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A new study on media freedom by the Council of Europe highlights the intimidation, harassment and violence that journalists reporting on sensitive issues face.
A Mission to Inform: Journalists at Risk Speak Out was conducted by Marilyn Clark and William Horsley, two Council of Europe experts on media freedom. The study is based on extensive interviews with 20 journalists from 18 countries, with Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered only days later, Can Dündar and Jessikka Aro. It exemplifies and analyzes undue pressure exerted against journalists in Europe to prevent them from reporting freely. It also highlights the strategies those journalists use to overcome fear and continue to fulfill their mission to serve the public with unbiased information in what the authors call "a veritable minefield of obstacles and dangers" and a "dramatic intensification of political pressure [that] has increasingly hindered and obstructed journalists from performing their core watchdog function."
According to Patrick Penninckx, head of Information Society Department of the Council of Europe, the situation for journalists has worsened in the past years as journalists often work in an environment generally "not favorable to freedom of expression." The current COVID-19 pandemic also makes journalists "particularly vulnerable to pressures and intimidation" when critically reporting on the health crisis. "The Council of Europe has repeatedly emphasized that the COVID-19 crisis should not be used by state or non-state actors as a pretext to limit media freedom in a way that would not be acceptable in regular circumstances," Penninckx added.
Journalists more visible and vulnerable
The list of obstacles hindering journalists’ reporting on sensitive matters is long. It includes and isn’t limited to "commercial pressures, pressures from their own editors, fear of frivolous legal claims against them, surveillance, the misuse of terrorism and other laws sanctioning them for reporting on certain issues, obstacles hindering access to information as well as direct threats of harm and injury directed against journalists or their close ones," Penninckx told DW. The spread of misinformation also contributes to a hostile environment for journalists, the Council of Europe report shows.
In our highly digitalized lives and through social media, journalists become "more visible and easily reachable," making them "more vulnerable to denigrating comments," Penninckx said.
Female journalists particularly experience severe harassment online. "If a woman is going to be less than perfect, she’s going to get trashed," Daphne Caruana Galizia said in her interview in October 2017. Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro stated that, "being a female, I am subjected to horrible harassment concerning how I look, and how sexually wanted or not wanted I am. [Some trolls say they] want to rape me."
Finnish journalist and 2019 International Women of Courage Award laureate Jessikka Aro lost the award due to criticism of Trump
However, the harassment isn’t solely limited to words: Elena Kostyuchenko, a reporter for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, recalls several incidents of physical aggression against her as a critical reporter. She obtained head traumas because of brutal attacks, yet, "no investigation or criminal case" happened at all, she says. Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been reporting on corruption in the highest levels of the Maltese government, was brutally murdered with a car bomb only days after her 2017 interview for the study.
The risk of self-censorship
Systematic intimidation and harassment of journalists also increase the risk of self-censorship, as the interviewees have testified. "It is clear that different pressures faced by journalists push them to self-censor and that self-censoring happens even amongst the bravest and most reputable members of the profession," said Penninckx. Daphne Caruana Galizia said that many journalists experience living in a "climate of fear. People are afraid of the consequences."
Greek journalist Kóstas Vaxevánis argues that "the mainstream media have abdicated their watchdog role and become "complicit" in their own decline," the Council of Europe report reads. "Clearly democracy is unable to function if journalists are silenced," stresses Vaxevánis.
Creating a safe environment for journalists
Journalists in Belarus faced increasing violence as they covered the ongoing protests in the country
The Council of Europe recommends that media employers put in place mechanisms to ensure the security of journalistic sources, work with state authorities to ensure the physical safety of their employees and ensure an environment free from political influence on reporting or from any kind of editorial pressure. They should also "ensure that their staff undertaking difficult or dangerous assignments have proper health insurance and benefit from high-quality mental health support," according to Penninckx.
"Broadcasters have to create an environment in which investigative journalists could trust that their work on sensitive issues will be promoted and that their safety will be safeguarded," Penninckx said. The study recommends that states take "preventive operational measures in cases of real and immediate risk to the life or physical security of journalists, including by providing police protection or voluntary evacuation to a safe place." Moreover, the recommendation "urges member states as a matter of urgency to review domestic laws and practice and revise them as necessary to conform with their obligations under the Convention."
The journalists interviewed for the report have spoken out about their professional and personal experiences of what it means to be a journalist in Europe today. Their words deserve to be heard, and they "deserve to enter the conscience of everyone," the report concludes.