Is the EU doing enough to protect journalists?
When Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered on October 16, 2017 in a car bomb, people were shocked not only across Europe but around the world.
But the Maltese journalist who was renowned for investigating corruption and money laundering was not alone. In the four years since his death, other colleagues including Jan Kuciak from Slovakia, Giorgos Karaivaz from Greece and Peter de Vries from the Netherlands were also killed. In Europe, the continent considered a relatively safe haven for media professionals.
Julie Majerczak, head of the Brussels office of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told DW that while this is still the case, the situation has steadily deteriorated over the past two years. “And the murdered journalists are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
According to the European Commission, 900 media workers were assaulted in the European Union in 2020. Some of these attacks were physical, but they also included insults and harassment, especially of women, both offline and online .
Journalists are feeling the pressure more and more
These discoveries come as no surprise to Manuel Delia. The Maltese investigative blogger and activist who led anti-government protests in the wake of Caruana Galizia’s murder recently decided to leave his home country with his family for an undisclosed location.
He was threatened by people accused of complicity in the murder of Caruana Galizia; he has received countless anonymous phone calls and fake websites have been set up in his name to ruin his reputation.
The murder of Caruana Galizia had a “paradoxical effect” on journalism in Malta, he told DW. The fact that most of the suspects have been charged and their crimes exposed is a sign that it is not working well for those who have killed journalists. “It makes us feel more secure,” he said.
But at the same time, Delia said, he and other journalists have been portrayed as traitors and threats to Maltese democracy in media belonging to the ruling Labor Party. And this “isolation,” as Delia calls it, has given criminals the ability to put additional pressure on them through scam blogs or websites or emails.
“These days are probably the hottest times of the past four years,” said Delia. “Will it end in physical violence?” He did it once, so I can’t make any promises.
Polish investigative journalist Wojciech Ciesla also noted the growing pressure on journalists who criticize the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party in power in his country. Ciesla, who works with Investigate Europe, a multinational research team, said things had changed dramatically since PiS came to power in 2015.
“I think Poland is currently following Viktor Orban’s steps in Hungary to limit press freedom,” he said, referring to the Hungarian prime minister’s systematic efforts to take control of the country’s media, to control political rhetoric and dismantle pluralism. Every day is a struggle for access to information, added Ciesla, with the government deciding who has “the privilege” of being informed.
EU pledges to “protect those who create transparency”
The experiences of reporters like Delia and Ciesla have not gone unnoticed in Brussels. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, recently pledged to do more.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen devoted an entire part of her State of the European Union address in September to press freedom. “Information is a public good,” she said. “We need to protect those who create transparency – journalists. “
On the same day, the Commissioner responsible for upholding the rule of law in the EU, Vera Jourova, presented a set of recommendations to help EU countries fulfill this wish. She stressed that this was the first time that media freedom and security had been placed so high on the European agenda.
Specific measures included the creation of independent national support services, including hotlines, legal advice, psychological support and shelters for media professionals facing threats.
Delia said it was good to see the European institutions “sounding the alarm bells” and shining the spotlight on the importance of journalism for democracy.
The Maltese blogger is optimistic about the legislative proposals that EU officials have pledged to bring forward in 2022. Among them is the European Media Freedom Act, which aims to protect media independence. It is not yet clear what measures this package will contain, but RSF’s Majerczak said he would likely tackle state aid hidden from pro-government media, for example through advertisements.
“What we absolutely need are legislative measures followed by sanctions for violations, not just recommendations,” said Majerczak. She fears, like journalists Delia and Ciesla, that harsh words are not enough to impress some European governments.
“I am thinking for example of Poland, Hungary, Malta, Greece and Bulgaria,” she said, naming Bulgaria “the worst student in the EU”.
In RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index, this Eastern European state ranks 112 out of 180 countries. According to RSF, the few outspoken journalists in Bulgaria are subjected not only to harassment by the state, but also to intimidation and violence.
Anti-SLAPP initiative aims to counter abusive litigation
Delia has also placed her hopes in another initiative that the European Commission plans to present next year that aims to protect journalists and human rights activists from abusive litigation, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. (SLAPP).
When Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in October 2017, the investigative journalist had 47 SLAPPs pending against her. These intimidating lawsuits are often used to threaten and silence media workers – a huge problem, especially for those who work independently or for small research entities.
“The person accused of Daphne’s murder wanted to sue me in the UK for over £ 70million. [€82 million or $95 million]”Delia said.” It would have been my last day in journalism. “
“I have little reason to be optimistic. My country is less democratic than before, ”he declared.
But at least, he added, the initiatives of the European institutions are going in the right direction.