Media freedom in Europe is more fragile now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Thus member Countries of the Council of Europe are called to adopt targeted measures “to improve the dire conditions” and “to provide reliable protections” for journalists. The alarm was raised in the report released by the partner organizations of the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists. The Report depicts an alarming picture whereby the perpetrators of violent crimes against journalists remain unpunished; legal protections have been progressively weakened; the space for the press to hold government authorities and the powerful to account has been diminished.
The report focuses on a set of circumstances at national level: Turkey remains the world’s biggest jailer of journalists; in the Russian Federation, State actions and policies continue to severely restrict the space for free expression; Italy is the State which saw the sharpest increase in
the number of media freedom alerts reported in 2018; Hungary registers a very high concentration of media in the hands of pro-government oligarchs. The document equally assesses “disturbing new trends”, including impunity for journalists’ murders inside the European Union (EU), attacks on freelance journalists; and efforts to undermine the independence of public service media, including in countries once considered ”safe harbours.”
Murders and threats. At least two journalists were killed in 2018 in relation to their journalistic work: Ján Kuciak in Slovakia , and Jamal Khashoggi (after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate) in Turkey. In the deaths of two other journalists, Viktoria Marinova in Bulgaria and Maksim Borodin in the Russian Federation, questions and concerns have been raised over the thoroughness of the respective police investigations.
Overall, according to the Report, 359 alerts regarding attacks on journalists’ physical safety and integrity
were posted on the Platform in 2018, confirming an upward trend in the number of attacks. Of these, 29 are classified as “level 1”, which covers the most severe and damaging violations to media freedom. In addition to the killings noted above, the alerts include the detonation of a car bomb in front of a journalist’s home; a knife attack on a journalist in front of his apartment door; an arson attack against the headquarters of an investigative news website; and the ramming of a van into a building housing a major national newspaper.
Impunity and arrests. The Platform details 17 long-standing cases of impunity for the murder
of journalists and recorded 130 cases of journalists in detention. This figure includes 110 journalists jailed in Turkey, 11 inAzerbaijan, five in the Russian Federation and four in Ukraine.
Ten new alerts on problematic legislative or administrative measures were reported in eight member States in 2018. They include the closure or banning of media outlets by decree; new legislation allowing the blocking of Internet sites on national security grounds without independent oversight; rules requiring foreign-funded media outlets to register as “foreign agents”; a bill that would criminalise the viewing of certain online content and publishing certain pictures or video clips. Furthermore, the Platform recorded three alerts in two member States concerning unnecessary or disproportionate control of online communications and access to information.
The Italian case. Italy is among the countries with the highest number of alerts (13) posted on the Platform in 2018, the same number as in the Russian Federation. In this respect the Report points out that press freedom clearly deteriorated in Italy in 2018: the number of violations in Italy reported to the Platform more than tripled compared to 2017.
Italy is the EU member state with the highest number of active threats on the Platform. (19).
Organized crime remains one of the biggest threats to journalists. In 2018, the Platform recorded three cases of journalists facing death threats, and it includes a number of active alerts on attacks and violence on journalists. Twenty one Italian reporters threatened by the mafia live under permanent police protection. In addition, several journalists have been intimidated and attacked by members of neo-fascist groups.
The majority of alerts recorded in 2018 have been submitted after the official installation of the new coalition Government. “The government’s two deputy prime ministers, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, regularly express through social media rhetoric particularly hostile to the media and journalists. Among other things, concludes the Report, “Deputy Prime Minister Salvini has threatened to remove police protection for investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, despite the known threats to his life from criminal organisations. Deputy Prime Minister Di Maio has insulted journalists and initiated a policy of abolition of public subsidies to the press.”