In the UK, the newborn son of an investigative journalist is threatened with rape. In Germany, journalists covering protests are beaten. In Italy, the president of the journalism federation suffers from hacking attempts. In the Netherlands, a television station hires security guards to protect its teams during demonstrations.
Multiply by 100 and those examples will reach nearly 400 threats to press freedom followed last year by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), an organization created to provide support to journalists under threat.
The real number of attacks is higher, because the entity only supports the 27 countries of the European Union (EU) and the five candidates to be part of the bloc (Macedonia, Montenegro, Turkey, Serbia and Albania). In addition, many cases go unreported.
“There are reasons for concern across the European bloc and the environment is increasingly hostile,” says Nik Williams, coordinator of the MFRR. In the most recent national report, covering July to October 2020, 50 journalists were attacked in the three largest countries in the European Union alone: 31 in Germany, 7 in France and 12 in Italy.
In another survey recently published by the Union for Civil Liberty in Europe (Cleu), Spain, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria also appear as places where aggression against the media is growing.
The growing hostility is attributed to anti-media sentiment aroused by politicians and polarized groups. “Demonizing journalists, branding them traitors or disseminators of false information, is the first step before concrete attacks,” Williams says.
According to him, when public figures often devalue and disqualify journalists, they also encourage anonymous or popular violence: “The government makes it clear that it does not intend to protect the media in the event of an attack. “.
One of the most recent examples was the personal attack by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa on journalist Lili Bayer on the Politico website this month. The government official, who was prosecuted in 2016 for calling two journalists “retired prostitutes” and asking for the price of their “cheap services”, called the journalist a liar for an article accurately describing her relationship with the media.
Bayer listened to more than a dozen journalists, media directors, academics and activists who attributed Jansa to a growing climate of hatred against journalists in the country. The Prime Minister’s statements are followed by phone and internet threats and, according to those interviewed, the pressure is preventing coverage of topics such as Hungarian investments in Slovenia and far-right movements in the country.
The case is of particular concern, activists say, as Slovenia takes over the rotating presidency of the EU Council later this year.
Williams also cites the murder in Malta of Daphne Galiza, a journalist who has exposed corruption cases, as an example of the escalation of violence initiated by the authorities. For years there has been harassment, threats and actions in court, he says: “Not all who harass will kill, but concrete assault is unlikely to come out of nowhere. There are previous opinions ”.
Impunity refers to violence, and even when there is an investigation, “only those who pulled the trigger or planted the bomb are punished, not those who paid for it,” Williams said. “Incomplete justice is served, to satisfy public opinion or political pressure, but there is no systemic justice.”
The activist, however, sees a positive side in the increase in alerts: the growing number of reporters and vehicles denouncing the attacks. “For many years, journalists have normalized as if it’s part of the job, something to endure. They thought it was normal for someone to threaten them with rape or death. “
A consortium of entities co-funded by the European Commission, the MFRR also provides relevant journalists with practical and legal support – which is increasingly relevant, as one of the trends observed is the increase in prosecutions against journalists or journalists. vehicles. During the July-October quarter, the MFRR recorded more than 55 cases against journalists in Poland and 29 in Slovenia. In Germany, a blog that verifies the information has been sued for questioning the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Williams says it is difficult to determine when the situation started to worsen on the continent. “It’s like the frog in the pot. The temperature is gradually rising and we cannot risk arriving too late. “
Tensions have been more exposed over the past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the MRFF report says. A quarter of vehicle or journalist incidents occurred during demonstrations, considered the most dangerous context for European journalists in 2020: journalists were physically assaulted in 29.2% of cases, and 10.4% were been injured.
Governments bypass control in the European Union
Hungary and Poland are the most critical cases of loss of pluralism, state capture and nationalization of vehicles, the entities say, but the problems are more prevalent.
Officials from all three branches of government are behind attacks against journalists in 23.8% of alerts made in Europe in 2020 to the MRFF. In September, when the Bulgarian Parliament reopened in a new building, journalists covering parliamentary activities were confined to a basement room.
Interviews with deputies have started to be filtered and, in press conferences, we control what will be discussed. Desislava Rivoza, a television journalist who has covered the country’s legislature since 1998, says the measure severely restricts her work. “Before, if there was a case of corruption, I spoke to the parliamentarian. If he didn’t want to comment, that spoke for itself. Now I can’t choose who to interview. “
The House presidency ignored protests from the media and journalistic associations, Rizova said. The proximity of a new general election is expected to cripple any discussion of the case, as parliament resigns weeks before the election.
According to Jamie Wiseman, a Europe specialist at the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), the EU must react so that attacks such as those in Hungary and Poland do not spread.
Even though Europe today has high levels of press freedom around the world, he says that “the more attacks on media pluralism and independence continue in Hungary and Poland, the more they will be repeated in Hungary and Poland. other countries, now and in the future, and democracy will become more empty ”.
Wiseman sees particular gravity in the action of the Hungarian government, which “has systematically dismantled pluralism and journalistic independence over the past decade, reaching an unprecedented level of media control in the European bloc”. The model is reproduced in Poland, he says.
Williams of the MFRR expects some change when the EU implements its new rule of law mechanism, which imposes sanctions on governments that advance journalistic freedom or media plurality.
“The problem is that a lot of what we see in Hungary and Poland, taken in isolation, are legal acts. The buying and selling of media companies, in itself, is a legal act. The context – whether the companies are a pro-government conglomerate – is what makes them problematic, ”he says.
Wiseman agrees: “Individually, each attack looks like an isolated case. All in all, this is a deliberate pressure campaign ”. For him, the European Commission must go beyond the rule of law mechanism in cases already pending, because two official complaints that Hungary has undermined media pluralism.
Research shows that 80% of the country’s media are in the hands of people linked to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. According to reports, as part of a deliberate plan to consolidate the media, pro-Orbán investors ‘donated’ – after receiving public funding – 467 vehicles to Kesma, a press center controlled by the Hungarian government. . “The fact that such abuses go unanswered only inspires other EU governments to do the same,” says the IPI expert.
See the numbers
378 media assault alerts were issued in 2020, with 1,159 people or vehicles attacked, in 29 countries 25.9% of assaults occurred during protests 22% of total incidents involved physical assaults on journalists; 9% were injured In 9.8% of cases, journalists were arrested or arrested while doing their job The perpetrator was a police officer 21.4% of the time Public officials, parliamentarians, government officials or justice were responsible for 23.8% of assaults