Commission launches recommendation on safety of journalists

A press freedom protest in Poland in 2018. In 2020 alone there were 908 attacks against members of the media, across 23 member states. [Shutterstock / Bogdan Khmelnytskyi]

European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová presented on Thursday (16 September) a Recommendation on the Safety of Journalists, urging EU countries to address security concerns in an environment increasingly hostile towards the media.

The Recommendation, the first of its kind, outlines steps that countries can take to ensure the better physical and legal protection of journalists and media professionals. 

The measure was initially announced in December 2020 as part of the Commission’s European Democracy Action Plan, which made strengthening media freedom one of its three pillars. 

The Recommendation comes at a time when media freedom and pluralism are increasingly under threat in Europe. The situation has worsened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has crippled media revenues and provided cover for greater restrictions on press freedom.

“Journalists need to feel safe in Europe, their voices need to be heard, the EU has the duty to safeguard its citizens’ right to information”, Ramona Strugariu, co-chair of the Parliament’s Media Working Group, told EURACTIV.

“This is a must for safeguarding democracy and rule of law.”

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The recommendations 

The Recommendation centres on the physical safety of journalists, but also emphasises the need for action when it comes to their psychological and technological protection.

Among the measures included are a call for states to establish support services for members of the press, including legal advice, helplines, places of shelter and psychological support. They are also encouraged to work with the cybersecurity sector to ensure the protection of journalists in digital and online spaces.

Included in the suggestions is the establishment of services that media professionals can access if they fear their devices have been compromised. Hacking and wiretapping have been a growing source of concern since the Pegasus revelations accused Hungary and other non-EU governments of wiretapping journalists, among political opponents, lawyers and activists.

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The Recommendation also notes that female journalists and journalists from minority groups are particularly at risk of being targeted, along with those reporting on equality issues.

EU countries are therefore advised to bolster initiatives to support these groups by tackling threats and attacks against them, as well as by promoting their inclusion in the media industry more broadly. 

Particular emphasis is also placed on the safety of the media reporting on demonstrations, one of the most frequent sites of attacks against journalists in 2020.

States, the Recommendation says, should work with both law enforcement bodies and media associations to ensure that members of the press are able to report in such situations free from threats or restrictions coming from either protestors or the police.

Ricardo Gutierrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), which was consulted on the Recommendation, told EURACTIV that he welcomed the Commission’s announcement but would have liked to have seen further action in terms of ensuring enforcement and establishing mechanisms for independent monitoring. 

We call on the European Union to put in place an EU assessment mechanism to denounce states that despise journalists … We need to move to a “Name and Shame” strategy”, he said. 

As announced in December’s European Democracy Action Plan, the safety initiative also runs alongside an upcoming Commission initiative to curb the abusive use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which are often used to impede the work of journalists.  

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The European Parliament’s committees dealing with legal affairs (JURI), civil liberties and home affairs (LIBE) met on Tuesday (11 May) to prepare a report on combating lawsuits aimed at intimidating journalists and civil society organisations in the EU.

Next year, the Commission will also present a European Media Freedom Act which will focus on ensuring the independence of the media.

Journalists under threat 

The Recommendation responds to the increasingly hostile environment for journalists in Europe. 

Twenty-three journalists have been killed in the EU since 1992, and threats against members of the media are growing, both on and offline, in some cases driven by government figures using their public platforms to direct animosity towards the press. 

This year has seen the killings of two journalists in the region. In April, Greek reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was gunned down outside his home in Athens; just a few months later, Dutch journalist Peter de Vries was murdered in Amsterdam. 

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According to the monitoring group Media Freedom Rapid Response, in 2020 alone there were 908 attacks against members of the media, 1 in 5 of which were physical, across 23 EU countries.

Concerns have also been heightened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been used as cover by some governments to continue to restrict the rights and protections of journalists. 

“No journalist should die or be harmed because of their job,” said Jourová. “The pandemic has shown more than ever the key role of journalists to inform us. And the urgent need for public authorities to do more to protect them.”

Commission to propose a European Media Freedom Act, Breton says

In a speech delivered to the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education on Monday (19 April), the EU Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton raised for the first time a proposal for a European Media Freedom Act. 

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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