Attempts to silence journalists have increased in Europe: CPJ

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Reporters across Europe are working under increasingly difficult conditions and efforts to silence them are on the rise, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists warned.

In a comprehensive study released Wednesday, the US-headquartered organization said that while the European Union has legislated over the years to support media freedom, progress in finding lasting solutions to counter threats against journalists within the block combat is slow.

“Some governments used the COVID-19 pandemic to control the media, including by restricting access to journalists and withholding information of public interest. The all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has tested the EU’s ability to protect the safety of journalists,” the report said.

More than 10 journalists were murdered in Ukraine last year, while many in Russia were targeted by Moscow’s wartime censorship laws.

In its World Press Freedom Index, nine of the top 10 countries are in Europe, but the CPJ says the environment is getting gloomier.

“Journalism and journalists are under threat like never before. Looking at the conditions in Europe, the intention to try to silence journalists has increased,” Tom Gibson, CPJ’s representative in Europe, told Al Jazeera.

“In 2017, the EU institutions in Brussels were rocked by the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and later the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak in 2018. These acted as a catalyst for the bloc to take actions to protect journalists .

“We have also seen a daily increase in online harassment and digital threats against journalists, including threats from the very wealthy and powerful to silence them through vexatious lawsuits called SLAPP — or strategic public participation lawsuits,” he said.

Gibson complained about the lack of support for independent media and described what he called “media capture” in some EU countries.

Some “governments are trying to control the media by funding them and undermining independent journalism,” he said, calling for the EU to improve its role as a world leader in defending press freedom.

What has the EU done to tackle media control?

In her State of the Union speech to the European Parliament in 2021, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, stressed that Europe needs a law to guarantee media freedom.

At the time, EU governments like Hungary were accused of trying to control media companies and jail journalists for reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.

In September 2022, the European Commission introduced the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), to “protect media pluralism and independence in the EU”.

But according to Gibson, some EU countries are actually fighting a bit to prevent the EMFA from being adopted because it addresses the threats of “media capture” and is also an anti-SLAPP directive.

Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia’s son and investigative journalist Matthew Caruana Galizia knows this battle all too well.

“We were of course very happy when the European Commission came up with the bill to tackle SLAPP lawsuits against journalists,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But the fact that some EU countries are trying to tone it down won’t help journalists who are likely to face the same issues my mother faced, such as a barrage of defamation cases almost all of which are abusive. he added.

Surveillance and spyware

The CPJ noted that while the European Parliament has set up a committee to investigate alleged breaches of EU law in the use of surveillance software, better solutions are needed.

For example, Gibson warned that some regulations aimed at tackling online surveillance pose a threat to encryption.

In Greece, journalists Thanasis Koukakis, Stavros Malichoudis and Eliza Triantafillou say they have become targets of state-sanctioned surveillance because of their work.

Malichoudis said the EU should punish Athens, which has admitted some espionage charges.

“The government is spying on practically anyone who holds them accountable. As long as they do, there should be a law denying them access to EU funds,” he told Al Jazeera.

So far, the EU has taken steps to address the rule of law and press freedom problems in Poland and Hungary by withholding funds.

The role of the EU abroad

The CPJ also called on the EU to take more initiative to protect press freedom outside Europe.

“The EU’s international response depends on its trade relations or political interests. But as in the Philippines, the EU can play a role in defense of Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor of Rappler,” said Gibson.

Znar Abdalla Mohammad, a journalist from Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and currently an asylum seeker, told Al Jazeera that the EU and the UK should do more to protect refugee journalists.

“A special law to deal with the visa and asylum issues of journalists who become refugees in the UK and Europe will help,” said the 30-year-old, who was threatened in Iraq for her reporting and now lives in the UK.

Gibson said the EU should prioritize visas for refugee journalists “so that they have safer and faster options to seek refuge and continue their work”.

Znar Abdalla Mohammad was threatened in Iraq because she did her job as a journalist. [Photo: Znar Abdalla Mohammad]
Znar Abdalla Mohammad was threatened in Iraq because she did her job as a journalist [Photo: Znar Abdalla Mohammad]

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