LONDON/STOCKHOLM – Media freedom in Europe is deteriorating. According to a report presented to the Council of Europe, a pattern of violence and legal abuses directed at journalists has begun to take root in several European countries, threatening to stifle free, independent media with censorship and intimidation.
Since late 2009, at least 17 journalists have been killed or abducted in Europe in the course of their work. Seven of these incidents took place in Russia, the most dangerous place in Europe to be a journalist.
Before that, in 2000-2007, some of Europe’s most celebrated journalists were assassinated, including Georgiy Gongadze in Ukraine, Elmar Huseynov in Azerbaijan, Anna Politkovskaya in Russia, and Hrant Dink in Turkey. But those who ordered these killings have yet to be publicly identified. Indeed, credible investigations are rarely conducted in such cases, as a result of official failures or obstruction, and Europe’s leaders have not intervened to ensure that the rule of law is upheld.
According to the South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO), which monitors 20 countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, “pressure on journalists continues, and self-censorship appears to be the norm.” Meanwhile, the unwarranted blocking and filtering of Web sites has grown more common in many countries, as has aggressive surveillance of Internet users.
Recent allegations of phone hacking and illegal payments to police officers at some British newspapers published by News International, a subsidiary of News Corporation, are a clear reminder that journalists, like anyone, may be corrupted and manipulated to serve unscrupulous masters. In fact, across much of Europe, especially in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, the media is largely controlled by political, business, or criminal interests, which manipulate it for partisan purposes and allow corruption to thrive.
Freedom House’s report “Press Freedom in 2012” concludes that more than half of the population of Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia live in countries where the media are “not free.” Russia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus are of particular concern, given the high incidence of violent assaults on journalists and chronic impunity for perpetrators.
Moreover, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2011, press freedom in Western Europe has suffered as a result of new restrictions and pressures. In France and Italy, politicians exert undue influence over public broadcasters, and in Turkey, more than 100 journalists are currently in jail because of their work.
Likewise, Hungary recently implemented a package of restrictive media laws, eliciting concerns that have yet to be addressed. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe composed of independent experts on constitutional law, described the new legislation, together with drastic changes to the Hungary’s judicial system, as a threat to fundamental democratic freedoms.
Indeed, such assaults on media freedom threaten to emasculate democratic processes, including elections. Election observer missions conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that, since 2010, interference in media freedom and independence played a significant role in discrediting elections in Russia, Armenia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Belarus.
European leaders should be doing much more to protect media freedom. All parliamentarians, public officials, and regulators should understand and work to protect the Council of Europe’s principles, derived from the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights’ case law. Recognizing the media’s crucial role as a public watchdog and in promoting open debate, the Court has established standards governing, for example, the right to publish material in the public interest and the protection of journalistic sources.
Moreover, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers must act urgently on their January 2010 declaration that, in addition to Court rulings, “other means” are crucial to protect media freedom. This requires monitoring – and pressuring – errant states to ensure that they comply with the Council’s standards. To this end, PACE should step in to press the Council’s member governments.
Finally, governments should be guided by the European Court of Human Rights’ rulings that states have “positive obligations” to protect those who exercise their right to free expression. One notable judgment against the Turkish government concerned its failure to protect Hrant Dink from being killed in 2007, despite public threats to his life.
The threats to media freedom in Europe are all too apparent: intimidation, attacks, and murder; legal harassment and wrongful imprisonment; and official controls, criminal libel laws, and intolerable political and commercial pressure on journalists.
Countries can no longer claim ignorance. The time has come for all concerned – journalists, civil-society groups, political parties, and citizens – to stand up for press freedom. And governments must urgently move to safeguard independent media – and thus their citizens’ access to the information that they need make informed decisions.