Joint press freedom report says Europe’s democracy ‘in danger’: way opens to more ‘assertive’ actions to curb anti-press violence and impunity
Last Tuesday’s launch of a hard-hitting report by leading journalists’ and freedom of expression organisations on the decline of press freedom and democratic safeguards across Europe has fuelled a re-think of the tools and mechanisms to be used by European institutions to prevent a further slide towards authoritarianism. There will be a new focus on close-up monitoring and other ‘determined’ responses to what are recognised as real threats to democratic institutions, as highlighted in the newly-published report.
The AEJ and eleven other media and civil society bodies publicly called for ‘a determined show of political will’ by European states to guarantee real protections for journalists in law and practice. They presented the 33-page report in person to Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary-general of Europe’s treaty-based human rights organisation, the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, and later that day also to a keen audience of MEPs, parliamentary aides and journalists in the European Parliament.
AEJ warns of ’all round assault’ on pre freedom
The in-depth report, entitled ‘Democracy at risk’, described what the AEJ’s media freedom representative William Horsley called an ‘all-round, 360 degree assault’ against press freedom and journalists’ safety that threatens the foundations of democracy in Europe. The findings were based on 140 ‘alerts’ submitted by the twelve ‘partner organisations’’ about serious threats to media freedom in the organisation’s 47 member states in 2018. They included the murders of journalists Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, 130 cases of imprisonment, many instances of violent assaults and judicial harassment, and persistent failures by the authorities in some states to arrest and prosecute those responsible for dozens of past journalist’s killings. The alerts are published on the Council of Europe’s online Platform for the safety of journalists www.coe.int/fom. Every alert is forwarded to the authorities of the state concerned, asking for a written reply and appropriate remedial actions.
In a meeting with the report’s co-authors Mr Jagland accepted that the broad trends in protections of media freedom and democratic institutions in Europe have gone in ‘the wrong direction’; and he voiced concern that several states had failed to reply directly to the alerts they had received, leading to an overall response rate of only 39 percent last year. From now on, he said, Europe should be ‘more assertive; so the 47-member state Council of Europe would work up new ways to ‘respond properly’ with determined actions to turn the tide in favour of free, independent journalism and effective protections for fundamental rights guaranteed by the European Convention.
The Secretary-General revealed that proposals are being discussed to ratchet up the pressure ‘step by step’ on backsliding governments to meet their obligations under the Convention. The new mechanisms may include specific monitoring programmes in specific states, and ‘enhanced cooperation’ aimed at protecting journalists from abuses of state power, safeguarding the independence of judiciaries against political interference, and bringing legislation into line with Council of Europe standards. Such actions would probably be undertaken in combination between the Secretariat and the parliamentary assembly (or PACE), which is made up of national parliamentarians from the member states, who already conduct a range of in-country monitoring programmes.
Among the striking findings in the Annual Report of the ‘Platform partners’ are: that the denial of basic rights to jailed journalists and others in Turkey indicates an ‘almost complete collapse of the rule of law’ in that country; that the very high concentration of media in Hungary in the hands of pro-government owner or direction represents the ‘progressive state capture’ of the media there; and that Russia’s repeated failures to take the necessary action to prevent violence against journalists has enabled ‘a climate of impunity’ which encourages other attacks.
So what next?
What will happen next to deliver on the promises and half-promises? The impact of the warnings and demands for action by the close alliance of European media and human rights organisations will depend crucially on decisions taken by the Committee of Ministers, the top decision-making body of the Council of Europe, where all member states are represented. Peer pressure among the various states is often decisive to achieve compliance with agreed standards and the case law of the court.
The partners have urged member states to take a more muscular stance towards governments that challenge the authority of the European Court of Human Rights by failing to execute the judgements handed down by the court and make necessary changes to laws and practices. The total of court rulings that have gone unheeded in this way has reached about ten thousand.
Council of Europe insiders say a kind of compromise could involve an agreement among the member states to allow more intrusive mechanisms to protect media freedom and the rule of law, at the same time as other steps to resolve the thorny question of Russia’s current exclusion from key Council of Europe decisions. Russia’s voting rights were suspended after its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then Russia has stopped paying its share of the Council of Europe’s budget, leading to cuts in important field of activity and staffing.
The pressure is on because in the next few months the Committee of Ministers and the parliamentary assembly will both play a part in choosing a new Secretary-General for a five-year term in place of Thorbjorn Jagland, who will step down this autumn after ten years in the post.
A parallel debate in the European Parliament
After meetings in the Council of Europe the visiting journalists and freedom of expression advocates presented the Annual Report at a well-attended meeting of MEPs, parliamentary aides and journalists in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. One section of the report described glaring weaknesses in the EU’s response to the erosion of press freedom. Citing the failure so far of the authorities in Malta and Slovakia to arrest the masterminds of the killings of Daphne Cauana Galizia and Jan Kuciak and his fiancee many months after their deaths, the report warned that ‘impunity has started to take hold in parts of Europe’.
Dr Igor Soltes, MEP, Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, chaired the event and called for maximum efforts by members of the European Parliament to follow up on its recent activities for press freedom and basic rights. They include monitoring issues concerning rule of law and the fight against corruption within the EU, particularly in Malta and Slovakia where journalists were murdered within the past eighteen months. He called for closer cooperation between the EP and the Council of Europe, taking account of the Council’s essential role setting Europe-wide standards and its intense focus on assisting states to fulfil those standards.
Sophie in’t Veld, MEP, Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, said those recent journalists’ killings within the border of the EU showed the need for it to make itself stronger as a ‘community of law and values’. She was disappointed that the European Commission had so far refused to initiate EU legislation to establish a Democracy, Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law (DRF) Pact with powers to enforce European Union values in areas including press freedom.
Sophie in’t Veld echoed the warnings of the media and non-governmental groups about the misuse of state power to harass and intimidate journalists, saying ’when government authorities are implicated in crimes, outside authorities are needed to intervene to prevent impunity’.
However she was hopeful that measures to protect the lives and work of journalists, including the DRF Pact, as well as stronger cross-border investigatory powers for Europol and a Strategic Litigation Fund for NGOs to provide legal protections for journalists and activists in the courts, would progress when a new European Parliament convenes after EU elections in May this year.
The 12 Platform partners are: the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), Article 19, Reporters without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Index on Censorship, the International Press Institute (IPI), the International News Safety Institute (INSI), Rory Peck Trust, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and PEN International.
The Annual Report of the Platform Partner Organisations is available here.