Ministers from the 47 states of the Council of Europe  with responsibility for media matters, meeting in Belgrade, have  declared themselves ‘appalled’ that journalists in Europe are  increasingly subject to threats, assaults, imprisonment and even being  killed because of their work. The Ministers, who gathered on 7-8  November for the first such conference for four years, blamed national  government authorities for systemic failures to effectively investigate  such attacks, which they said were fuelling a ‘climate of impunity’.  They described this situation as unacceptable and set in train a work  programme aimed at creating a safe and enabling environment for  journalists as well as other media actors such as bloggers who can now  be considered part of the ‘media ecosystem’.

The conference also broke new ground because the ministers agreed on two  significant steps aimed at increasing the protections for freedom of  expression in line with the requirements of the European Convention on  Human Rights. One is to examine the gathering of electronic  communications date on individuals by security agencies, including the  potential risks to the rights of citizens arising from the deliberate  weakening of encryption systems. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner  for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, emphasised the chilling effect on  investigative journalism which he said might result from the operations  of the US and UK intelligence services, as recently revealed by the  former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. The UK argued  unsuccessfully for any reference to ‘vast’ amounts of data collection or to ‘flaws and backdoors’ in Internet security systems to be deleted  from the text which was finally adopted.

The ministers or their deputies also acknowledged that not only traditional journalists but also bloggers and other media actors may qualify to  receive stronger legal protections under the European Convention when  they are communicating in the public interest. The European Court of  Human Rights has ruled that journalists should enjoy the broadest scope  of protection – including the right to refuse to reveal their  confidential sources of information — provided that they conduct  themselves in good faith and in an ethical way. This decision reinforces the already widely accepted idea that the function of journalism needs  to be protected in order to safeguard freedom of expression in whole  societies, and that function may extend from journalists to others, such as bloggers and human rights defenders. Russia voiced dissatisfaction  with the text, arguing that all who are to enjoy the rights of  journalists must also explicitly accept certain ‘responsibilities’. But  in the end the Russians agreed to endorse all the conference texts.

The Council of Europe’s Secretary General, Thorbjorn Jagland, announced the intention of the member States to establish a new online media platform to publicise serious threats to media freedom as what he called an  ‘early warning system’ against serious abuses. The prospective web-based database would rely on a stream of information from authoritative human rights and media NGOs. Representatives of those non-government  organisations said they had not yet been officially invited to  participate in the project, which ministers approved in principle back  in July. Questions were also raised about the Council of Europe’s  willingness to provide adequate fund to launch such an initiative,  without which sceptical observers said it would remain a piece of  political wishful thinking.

Mr Jagland also called for additional measures, to be fleshed out in the  Council of Europe’s future work, to help ensure effective protection for journalists and others who are threatened because of what they say or  write, as well as ensuring that justice is done in cases involving  physical attacks on journalists, in order to stamp out impunity. Next  year the ministers are expected to consider a range of possible  responses, including new efforts to ensure that states fulfil their  ‘positive obligations’, as set out in the case law of the Court of Human Rights, to put in place effective measures to protect journalists who  face imminent threats to their physical safety.

The Political Declaration and Resolutions, including the first Council of  Europe ministers’ Resolution specifically on the Safety of Journalists,  are the outcome of three years of deliberation among member States and  Council of Europe officials. In that time leading human rights and media monitoring organisations across Europe have strongly criticised the  Council of Europe for failing to take concrete actions to ensure the  implementation of numerous standards in the field of media freedom which have been clarified by rulings from the European Court of Human Rights  or set at the highest level by the Committee of Ministers themselves.

In particular, some forty NGOs and leading experts in media and human  rights matters called repeatedly on the Council of Europe’s member  states and the Secretary-General to fulfil the political pledge which  they made at the previous conference of media ministers, held in  Reykjavik in 2009, to conduct regular reviews of each state’s laws and  practices on anti-terrorism to ensure that they conformed with the  safeguards for freedom of expression enshrined in Article 10 of the  European Convention on Human Rights. Ministers were reminded again of  that broken pledge during the Belgrade conference.

In Belgrade an informal session on threats to journalists’ safety heard  urgent appeals from leading journalistic figures, calling for  international action to end serious repression and abuses against the  media. Veran Matic, a renowned journalist who now heads a special  Serbian Commission investigating the unsolved killings of three  journalists in that country, spoke of the strenuous efforts needed to  uncover the causes of impunity, and importance of removing from the  intelligence services any figures who may have been complicit in past  misdeeds. Kadri Gursel, a columnist on the Turkish daily Milliyet,  appealed to the international community to press Turkey to free scores  of journalists who are now in prison, he said, because of unfounded  terrorism charges. And Nadezhda Azhgikina of the Russian Union of  Journalists spoke of what she called the ‘nightmare’ for journalists in  Russia, that the dream they cherished in the 1990s of a bright future  for free journalism had now dissolved; instead, today inquiring  journalists were regularly intimidated, assaulted or prosecuted on  specious charges. It was vital, she said, for journalists to show  stronger solidarity among themselves and to do their job professionally  even in dangerous and difficult conditions.

Leading human rights lawyers and experts called for the Council of Europe to  develop more muscular legal and practical protections for free and  independent journalism, in line with recommendations made in the expert papers prepared for the Belgrade conference and the recent Report on the Safety of Journalists by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Read more from the Guardian: UK objects to attempt by Council of Europe to examine online spying