World Press Freedom Day: Safeguarding journalism as a public good in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"The death of 9 journalists and media workers in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion underscore the level of danger to which those covering conflict are exposed. But the killing of journalists is not limited to conflict situations." [Shutterstock / Yavuz Sariyildiz]

The extraordinary courage of journalists and media workers reporting from conflict areas in Ukraine and other parts of the world reminds us once again how crucial their work is in providing timely, trusted and fact-based information, write Birgit Van Hout, Irene Khan, and Louise Haxthausen.

Birgit Van Hout is the UN Human Rights Regional Representative for Europe.  Irene Khan is the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression. Louise Haxthausen is the Director of the UNESCO Liaison Office in Brussels.

Today, on World Press Freedom Day, we celebrate their vital contribution. We also draw attention to the increasing pressures, threats and attacks they face and call for their protection and support for the freedom, independence and pluralism of media.  

The death of 9 journalists and media workers in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion underscore the level of danger to which those covering conflict are exposed. But the killing of journalists is not limited to conflict situations.

In 2021, the European Federation of Journalists reported 6 assassinations of journalists in Europe. Journalists have also been violently attacked when covering demonstrations or investigating allegations of corruption, organized crime and environmental malpractice.

They are routinely targeted with online threats and hate speech. Female journalists in particular face vicious, sexualized and malicious online attacks.

The latest UNESCO report on global trends for freedom of expression paints a grim picture,  with 85% of the world’s population living in countries that have experienced a decline in press freedom in the past five years.

The Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression has also documented multiple, complex challenges to media freedom and how they are being amplified by digital technology.

Independent journalism is imperilled by increasing crackdowns on press freedom, targeted surveillance and judicial harassment of journalists, high levels of impunity for crimes against journalists, editorial capture by political or business interests, and mounting financial difficulties for many news outlets.

Europe has not escaped these negative trends. While the EU and its members have taken some important steps to tackle the problems, more needs to be done to build political will and translate commitments into concrete action at the national level.

Based on a recent UN – EU Policy Dialogue on protecting journalists, media freedom and pluralism in the EU, we believe three areas deserve priority attention.

States should, firstly, better protect journalists from violent attacks and threats. In line with the EU Recommendation on the protection, safety and empowerment of journalists, this includes prompt investigations and prosecutions, as well as better monitoring and preventive measures and support and assistance to those at risk, with a strong gender perspective.

States should ensure that social media platforms make online space safe for journalists, especially women. The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity marks its tenth anniversary this year. When governments from around the world meet in Vienna to take stock in November 2022, they should seize the opportunity to recommit to renew their efforts.

Secondly, effective responses must be developed to deal with emerging forms of intimidation, like the use of surveillance spyware against journalists or large-scale data collection and retention.

Given the risks that targeted surveillance pose to journalists and their sources, it is imperative that States incorporate adequate safeguards, including independent judicial oversight, in their national laws, and the international community adopt clear rules for protection against misuse.

Until adequate human rights safeguards are in place, the international community should speak with one voice in calling for a global moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of privately developed surveillance tools. In Europe, States need also to confront their responsibilities and leverage data protection rules to tackle the problem.

Another increasingly used tactic to harass journalists and other watchdogs is the use of vexatious and frivolous lawsuits.

The EU initiative against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) unveiled last week provides a solid basis to work towards measures to counter such abusive litigation, which should contemplate responses building on corporate accountability and business due diligence principles.

SLAPPs are also a result of the threat criminal defamation laws pose to journalists in several EU member states. There is no room for such oppressive laws in modern democracies and we urge all States to repeal them. 

Thirdly, States should foster media freedom, pluralism, independence and viability. They should prevent undue concentration and ensure transparency of media ownership and of the allocation of government advertising revenue.

The independence of media regulatory authorities from political influence should be assured not only in law but also in practice. States should respect the independence of public service media and fund them adequately. 

Digital platforms have a profound impact on media independence, pluralism, diversity and viability in multiple ways. They are important distribution and audience engagement channels for media outlets.

Through their curatorial and content moderation roles they make important editorial decisions. Their ad-tech driven business models divert revenue and threaten outlets’ viability. Ensuring a better balance in the relationship between digital platforms and media outlets, and reducing the incentive for disinformation, misinformation and hate speech will be key.

The Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act recently agreed upon, together with the upcoming EU Media Freedom Act, should be used by Europe and its member States to nurture a diversity of viable, free and independent public, private and community media – offline as online. 

The ambitious initiatives taken by the EU could become a reference point for other parts of the world. And with possibility comes greater responsibility. Upholding international human rights standards in all these initiatives should be an overriding priority. 

The societal relevance of journalism as a pillar of democracy makes it a public good. We must all – states, EU, UN, civil society, and ordinary citizens – work together to safeguard it.   

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