Since 2015, 335 journalists have been killed across the globe, nine of them in Europe, and this figure does not include citizens journalists, and media assistants. In nine out of ten cases, the killers go unpunished. A further 247 journalists are currently behind bars.
The number of those who annually loose their life has, however, been dropping. From 82 five years ago, to 28 so far in 2020. Yet, press freedom has also steadily been declining across the continent.
It is no coincidence that despite consistent efforts to dismantle media freedom and pluralism, physical violence against journalists in illiberal Central-Eastern European states is rare.
According to the Council of Europe’s platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, out of the 191 alerts in the category of attacks on physical safety and integrity of journalists received since the platform was launched in 2015, only one happened in Hungary. Compare that with 10 in France or Greece, and six in Germany.
This, however, does not mean that journalists in Central and Eastern Europe are not under assault, it’s just that the nature of the pressure is much more insidious.
One survey of almost a hundred journalists working in 16 countries in central and eastern Europe showed that 64.5% of all respondents said they had been threatened or harassed for their work as a journalist — 83.3% of those said the attacks had come online. Anti-journalist rhetoric by politicians and other media outlets is widespread.
The death of a journalist, particularly in Europe, only uncovers the crimes they were investigating. Ján Kuciak’s fraud investigations crystallised high-level corruption. His brutal murder brought down the Slovak government.
But systematic silencing, stonewalling and economic pressure on journalists is just as ominous, these actions are silent killers and frankly, much more effective for those who cling to power.
A starving journalist who cannot pay their mortgage is just another statistic, even if the absence of their pay-check is directly attributable to the artful pressure of those they are writing about.
Declaratory statements in support of journalists are not enough.
When we asked the Commission about the mass resignations at Hungary’s once largest media outlet due to loss of independence, the executive suggested that countries “make the most of the EU’s coronavirus economic response and recovery packages to support media sector, which was heavily hit by the crisis.”
We later asked how the Commission is planning to include safeguards to ensure that the recovery funds are not used to distort Hungary’s media landscape further, by pampering pro-government media outlets, for instance, while leaving dissenting voices starved of funding.
We were told the executive has “set out strategic guidance” which in the case of the media sector points out that “support should be provided in a way that respects and promotes media freedom and pluralism.”
It is doubtful such guidance will dissuade Viktor Orbán, a master of media subdual, especially when some weeks later, the EU’s competition boss says that “it’s not the state aid rules of the EU that will guarantee media plurality – it should be the member states safeguarding this.”
Today we commemorate the names of Vadym Komarov, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ján Kuciak and too many others. We must end impunity of crimes against journalists.
Just as importantly, we must not wait to act until the crime in question is murder.
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Views are the author’s