The number of press freedom alerts amongst Council of Europe (CoE) member states soared by 41% during 2021 and should be a wake-up call for Europe, according to their newly released annual report.
Two hundred and eighty-two alerts from 35 countries were registered in 2021, an increase from the 200 the year before. Among the incidents were the deaths of six journalists, three of whom were targeted directly.
“On the European wall maps of media freedom, red lights are flashing”, the report states, noting the significant increase in cases in 2021 when compared to 2020.
According to the CoE, these alerts, which cover everything from physical attacks on media workers to the deployment of abusive litigation, reflect, in some cases, responses to temporary situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic and, in others, indicate “recurrent failings in so-called “imperfect democracies”.
However, the human rights organisation notes, “it’s not just the numbers themselves. The type and severity of press violations should be a wake-up call for all who care about the state of democracy in Europe.”
The report’s publication comes in the shadow of the war in Ukraine, which has led to the deaths of many Ukrainian and foreign reporters and a crackdown on independent media within Russia, leading to the exodus of many journalists.
“The safety of journalists is seriously deteriorating in Europe”, Ricardo Gutiérrez, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), one of the organisations involved in producing the report, told EURACTIV. “If states really want to guarantee press freedom, there are plenty of concrete measures that need to be implemented.”
Eighty-two alerts concerning attacks on journalists’ physical safety and integrity were recorded by the CoE last year, a rise of 51% from the previous year.
2021 also saw the targeted assassination of three journalists across Greece, the Netherlands and Turkey; the killings of reporters Giorgos Karaivaz and Peter R. de Vries in the former two countries, the CoE says, bore the marks of organised crime activity. Two journalists were also killed during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and another while covering protests in Georgia.
No justice has been achieved for any of the killings.
The safety of those reporting on protests remains a key concern, the report’s authors added, noting that the vulnerability of journalists reporting from these events has been heightened by “a wave of media bashing and an avalanche of hate speech on social networks”, which hit women journalists particularly hard and which platforms and authorities have been slow to tackle.
Overall, 110 harassment and intimidation alerts were recorded by the platform in 2021, with some of the online incidents orchestrated by political movements.
In general, state actors represented 47% of all alerts recorded throughout the year. In an increasing number of countries, the CoE says, “these cases are not occasional blips” but rather “result from a concerted and deliberate strategy to impose an “illiberal” model, in full breach of fundamental rule of law and human rights principles”.
Also noted in the report are the revelations of the Pegasus Project, which last year found that spyware had been used to target officials and journalists, amongst others. Last month, the European Parliament launched a committee to investigate the tech’s potential purchase and deployment by the governments of EU countries.
Structurally, the CoE notes, the media is also under threat. Models of media capture long practised in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia, the report says, are now being emulated by the rulers of other states, including Hungary and Poland, and the independence of both the governance and funding of Public Service Media is also increasingly at risk.
“We call on member states to implement Council of Europe standards for Public Service Media at the national level, to refrain from any direct or indirect pressure on their independence and to protect journalists from violence and harassment”, Nicola Frank, Head of Institutional and International Relation at the European Broadcasting Union, another of the report’s partner organisations, told EURACTIV.
The report also covers the abusive deployment of SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), lengthy and expensive litigation levied by powerful officials or businesspeople against journalists and activists to obstruct their work. On Wednesday, the Commission is set to publish its long-awaited anti-SLAPP directive to stem the tide of these cases.
The EU is set to release a Media Freedom Act this summer, intended to enact safeguards on media pluralism and independence.
In September, the Commission published a non-binding Recommendation on the Safety of Journalists, setting out measures that EU countries could take to protect better their media workers, including providing greater physical and legal protections and strengthened psychological and cyber support.
Gutiérrez of the EFJ told EURACTIV that implementation continues to fall short. “States cannot be complicit in this situation by remaining passive”, he said.