Responding to Democratic Backsliding: Battle of Media Freedom in Europe

By Tatum Brunton

On Tuesday, March 7, 2023, the Council of Europe’s Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists published its annual report “War in Europe and the Fight for the Right to Report” with a public event in the Brussels Press Club. The report is written by the Platform’s 15 Partner Organisations, including the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), which is one of its 5 founding members. The report presents alarming statistics regarding the decline of media freedom and the current trend of democratic backsliding in Europe. While presenting the findings of 289 individual “media freedom alerts” recorded during 2022, the partner organisations also put forward specific recommendations and calls to action to improve the protection of media freedom and the safety of journalists in Europe.

For a fuller understanding of the contents and guidance set out in the 2023 annual report we asked William Horsley, one of its co-authors, how he perceives the decline in media freedom, and about the key takeaways for the governments of the 46 member states of the Council of Europe, as well as for the EU institutions, for journalists themselves, and the general public. 

William is the UK Chairman of the AEJ and he represented the international AEJ as its Media Freedom Special Representative for more than 10 years. He played a key part in the setting up of the Council of Europe’s early warning and rapid response monitoring system, the Platform for the protection and safety of journalists, in 2015.  William had a distinguished career as a BBC journalist for over 30 years including lengthy postings as a foreign correspondent covering East Asia and the whole of Europe.

In his career, William says he saw at first hand in many countries how essential media freedom and independence are to democratic resilience. During his years of reporting out of East Asia in the 1980s, he saw how the outbreak of anti-communist and pro-democracy movements in central and eastern Europe was mirrored by popular movements for democratic rights and against military-authoritarian regimes in Asia, which were often triggered by protests against the distortion and manipulation of votes in elections, for example in the Philippines and South Korea.  

William Horsley, chairman of AEJ UK
Source: AEJ UK

I could see through my reporting that the freedom of information, freedom of expression – the suppression of those things was crucial to the country. Whether it was a democracy or if it was going to be a dictatorship,” he told AEJ Belgium in an interview.

However, this is not just a tale from the past. The Platform partners’ 2023 annual report reveals in graphic detail the extent of democratic backsliding and the accompanying decline of media freedom across Europe, hastened and made much worse by what the report calls the “war on journalism” in Russia which accompanied Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year. Platform alerts are recorded under five categories of serious threats to media freedom: physical attacks; harassment and intimidation; detention and imprisonment; impunity; and other acts having a chilling effect on media freedom.

The report presents an overview of developments throughout 2022 and takes stock of the  impact of Russia’s military aggression, including the mounting death toll of journalists reporting on the war. The platform recorded “13 journalists killed in Europe, the highest death toll among journalists on the continent since its launch in 2015”. Unsurprisingly, the highest number of harassment and intimidation cases was also recorded in Russia, followed by Serbia, Italy, Poland, Croatia and Greece. The report called for governments and decision-makers to respond with determination to the evidence that threats of violence, intimidation, and smear campaigns, both online and in-person, have grown increasingly severe within the member states of the EU as well as non-member countries .  At the end of 2022 the Platform recorded as many as 95 journalists behind bars in Europe, in Turkiye, Russia, Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Poland and the UK (Julian Assange). That represents an 60% increase from 2021. When the 32 media workers jailed in Belarus are added, there were a total of 127 journalists in prison at the end of last year, demonstrating how the environment across Europe is growing more repressive and hostile. 

Based on his own monitoring and advocacy work down the years, William concludes that “European institutions that were built up after the Second World War, and then again after the end of the Cold War, are now at risk in a way we haven’t seen before.” In response to the backsliding, he says, the Platform partner organisations are stepping up the pressure for far-reaching reforms and remedial actions by EU institutions, the Council of Europe, and each of their member states. The goal, he says, must be to reverse the attacks on media freedom and freedom of expression which are eroding the very basis of the EU’s democratic values. 

Today a growing and dangerous impediment to independent media and investigative journalism comes from legal threats and barriers as well as physical violence. William pointed to the example of the outstanding investigative journalist Daphne Galizia: her writings on corruption and the abuse of power in Malta resulted in her being physically harassed, bombarded by some 40 defamation lawsuits, and finally murdered in 2017. More recently, Italy’s new prime minister, Georgia Meloni pursued a lawsuit against Roberto Saviano for his criticism of the Prime Minister over her government’s stance on migration. The Platform alerts also highlight the “unprecedented threat to press freedom” from covert or illegal surveillance of journalists using sophisticated spyware, which weakens source protection, undermined journalistic investigations, and has a chilling effect on whistle-blowers. The report points to revelations about the use of Pegasus spyware in multiple states, including Hungary; and fresh concerns about the alleged use by the Greek government of Predator spyware against journalists and politicians.

These examples are symptoms of a much larger, institutional, problem. The report underlines the urgent need to counter and prevent the flood of abusive and vexatious legal threats against journalists by establishing a coherent framework of protection of domestic laws. 

These examples are not isolated events and are proof of a larger institutional problem. The report underlines that there is a disconnect between these legal threats and a coherent framework of protection of domestic laws. 

For media freedom to be protected, those domestic legal frameworks must not be not only theoretical, they must be practical and effective,” Horsley insists.

In other words, promises and declarations made by national governments mean nothing unless they are implemented in practice.He observed that following the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Council of Europe and the EU have both been impelled to establish effective protections for journalists and media houses against abusive or merely vexatious legal threats or SLAPPs (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) to intimidate and silence critical journalism.  

Daphne’s assassination also appears on the Platform as one of 26 cases of Impunity related to  the unresolved murders of journalists. Among the recent impunity cases recorded on the Platform are the 2018 mafia-style killing of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia, and the murder of the Greek TV journalist Giorgos Karaivaz outside his home in Athens in April 2021. The Platform partners call for the masterminds and all the perpetrators behind every murder of a journalist to be brought to justice through prompt, impartial and effective investigations.  

The overall picture is deeply troubling but it is a notable success of the coordinated work done by media freedom groups that the Council of Europe, Europe’s leading human rights organisation, has now made it a high priority to give guidance to national governments on the mechanisms they should use to implement their legally binding obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The key document which provides the “roadmap” for member states is the 2016 Committee of Ministers Recommendation on the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists. Since that text was adopted, the Council of Europe, with expert advice from lawyers and journalists’ organisations – has produced highly detailed Implementation Guides on which governments are urged to based their laws and practices. 

The focus is on effective actions by state authorities under three headings: Protection, Prevention of attacks and abuses, and Prosecution of those responsible for targeted attacks. And journalists, as well as civil society groups, human rights lawyers, elected politicians and state authorities are all expected to contribute to a major Europe-wide campaign (Journalism Matters) which is due to begin in October, aimed at strengthening protections for journalists’ safety and media freedom.

The campaign will be led by the Council of Europe with backing from allied organisations including UNESCO, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Daphne Caruana Galizia Monument Source: Prachatai

The Platform partners’ report spells out serval key recommendations for EU institutions, Council of Europe, and all European governments. Regarding the “implementation gap”, they call on states to “adopt National Action Plans for the Safety of European Journalists and mobilize the necessary resources to implement them” (p.5).

Another recommendation concerns SLAPPs. This addresses the current imbalance of power by calling for member states to “review laws, policies, and practices with particular attention to SLAPPs, and adopt comprehensive anti-SLAPP legislation that provides for early dismissal of vexatious or abusive lawsuits, imposes the burden of proof on the plaintiff, protects journalists and other media actors against excessive or disproportionate penalties, minimizes the harm caused to SLAPP victims, and applies dissuasive sanctions against those who use SLAPPs”.

Horsley concludes that “the world has become such a dangerous place for journalists almost everywhere. The report is necessarily “brutal and direct”, he says, because holding power to account is essential for democracy to function. Anyone entering the world of journalism today  must learn a whole new gamut of skills and abilities, as journalists’ reputations are routinely tarnished through hate campaigns and disinformation driven by the powerful, including by figures who hold high public office.

The issue of public trust has become a serious barrier to the watchdog role of journalism in the era of digitalisation and massive disinformation. So although the Platform’s recommendations are mainly directed towards European institutions, the messages in this report are relevant to everyone. The report should be a spur to decisive measures to safeguard free media and freedom of expression from growing threats. “The battle for freedom of expression is being waged for everybody,” he said.

The example of the “war on journalism” which we have seen unfold in Russia and Belarus is a clear warning of what may be coming our way, William says. “People need to understand that the rule of law and the protection of journalism is a public good and this is what the battle is about”.

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