It was a terrible year for journalists in Europe. A year of arrests, assaults, legal restrictions and murder.
Attacks by Islamic militants, unjustified arrests, assaults, harassment, threats and tougher legal restrictions made it harder for editors, reporters and photographers to hold the powerful to account across the region this year, according to media organizations and NGOs.
By: Alex Spence, for Politico — Hopes that politicians would increase protections for independent media after the murderous assault on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January — when politicians proclaimed their commitment to free speech as a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy — were quickly dashed, the groups said. Instead, the ability of the press to report freely and critically was diminished in 2015 — and not just in countries on the periphery of the European Union with dubious human rights records.
“It’s been an awful year,” Ricardo Gutiérrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, the largest professional organization of journalists in Europe, told POLITICO in an interview. “I must say, five years ago I was not suspecting such a bad evolution.”
Dunja Mijatovic, representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said: “Unfortunately, we continued to see killings, attacks and threats targeting members of the media throughout 2015, and it has become evident that the overall media freedom situation has deteriorated the past year.”
“We have also seen a shift in how members of the media are being attacked and threatened, with the scale of these threats growing in both magnitude and severity.”
Threats and murder
Eleven journalists in Europe were killed in 2015, including eight at Charlie Hebdo, according to the Council of Europe, which in April began monitoring instances of abuse against journalists. Thirty-three journalists across the region were physically assaulted, and dozens more were threatened or intimidated.
The decline of media freedom was most grave in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Western Balkans, Mijatovic said.
In Turkey, independent media organizations opposed to the government have been targeted during President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian crackdown. Fourteen journalists are currently in prison there, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. They include Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of the daily Cumhuriyet, and his colleague Erdem Gül, who were accused of espionage after reporting that Turkish intelligence services were allegedly smuggling weapons into Syria.
The crackdown in Azerbaijan has been even more repressive, the NGOs said. In the best-known case, Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist for Radio Free Europe who has published reports about government corruption, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half-years on charges including conducting an illegal business, tax evasion and embezzlement. Other journalists have been jailed on trumped-up charges of possessing guns and drugs.
There have also been alarming developments within the European Union, the media groups said.
Tighter regulation and political pressure has weakened press freedom in Hungary. Journalists in Germany have repeatedly been physically attacked while reporting on anti-refugee demonstrations organized by the far-right Pegida group. Numerous reporters in Italy have been threatened for writing about organized crime. In Spain, the media’s role as political watchdog has been diminished. Plans by Poland’s new conservative government to reform its media have sparked concerns about editorial independence.
“The climate of fear that has followed terrorist attacks has been used to justify broad legislative and regulatory interventions that restrict freedom of expression” — Pierre François Docquir, Article 19.
In July, Łukasz Masiak, a 31-year-old Polish journalist who edited the independent news website Nasza Mława, was bludgeoned to death. He had earlier been threatened and assaulted after reporting on controversial local issues. No arrests have been made, according to the CPJ.
Governments including that of the U.K. have introduced laws giving state authorities broader surveillance powers to combat terrorism, which media groups warn will put journalists and their confidential sources at risk.
“The climate of fear that has followed terrorist attacks has been used to justify broad legislative and regulatory interventions that restrict freedom of expression,” Pierre François Docquir, senior media lawyer at the campaign group Article 19, said.
“It is clear that anti-terrorism laws lend themselves to abuse. Such legislations have been used to repress and control legitimate civil society movements, such as protests against austerity or climate change. These laws also contribute to complicating the coverage of such movements by journalists.”
“We’re definitely going backwards,” William Horsley, of the Association of European Journalists, said in an interview. “It’s become clearer than ever that there is a very widespread and many-sided oppression of free media going on. It consists both of coercion — pressure and violence — and also cooption, the taking over of media space by pressure groups and politicians.”
Watching the watchers
There were some positive developments in 2015, the media groups said. The Council of Europe’s portal for the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists, which compiles reports from several NGOs about incidents against the media, has brought more attention to incidents.
The European Commission has provided funding for the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, a body established in Leipzig in June to bring together NGOs, academics and the media industry to “counter attacks on press and media freedom both nationally and internationally.” It has also given funding to Index on Censorship to develop a platform that maps attacks on journalists.
“Media freedom, pluralism, and the protection of journalists are at the very base of a free and democratic society,” a spokeswoman for the Commission said. “The Commission stands for these values and is supporting them through different initiatives and when legally justified in the scope of its competences.”
However, representatives of several journalism and free-speech groups said they have been disappointed by the EU’s commitment to media freedom. Among their concerns is that officials in Brussels will overlook Turkey’s treatment of independent journalists in return for Erdoğan’s help in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis.
“Being able to report on any matter in a free and safe matter is pivotal for free and independent media” — Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE.
“The EU is not providing a brake on [repression of independent media] in the countries which really need it,” Horsley said. “It’s making efforts but there’s been very slow and little progress.”
Several commissioners have made strong public statements about the importance of a free press to European democracy, Gutiérrez said, but there has been little concrete action to back up the declarations. “We hope to have more actions from the Commission on press freedom,” he said. “We need funding, ideas, commitment.”
The Commission’s ability to control the behavior of individual states when it comes to their treatment of the media is limited. Many of the abuses recorded by the NGOs took place outside the EU, or were not covered by EU law.
“Legislation related to media lies mainly with member states,” a spokeswoman for the Commission said. “Consequently, the Commission can only intervene where there has been an alleged breach of European Union law.”
She added: “The Commission has not hesitated to use its powers when legally justified to support media freedom, pluralism, and the protection of journalists.”
Journalism groups aren’t satisfied. They want governments at all levels to show a much greater commitment in 2016 to protecting the rights of media organizations to report freely, even while they are trying to protect their citizens from terrorism and other security threats.
“Being able to report on any matter in a free and safe manner is pivotal for free and independent media,” Mijatovic said.