federation, while in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) the detention of Tomislav Kezarovski, from the newspaper Nova Makedonija, has more than other cases exposed the extent of political interference with press freedom.

Lawsuits against journalists are also common in Italy, where Parliament is currently working to amend the harsh legal provisions governing defamation, but in ways that still fall short of international human rights standards.

Troubles do not end here. A more subtle threat comes from powerful holdings or oligarchs who, by concentrating media ownership, deal a great blow to media diversity and pluralism, as well as editorial independence. Moreover, as I underscored in a report on Hungary published in December, an inadequate legal framework and unfair taxes on advertising revenues can also harm media pluralism and be used in a selective way to silence dissenting voices. The mere existence of some provisions in Hungarian media legislation, such as severe sanctions, chills media freedom and pushes a number of media outlets towards self-censorship. The extensive administrative regulatory powers of the Media Council coupled with its vulnerability to political influence and control also remain problematic.

In addition to these problems, public service media in Europe have suffered from both debilitating budget cuts and undue political pressure. This is particularly worrying because reduced State support or outright manipulation of public information leads to serious negative consequences in terms of diversity and quality of content provided to the public.

The severity of these diverse threats to journalism is commonly denied by state authorities. Governments must acknowledge the critical situation as a precondition for finding any solution.

All evidence points to the urgency of taking action. Urgent steps to be taken include the release of all journalists imprisoned because of the views they expressed as well as the eradication of 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. In addition, legislation must change: defamation and libel must be fully decriminalised and dealt with through proportionate civil sanctions only. Lastly, more efforts have to be made to preserve media diversity and pluralism. This includes providing adequate public resources to support media outlets, without compromising editorial independence, and enforcing laws and transparency regulations on media ownership.

Beyond the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, the UN Special rapporteur on freedom of expression and my Office, there are a number of valuable initiatives that governments should more carefully listen to and use to halt the deterioration of press freedom.

The Council of Europe recently developed an online “rapid reaction” alert system, allowing non-governmental organisations to post “alerts” on a public, centralised online platform when individual journalists are in danger or their work is under threat. This new tool should open the way to concrete actions by the Council of Europe aiming at reinforcing the safety of journalists, which governments will hopefully pay attention to and follow up.

Another initiative is the project Safety Net for European Journalists, a network of media partners documenting freedom of the press in eleven European countries. Managed by Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso together with the South East Europe Media Organisation and Ossigeno Informazione, the project provides a crucial platform for monitoring and sounding the alarm on threats to journalists. Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and Index on Censorship also update a map of the violations, threats and limitations that media professionals, bloggers and citizen journalists face every day in EU member states and candidates countries. In addition to these journalists’ initiatives, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom provides academic research and training to help identify the actions needed at European and national levels to strengthen media freedom and pluralism.

I hope Governments will make good use of these initiatives and implement concrete measures to ensure that 2015 is a much better year for the press than 2014. They can no longer bury their head in the sand: it is time to act to correct shortcomings, increase journalists’ safety and ensure effective freedom and protection to the press.

This is not an aim in itself but fits in the broader need to preserve the fabric of our democracies. By defending journalists’ safety and preserving a free and diverse press, we make democracy stronger.

Read the article on the website of New Europe

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