It has been four years since the European Commission started supporting a number of projects in the field of media freedom and pluralism. This was done following the initiative of the European Parliament. Now is a good moment to take stock of the situation of journalists in Europe.
A good starting point is to look at figures, rankings and statistics. And as soon as we do it, we realise that it is about time to acknowledge a failure. A failure of which we are all, at least partly, responsible. Each of us in our own capacity and with our own different roles and responsibilities.
Today, in Europe, journalism and journalists are under threat and need protection. And this is not only a failure, but a very worrying trend. Because media freedom and pluralism are among the pillars of our democratic societies and among the fundamental rights that each and every EU citizen must benefit from.
What do the figures tell us?
Let’s start with journalists’ rights and safety. The remarkable platform MappingMediaFreedom.org set up by Index on Censorship and supported by the EU, identifies threats, violations and limitations faced by media workers throughout EU member states, candidates for entry and neighbouring countries.
This platform started mapping the situation of journalists in Europe in 2014. In that year, 560 incidents were reported. In 2015 the map recorded 789 incidents, and by the end of June 2016 there were already 2011 incidents reported.
What type of incidents are we talking about? Just looking at the second quarter of 2016, the platform has reported:
- 60 incidents of physical assault against media professionals;
- 41 cases of media professionals detained;
- 45 criminal charges and civil lawsuits filed against media professionals;
- 80 verified reports of intimidation, which includes psychological abuse, sexual harassment, trolling/cyberbullying and defamation;
- 15 times where journalistic work was censored or altered;
- 73 cases where media professionals were blocked from covering a story.
And, tragically, two journalists were killed in that very short period. Yes, killed. Since the platform started, it has presented over twenty reports of journalists who have been killed.
Often, when we show these figures, EU citizens seem to be comforted by the fact that most of these incidents take place in candidate or neighbouring countries. Leaving aside that when these things happen in Turkey, Serbia, Russia or Ukraine, it should be of concern to all of us, the bad news is that the platform is mapping incidents also in EU member states. For example, physical assaults to journalists (whether by the public forces or by citizens) have been reported in France, Spain, Germany or Hungary, just to mention a few.
These incidents happen in a context of economic difficulties for the press sector. The platform also reports employment losses and closure of media outlets. We are all aware of the recent closure of the Hungarian newspaper Nepszabadsag. Whether the reasons behind these closures are economic or not, the truth is that media pluralism is under threat when not all the points of view are represented. A democracy cannot work if citizens are not properly informed.
Let’s now look at other figures by the Media Pluralism Monitor, run by the European University Institute (also with the support of the EU). This tool identifies potential risks to media pluralism in Member States. Its latest findings show that no country is immune from some kind of risk related to media freedom and pluralism. More specifically, when it comes to journalistic profession, standards and protection, its latest result show medium to high risk in about one third of the 19 EU countries analysed in 2015. The tool is currently being applied in all EU Member States and two candidate countries, Turkey and Montenegro. The results are expected towards the end of this year.
And what about the 17 EU countries that have lost positions at the global level in the latest yearly ranking of Reporters Without Borders? Poland, for instance, lost 29 positions!
Speaking of Poland, you will be aware that the Commission in July this year adopted a Rule of Law Recommendation on the situation in Poland, setting out the Commission's concerns and recommending how these can be addressed. In letters of 1 February 2016 and 3 March 2016, the Commission asked the Polish government about the state of play and content of a number of legislative reforms, including the reform of the media system.
But Poland and Hungary are not the only EU countries that have been subject to some concerns by the media freedom community.
The European Group of Audiovisual Media Regulators (ERGA) has expressed concerns about the situation of some regulators, which might affect their functioning and ultimately the proper implementation of media law.
Take Croatia, where under the threat of a future dismissal of all board members, Mirjana Rakić, vice-chair of ERGA board, decided to resign as President of the national media regulator. ERGA considers that this could have a chilling effect on the independent and effective functioning of the Croatian media regulator.
ERGA has also expressed concerns about the situation of the Greek regulator. Almost one year ago and without being replaced, all except one of the members of the Greek National Council for Radio and TV have been removed and at the same time the Council’s competences have been partially transferred to the government.
But of course, all these are not just figures. Behind each of these numbers there are persons: the actual journalists and media professionals that are subject to threats and whose freedom may be undermined by political or commercial interference. These persons have a name and a life that is shaken by these threats. The journalist that is scared for his or her children when her/his house is vandalised or when he/she receives messages at home. The journalist that does not dare to publish a story because he or she fears for his/her life of the life of his/her family.
Let’s indeed talk about just some of the persons behind these figures. German journalists have faced rising hostility in covering protests organised by the far-right, anti-Islam group Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident). Last year, Tagesspiegel columnist Helmut Schümann was attacked after writing about the rise of xenophobia in the far right. Also in that country, several popular TV-Journalists like Anja Reschke or Dunja Hayali, who have been reporting on Germany's Refugee Policy, received thousands of hate mails, threatening them with rape or slandering them personally as – and I quote – liars, sluts, or whores.
The antimafia essayist, author of several books on organised crime, Salvatore Mugno got his car burnt in Sicily just a few weeks ago. Intimidations from organised crime are a sad reality for many media professionals, in Italy and elsewhere.
And of course, the most dramatic events imply the death of journalists. In Turkey, in the city of Gaziantep, journalist Mohammed Zahir al-Shergat died as a result of gunshot wounds. Members of ISIS have since claimed responsibility for the attack. As we have seen, unfortunately, Mohammed was not the only one to be killed in the last 4 years.
Every time we see figures, we need to think of all the Helmut, Salvatore, Mohammed, Anja or Dunja who are behind those figures. We need to think of all the other media professionals who make our democracy stronger and make us better informed and, ultimately, freer as citizens.
How have we come to this situation? In the past, threats used to come, sadly, from government forces. Today, threats come also from citizens.
A number of elements need to be taken into account to analyse the situation: according to a survey run by the Reuters institute across 26 countries, editors and journalists are overall trusted less than news organisations. In Greece, only 20% of the respondents show trust in the news.
Across many countries in the EU, the average quality of reporting is affected by the economic difficulties the media is going through.
Another crucial element to take into account is media literacy. According to the Media Pluralism Monitor latest results, media literacy is identified as a high risk factor in several countries. When citizens have poor levels of media literacy, their ability to look at news reporting with a critical mind-set is limited.
This, in turn, can affect negatively the overall quality of the media environment and, in some cases, the very safety of journalists.
What can we do about this? We need to first remember that the security of journalists is a task and a duty of each and every Member States. The EU, within its limited competences, has also tried to help the media community to be stronger and to raise awareness at all levels about the importance of media freedom and pluralism.
Firstly, we are following with great attention developments in the Member States and do not hesitate to act as a watchdog for media freedom and pluralism and more in general for all fundamental rights to be respected, when EU law is at stake or mechanism at our disposal. You may remember the case of the Hungarian media act of 2010. In that occasion, the Commission obtained important changes to the law in order to make it fitter in terms of media freedom and pluralism standards.
As mentioned above, in July this year, the European Commission adopted a Rule of Law Recommendation on the situation in Poland, setting out the Commission's concerns and recommending how these can be addressed.
We are also very serious about media freedom considerations in our legislative endeavours, in particular as regards the independence of national audiovisual regulators. I am convinced that national audiovisual regulators can only be fully effective when they are truly independent from governments and industry.
The ongoing revision of the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive is an opportunity – one that does not come very often – to strengthen the independence requirements for media regulators.
The Commission also acts as a facilitator, encouraging and helping – including through financial support – public and private organisations or NGOs to enhance media freedom and pluralism.
This is the case for the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). The Centre, together with its project partners and with the other projects that the EU finances in this context – the previously-mentioned platform run by Index on Censorship, the Media Pluralism Monitor, and a project, focused on defamation, run by the IPI – make us proud for defending media professionals with practical solutions and passionate advocacy.
These tools are a way to allow the community to shout clear and loud what is happening. This is extremely important, because by not shouting, by not raising the alarm, threats to journalists may be banalised and be perceived as "normal". One day people might be no longer shocked that journalists are under threat in Europe. And that day, we would have lost the battle for democracy.
Find out more about the ECPMF conference as well as on the Centre and other EU-funded projects in the field of media freedom and pluralism.