Journalism facing rising threats on all fronts

It’s a timely and apt question given revelations of an unreported consequence of the war in Ukraine – deaths of journalists.

Since Russia’s launched its war against Ukraine, at least 12 journalists and media workers have been killed and 21 injured while performing their professional duties.

The war is, in many ways, just the “tip of the iceberg” because it comes against a backdrop of continued degradation of press freedom across Europe, with a significant increase in the number of journalists in detention.

This, at least, is according to the 2023 annual report of the partner organisations of the Council of Europe’s “platform to promote the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists.”

The platform was set up by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe in 2015, in co-operation with prominent international NGOs active in the field of the freedom of expression and associations of journalists, to provide information which may serve as a basis for dialogue with member states about possible protective or remedial action. 

Released under the title “War in Europe and the fight for the right to report,” the report examines the main threats to media freedom in Europe and addresses recommendations to the Council of Europe, European Union and the member states on actions needed to improve the situation.

Throughout 2022, the platform published 289 alerts on serious threats or attacks to media freedom across 37 states, with journalists being murdered, imprisoned, attacked, legally harassed, and subjected to smear campaigns.

This number includes alerts concerning Russia since the partner organisations decided to continue monitoring the state of media freedom and attacks against journalists after Russia’s expulsion from the CoE in March 2022.

Of course, the focus of the war in Ukraine has been on civilian and military casualties with little or no reporting of journalists who are being seriously injured or killed merely for carrying out their reporting duties.

The partner organisations conclude that arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists have become “commonplace” in Europe. As of 31 December 2022, 127 journalists and media workers were in detention, including 95 on whom alerts were active on the platform (representing a 60% increase compared to 31 December 2021) and 32 journalists and media workers in Belarus, on which alerts had not yet been published.

During 2022, the platform recorded 74 alerts concerning attacks on the physical integrity of journalists (26% of all alerts), 41 alerts on the detention and imprisonment of journalists (14%), 94 alerts on cases of harassment and intimidation of journalists (32%), and another 80 alerts on various other acts having chilling effects on media freedom (28%).

Other issues examined in the report are the introduction of legislation restricting journalists’ work, surveillance of journalists’ communications, fake news and disinformation, the abuse of the judiciary to punish or intimidate journalists, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPS), pressure on public service media and cases of media capture.

But press freedom, usually accepted as one of the very fundamentals of democracy and a stable society, is under serious threat in other ways.

Take, for example, the tried and trusted right of journalists to protect sources.

But the Online Safety Bill, a piece of draft legislation in the UK, is causing concern for the National Union of Journalists, the body representing journalists in Britain and beyond.

There is a duty to respect privacy in the bill, but the NUJ is concerned about how this can be adhered to if messages between journalists and sources, including about their location or confidential material can be accessed.

The NUJ says, “Without amendments to the bill, it risks placing journalists, sources and whistle-blowers in danger, creating a chilling effect that prevents individuals providing information that could help inform public interest journalism, and hold the powerful to account.”

The union is concerned that the Online Safety Bill gives the Secretary of State “too many powers.”

That’s not all.

The NUJ has long campaigned for the safety of journalists, condemning the online abuse encountered by many through their work online.

Although technology platforms use a combination of algorithms and humans to moderate content, there are several examples, says the Union, where offensive/racist/misogynistic harmful material is not removed.

The CoE,meanwhile, says it is not just the war in Ukraine that’s happening. A war of a different kind is also taking place within Europe itself, it says – a “war” against journalism.

Certainly, concerns about press freedom have been voiced for some time in Hungary, a long time EU member state.

According to the Freedom in the World 2023 report by Freedom House, the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary has undermined freedom of the press as it enshrined in the constitution. Judicial independence, the authors write, “remains a matter of concern”, with rulings in politically sensitive case having favoured the government.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament debated perceived attacks on press freedom in yet another member state, Greece.

MEPs debated the erosion of the rule of law in Greece,centred around a current media freedom and wiretapping scandal, which involves journalists and the leader of the Greek political party, PASOK. 

The issue of press freedom and attacks – be they verbal, physical or online – has rocketed up the EU political agenda in recent years, particularly since the brutal death of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta.

Her national and international reputation was built on her regular reporting of misconduct by Maltese politicians and politically exposed persons.

On 16 October 2017, Caruana Galizia died close to her home when a car bomb was detonated inside her vehicle.

Such is the impact her death had on the EU that the European Parliament’s press room is named after her.

But this is a problem that is worldwide.

For instance, since the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, Afghan journalists have faced attacks, harassment, censorship, and harsh restrictions on the media.

The unfolding conflict in Ukraine fills our TV screens almost daily with disturbing stories about deaths to innocent civilians as well as military personnel on both sides.

But little is heard about the dangers faced by those who actually bring these harrowing stories to our screens and fill news print.

The harsh fact is that Russia’s invasion continues to impact many, including journalists reporting from conflict zones.

Clearly, there are multiple threats to journalists which, given the vital nature of what they do, really should give cause for concern to all.

Martin Banks
Martin Banks
Martin Banks, aged 63, is an experienced British-born journalist who has been covering the EU beat (and much else besides) in Brussels since 2001.Previously, he had worked for many years in regional journalism in the UK, including as chief reporter at his last paper there, and freelanced for national titles for several years, notably the Daily Telegraph. He has a keen interest in foreign affairs/geo-politics and has closely followed the workings of the European Parliament and MEPs in particular for many years. He has built up, since arriving in Brussels in 2001, a wide and reliable network of contacts, not just in politics but across the spectrum. He's also experienced in subbing, proofing, commissioning and editing and has also had stints on news desks.