Europe’s Media Freedom project aims to reverse “democratic backsliding”

Council of Europe multi-stakeholder campaign to start in October

William Horsley, CFOM International Director

Eight years ago the Council of Europe launched the world’s first “early warning and rapid response mechanism” with the goal of improving states’ compliance with their legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. The Platform for the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists involves a unique level of cooperation between Europe’s premier human rights body and fifteen European journalistic and civil society organisations. The Platform Partners’ 2023 Annual Report – War in Europe and the Fight for the Right to Report–  gives an authoritative and eye-opening picture of the range of attacks on the lives and work of journalists in contemporary Europe.

William Horsley, CFOM’s co-founder and international director, assisted in the birth of the Platform project through persistent advocacy as Media Freedom Special Representative for the Association of European Journalists. The AEJ is one of the non-governmental organisations that participate in the policy development work of the Council’s Steering Committee on the Media and Information Society including practical Implementation Guides for the landmark Committee of Ministers Recommendation of 2016 on the safety of journalists. 

This column is based on William’s remarks in June 2023 to that Committee of Experts on the media. He outlines the demands for urgent remedial actions which the Partners addressed to the 46 Council of Europe governments in their latest Report. And he welcomed the Council of Europe’s multi-stakeholder Europe-wide campaign “Journalists Matter”, which has called for the support of governments and public authorities as well as journalists, academics and freedom of expression groups. The ambitious goal is to reverse the “democratic backsliding” which the Council of Europe sees taking place across Europe, particularly in the field of media freedom, legal protections and journalists’ safety.

A miracle of cooperation?

The 2023 Annual Report of the partner organisations of the Platform for the safety of journalists, War in Europe and the Fight for the Right to Report, was published in March. Its well- documented evidence showed how the catastrophe of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February last year was accompanied by a dangerous spread of false narratives and degradation of press freedom across the whole continent.

The Platform partners have urged all member state governments to take sweeping remedial actions including removing over-restrictive or punitive provisions in legislation; and to give the highest political priority to the Journalists Matter campaign which will be launched at an international conference in Riga on 5 October.  

The operations of the digital Platform since 2015 are a near-miracle of cooperation among the 15 partner organisations, and between the Partners and the Council of Europe. Its unique value lies in the fact that it  operates under a mandate approved and re-confirmed by the member states themselves (France was the project’s formal sponsor).

Last November, at the international conference in Vienna which marked ten years of the UN Action Plan on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, the Platform’s mechanism for protecting journalists and free journalism was cited as an outstanding positive development of the past decade.  

This broadly cooperative framework has enabled the Council of Europe to reflect the concerns and priorities of the Partner organisations, which include the European Federation of Journalists, RSF, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Committee to Protect Journalists and Article 19. Those concerns are taken into account in the Council’s own activities and in the formative Declarations and Recommendations by the Committee of Ministers which make up significant “soft law” guidelines for member states and in rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.  

The 289 alerts flagging up serious threats to media freedom filed during 2022 paint a stark picture of how the environment for independent journalism across Europe has grown even more restrictive and even dangerous. The alerts appear on the website under five categories: violent attacks; intimidation and harassment; arbitrary detention; impunity related to murders of journalists; and other serious threats such as “media capture” and the loss of media pluralism.

Thanks to the constructive two-way dialogue that has been established, in 2023 the Partners agreed to adjust the way they record alerts. The two main changes are that each alert should now include written guidance, addressed to the member state concerned, stating the actions or policy changes that are expected in order to remedy the threat that was identified. The partner organisations also agreed, at the request of some states, to make a new, rarer category of “systemic” alerts, which will point to the need for legislative or other changes to remove persistent or structural barriers or threats arising from legislation or arbitrary practices.

Wanted: Tangible improvements, not window-dressing

But the real test is whether the verified alerts which are flagged for the attention of state authorities actually leading to tangible changes and improvements? The answer is Not enough. The outcomes still fall well short of what the Partners believe are their reasonable expectations.

In 8 years the Platform has recorded [as of 15. 6.2023] 1,573 alerts, of which 699 have been replied in writing to by states: a response rate of 51.5 percent. Most states do reply in writing, but the overall rate of responses is unfortunately much reduced because a few state authorities, notably Türkiye and Azerbaijan, have not responded to alerts as requested. The total number of alerts which have been declared “resolved” since the project began is just 299. That means only 22 percent of cases have resulted in measurable improvements – barely one in five.  The partners have urged member states to drastically improve that record of replies and remedial actions.

Warnings of a “climate of impunity” in Europe

Consider the words that were spoken at the Democracy Conference in Kristiansand, Norway, in May by Madame Ine Eriksen Søreide, a prominent Norwegian member of parliament and member of the High Level Reflection Group that reported before last month’s Council of Europe summit. She declared that European states had “allowed impunity to flourish” or to become normalised, because for years they turned a blind eye  for reasons of realpolitik or national interest to blatant human rights abuses and violations of international law by the Russian Federation. Those violations were accompanied by a torrent of propaganda and lies and the almost complete suppression of free media voices – all of which were plain to see at the time. And we can now see how that suppression has paved the way for the terrible devastation, human suffering and war crimes committed by Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine.

This observation is, I suggest, directly relevant to the work of the Council of Europe because there is an uncomfortable parallel between the climate of impunity that grew out of the feeble responses of European governments to Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008 and in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine from 2014, and the persistent patterns of impunity which too often shields the powerful from scrutiny in the field of media freedom and free speech. The alerts show persistent patterns in many countries of physical, verbal and legal attacks against journalists, aimed at preventing them from exposing corruption and abuses of power. Not only do the Platform findings demonstrate persistent failures to take practical, or legislative, or or judicial actions to stop such abuse. In too many cases public figures have also publicly demeaned or insulted critical journalists, or branded them as “enemies of the state”.

William Horsley at the Council of Europe with Ricardo Gutierrez, European Federation of Journalists and Flutura Kusari, ECPMF 

We all heard the clear warnings in past years about this “impunity” for injustices committed without remedial action. Back in 2017 – six years ago —  the Annual Report by the Council of Europe’s Secretary General drew attention to the Secretariat’s own findings, that legal guarantees for freedom of expression were already  “unsatisfactory” in a majority of member states – in 26 of the 43 states which provided relevant information, to be exact. And let us recall the landmark 2016 Recommendation on the safety of journalists and protection of journalism. In it, the Committee of Ministers stated that the scale of targeted attacks against journalists and the media as “unacceptable”, and that “far-reaching measures” were essential to confront and roll back the dangers.

Eradicate impunity as a top priority

International law warns about the dangers of allowing “climates of impunity” to take hold. Impunity breeds more violence and more fatal attacks against journalists. This pernicious danger to democratic life requires the urgent attention of political leaders at the highest level. A glance at some of the high-profile cases now posted on the Platform demonstrate how impunity can take root, especially when the murder of an individual journalist is followed by inaction, unwarranted delays, or actual obstruction of justice.

  • The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta in 2017 shook European policy-makers into seeing how a torrent of defamation lawsuits over many years against her by politicians and powerful figures, combined with unrestrained campaigns of hate by public figures, and numerous acts of violence, resulted in her cold-blooded murder in a car bombing. Daphne spoke in her last interview, recorded for the Council of Europe, of a “climate of fear” in her country. Eventually an independent inquiry found that “impunity had spread like an octopus” from the highest office in the land; and it called for sweeping reforms of laws and practices. But most of those reforms have still not been enacted, so the signs of that culture of impunity have still not been removed.
  • In April this year, the Platform partners moved the case of the mafia-style murder of investigative journalist Giorgos Karaivaz in Athens, Greece, into the category of “impunity” because of the deeply troubling lack of progress in the judicial case two years after the killing. The Platform has duly noted that two arrests were made recently. But from the start, colleagues and family members have protested at what they see as foot-dragging and unjustified delays by the state authorities. The Minister for Citizens Protection has said the government and police should apologise. Such failures to bring the killers of journalists to justice raise doubts about the integrity of the investigation, and create a chilling effect on a whole society.
  • The double murder of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in Slovakia in 2018, and the authorities’ failure to demonstrate that a serious investigation was progressing, provoked a big public backlash and a retrial of the prime suspects. Last month one of them was found guilty of ordering the murder and sentenced her to 25 years in prison, but a suspected mastermind was acquitted for lack of evidence. The case has moved into a new phase, with the families of the victims appealing to the Supreme Court.
  • Some of the 26 alerts on the Platform about impunity for journalists’ murders date back 20 years or more – including the case of newspaper journalist Martin O’Hagan, who was killed in Northern Ireland in 2001, one of many murders in a period of inter-sectarian violence and killings in that part of the UK. After many years of official silence on the case, a BBC investigation revealed that important evidence may have been known to investigators soon after the killing but was kept secret. The investigation has been re-opened, reviving hopes that the impunity may at last be ended and that justice will be done.

Recommendations by the Platform Partners: Making a difference through the Council of Europe’s campaign

The ambitious goals of the Council of Europe’s “Journalism Matters” campaign will only be achieved if national authorities are willing to take bold and politically difficult actions. In their Report the partners’ Recommendations (pp5-6) include: –  

  • Establish effective mechanisms of protection of journalists who face threats of harm, learning from the positive results of examples like Persveilig [‘Journalists’ Safety’] in the Netherlands. Its distinctive features include formal agreements to ensure prompt actions by police and prosecutors in response to urgent needs, and a very high level of coordination among relevant ministries and public authorities to achieve the common goal of better protection. The partners would welcome similar initiatives in other member states.
  • Adopt the Council of Europe’s Recommendation on SLAPPs by 2024 and ensure its implementation. The Partners urge that legislation and rules of court are revised to provide a robust public interest defence, ensure that the burden of proof is placed on the plaintiff, constrain the costs of mounting a defence, and so that abusive legal actions are dismissed at an early stage to protect defendants from facing enormous financial and other burdens of defending themselves for possible court cases over allegations which are groundless or merely vexatious.
  • Implement judgements of the European Court of Human Rights, as every member state must to honour its legally binding obligations. On 10 March the Committee of Ministers addressed Türkiye again, saying it must immediately release the publisher Osman Kavala and the politician and author Selahattin Demirtaş, who have both been unjustly held for several years, in line with judgements from ECtHR. The Ministers emphasised that it is the shared responsibility of all competent authorities in Türkiye to comply, and called for “reinforced guarantees of judicial independence from the undue influence of the executive branch”.
  • On the same date, the Committee of Ministers urged Hungary to align its law on secret surveillance with European Court of Human Rights judgements, expressing the “deepest concern” that more than seven years after the court passed its final judgement the authorities had not fulfilled their promises to enact the necessary legislative reforms. The Partner organisations call for new and strict protections for media workers to prevent the misuse of intrusive spyware to impede or criminalise the work of journalists.
  • Strengthen regulatory and legal safeguards against “media capture” and excessive concentration of media ownership. The partners noted the findings of the Media Pluralism Monitor that media pluralism is judged to be at “high risk” in 11 of 32 European countries monitored; and that in 2022 Election Observers of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) criticised evidence of editorial bias in favour of ruling parties in public service media during elections in Hungary, Malta and Serbia. The Partners urge the establishment of a forum at ministerial level to safeguard the editorial and institutional autonomy of public service media in line with Council of Europe standards.
  • Ensure that member states take full account of concerns and recommendations of civil society and media groups in the planning and implementation of the forthcoming Council of Europe’s safety of journalists’ campaign. Guidelines for National Action Plans should establish channels for journalists and media actors to report and seek redress for abuses at the hands of state or public officials.

The 15 Partner organisations especially look for leadership to the eleven member states which make up the Group of Friends of Journalists’ Safety at the Council of Europe. They are Austria, France, Greece, Liechstenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The Partners commend the engagement of the Parliamentary Assembly in the cause of media freedom and journalists’ safety. We hope that parliamentarians in all member states – including members of relevant parliamentary committees – will consider carefully how they can contribute to the campaign, so fulfilling their duty as legislators in a democracy to hold the executive branch to account. The outcomes we must all strive for are clear: to repeal or amend bad laws, and build secure safeguards to prevent arbitrary actions which hinder or block the legitimate work of journalists.  

Delegates and Observer members of the Media and Information Society Steering Committee, June 2023; Credit: Council of Europe