Press free­dom in the EU in peril

Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists rep­re­sen­ta­tive raises alarm over journalist mur­ders

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY NIKO EFSTATHIOU

This has been a par­tic­u­larly bad year for jour­nal­ists – and Europe has been no ex­cep­tion. This week, Bul­gar­ian journalist Vik­to­ria Mari­nova was found dead at a park in the city of Ruse. An early au­topsy re­vealed that she had been bru­tally raped, beaten and suf­fo­cated be­fore her body was dumped near the Danube River. A sus­pect was ar­rested three days ago in Ger­many who has con­fessed to the at­tack on Mari­nova but con­tin­ues to deny the use of sex­ual vi­o­lence. Though au­thor­i­ties have not linked her mur­der to her work as a journalist, Mari­nova had been cov­er­ing al­leged cor­rup­tion cases in­volv­ing the mis­use of Euro­pean Union funds in Bul­garia. She is the third journalist to have been mur­dered in the EU this year, and the third to die while in­ves­ti­gat­ing po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and or­ga­nized crime.

With 126 jour­nal­ists cur­rently in de­ten­tion across the EU, Kathimerini dis­cussed Mari­nova’s mur­der and the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of me­dia free­dom in parts of the bloc with Gul­noza Said, who works for the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists and over­sees the Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dent non­profit, non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion’s re­search ef­forts in Europe and Cen­tral Asia. The bru­tal killing of Vik­to­ria Mari­nova raises the num­ber of jour­nal­ists mur­dered in the EU this year to three. Would you say that 2018 has been a par­tic­u­larly bad year for press free­dom on the con­ti­nent?

It has been a very dif­fi­cult year for jour­nal­ists in Europe. In a year and a half we have seen the mur­ders of four jour­nal­ists in EU mem­ber-states, and at least two of those have been con­firmed by au­thor­i­ties to be re­lated to their work. I’m re­fer­ring to the mur­der of Daphne Caru­ana Gal­izia in Malta, and the bru­tal killing of Jan Ku­ciak and his fi­ancee in Slo­vakia. And just a few days ago we were all shocked by the mur­der of an­other col­league in Bul­garia, Vik­to­ria Mari­nova. All those cases are very em­blem­atic of a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing press free­dom en­vi­ron­ment in the EU, and at CPJ we have been doc­u­ment­ing all cases in­clud­ing phys­i­cal as­sault, threats, ha­rass­ment or in­tim­i­da­tion. I can tell you with cer­tainty that a neg­a­tive trend is def­i­nitely there. The day af­ter Mari­nova’s mur­der, the top news item on Bul­gar­ian Na­tional Tele­vi­sion was about sec­ond­hand cars. Have you no­ticed that journalist mur­ders have re­ceived low me­dia at­ten­tion in their home coun­tries/re­gions, and, if so, to what do you at­tribute this?

I can’t com­ment on Bul­gar­ian me­dia cov­er­age, but there is an is­sue here. Lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in Bul­garia were very quick to con­clude that the bru­tal as­sault was not linked to Vik­to­ria’s work, and that it hap­pened be­cause she was a young, at­trac­tive woman. Very of­ten, when we see at­tacks of any na­ture against jour­nal­ists, if it hap­pens to be a woman the threat is re­ported to have a sex­ual con­no­ta­tion. Bul­gar­ian law en­force­ment’s im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion is just one ex­am­ple of a gen­der bias that keeps be­ing per­pet­u­ated. It was dis­ap­point­ing to see how quickly au­thor­i­ties tried to rule out any con­nec­tion be­tween Vik­to­ria’s work and pos­si­ble mo­tives for the mur­der. We would usu­ally like to see the au­thor­i­ties spend more time with such sit­u­a­tions and ex­plore more mo­tives, es­pe­cially in Bul­garia, where press free­dom is among the worst in the EU. Mari­nova cov­ered al­leged cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment of EU funds. A cou­ple of days ago, in Greece, two jour­nal­ists were de­tained over an ar­ti­cle that also al­leged mis­han­dling of EU funds. Do you see a pat­tern when it comes to de­te­ri­o­rat­ing press free­dom and cor­rup­tion cov­er­age in the EU?

There is def­i­nitely a trend there. Even if we end up con­clud­ing that Vik­to­ria was not mur­dered be­cause of her jour­nal­is­tic work, we still have to look into a very dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment for in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters in the EU. Take Daphne Caru­ana Gal­izia, who cov­ered cor­rup­tion in Malta, one of the EU’s most cor­rupt coun­tries. The phe­nom­e­non is so ram­pant that Daphne un­der­went in­ves­ti­ga­tion her­self, and was sued by high govern­ment of­fi­cials for her re­port­ing be­fore the mur­der. Unlike other coun­tries that have been in the EU for longer, the level of tol­er­ance for cor­rup­tion in Mal­tese so­ci­ety is very high, which makes re­port­ing even more dan­ger­ous. The same goes for Jan, who in­ves­ti­gated the mis­use of EU funds in Slo­vakia, and al­leged links with the Ital­ian mafia. Vik­to­ria also col­lab­o­rated with the Or­ga­nized Crime and Cor­rup­tion Re­port­ing Project, un­cov­er­ing the truth about how EU funds were used and mis­used in Bul­garia. This leads us to a very clear con­clu­sion: It’s not just a press free­dom is­sue but an is­sue of cor­rup­tion and the gen­eral pub­lic’s at­ti­tude to­ward it. As long as there is cor­rup­tion there are go­ing to be re­porters who want to un­cover it and they will an­noy pow­er­ful peo­ple in­volved in cor­rup­tion mech­a­nisms. That puts their safety un­der a huge ques­tion mark. To­day, many heads of state have openly at­tacked jour­nal­ists and wo­ven an anti-press nar­ra­tive. Is there a link be­tween that nar­ra­tive and the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of press free­dom in Europe?

There is cer­tainly a link be­tween grow­ing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism in Europe and jour­nal­is­tic safety. Pop­ulists are ris­ing to power in coun­tries like Hun­gary – au­to­cratic lead­ers who cre­ate nepo­tis­tic or oli­garchic sys­tems, po­si­tion their cronies in con­trol of me­dia out­lets and establish con­trol over cov­er­age and pub­lic de­bate. But it’s also an is­sue of rhetoric, es­pe­cially if you look at the US, which was once a guardian of lib­eral re­forms and press free­dom. I am from Uzbek­istan, and was a re­porter there 20 years ago, when it was ruled by a very bru­tal au­to­cratic leader, Is­lam Ka­ri­mov. We used to look up to the US – be it through state­ments com­ing from the US Em­bassy or speeches the pres­i­dent would make – and ex­pect a cer­tain de­gree of pro­tec­tion. To­day, there is a pres­i­dent who wakes up in the mid­dle of the night and tweets ag­gres­sively against any re­port­ing that crit­i­cizes him and his poli­cies. How can we ex­pect other lead­ers around the world to ad­here to the prin­ci­ples of free press and free­dom of ex­pres­sion if the world’s flag­man is now a laugh­ing stock?

A por­trait of slain tele­vi­sion re­porter Vik­to­ria Mari­nova is placed on the Lib­erty Mon­u­ment next to flow­ers and can­dles dur­ing a vigil in Ruse on Tues­day.

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