Dangerous times for journalists in Europe
The media landscape has become increasingly hostile, with falling levels of press freedom and even a string of murders
On Saturday last week, the body of Viktoria Marinova, a 30-year-old journalist for the television station TVN was found in a park in the Bulgarian city of Ruse. She had been raped and murdered. She was a presenter on a current affairs programme whose stories had included investigations into the misuse of EU funds by politicians and businessman. Two journalists working on the programme had been arrested and released without charge earlier this year.
Bulgarian authorities were quick to caution against making an immediate link between her death and her work. A man who had fled to Germany was arrested on Wednesday, which authorities indicated suggested a spontaneous sexual assault (though all possibilities were not being ruled out).. However, right from the start many observers contextualised her murder within an increasingly hostile environment for journalists in Europe and beyond.
“Again a courageous journalist falls in the fight for truth and against corruption,” said the European Commission’s Frans Timmermans. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed its shock at the development and called for justice and a thorough investigation by Bulgarian authorities to determine whether the attack was linked to her work, warning it would be closely following the investigation as it proceeded. The group Reporters without Borders (RSF) called for her colleagues to be given protection while her death was being looked into.
Bulgaria lies far down the RSF’s press freedom index at 111 (India is at 148) out of 180. Earlier this year, the organisation pointed to widespread “corruption and collusion between media politicians and oligarchs” in Bulgaria, including the former intelligence agency head’s ownership of vast swathes of the media landscape in the country. “It can prove dangerous to be a journalist in Bulgaria,” they warned.
Whatever, the final conclusions of the investigation, the murder of Marinova highlighted the increasingly tricky and dangerous environment for journalists in Europe — a part of the world traditionally viewed as one of the more hospitable.
“I believe we are seeing a decline in the environment for journalists across Europe,” says Jodie Ginsberg, the CEO of the Index on Censorship, which has been monitoring the state of media freedom in the region in detail over the past four years through its Mapping Media Freedom Project.
Atmosphere has soured
“We have been struck at the way in which the atmosphere has soured. The decline has been most marked in the past 12-18 months but the deterioration has taken place over a much longer period as public trust in journalism has dwindled and a more authoritarian approach to governments has been on the rise,” she adds.
Four European nations were among the five countries in which press freedom fell by the most in rankings, according to the 2018 RSF index.
Since the start of 2017 four journalists have been murdered in EU countries — three of them women. In March, Jan Kuciak and his fiancé were shot dead in Bratislava (Slovakia), which police acknowledged linked to a piece he had been reporting on ties between senior politicians in the country and the Italian mafia (the piece was published after his death). The murder provoked such a story and Since 2017, four journalists have been murdered in the EU
public outcry that it eventually led to the resignation of the Prime Minister, but many believe that the investigation to date has not gone far enough.
In October last year, Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist in Malta whose stories exposed corruption within the political establishment, was killed by a car bomb in October. Her family and supporters continued to sharply criticise the investigation carried out by Maltese authorities.
Earlier this week, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom called for a public inquiry into her murder, into questions beyond those immediately involved in her death and whether the “Maltese state” was involved in her assassination. “Protecting the lives and voices of journalists in Malta and across Europe depends upon this public inquiry,” they wrote.
Though not linked to corruption investigations there was the death of Swedish journalist, Kim Wall, for whose murder Danish inventor Peter Madsen had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and which highlighted the dangers faced by female reporters even in countries deemed to be among the safest spaces for journalists in the world.
Beyond the murders, there is
much concern about the state of media freedom across Europe, particularly to the east.
In an open letter published in August, the Index on Censorship, the international Press Institute and the south East Europe Media Organisation wrote to the European Commission pointing to the deteriorating situation for media freedom in Hungary, exemplified with the developments at TV station Hir, which was once the country’s last domestically-owned independent TV company. Following a change of ownership, leading vocal journalists were dismissed, programmes that allowed for non-government, critical voices were cancelled highlighting “how far Hungary has distanced itself from European values” they warned.
Elsewhere in Europe, the anti-media message that has pervaded discourse globally has also proliferated: last year Czech President Milos Zeman — who has made no secret of his admiration for US President Donald Trump — held up a fake rifle with an inscription that he pointed to at a news conference that meant “for journalists.” Earlier this year he used his second term inauguration speech to further attack the media. “Verbal attacks on journalists by those in power, along with attempts to discredit the profession, have steadily increased. This has often been followed by a tightening of legislation in places like Poland and Hungary that makes it harder for independent media to operate,” says Ginsberg.
In Western Europe, too, pressures have been building: RSF has highlighted concerns in the UK, which has resulted in it keeping a status as one of Western Europe’s worst ranked nations (it is at position 40) — resulting from a combination of legislation (including strong surveillance legislation with little protection for journalists, and whistleblowers), the treatment of journalists by politicians across the political spectrum (including through restricting their access to campaigning activities ahead of last year’s general election) and online hate directed at senior journalists, including the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, who had to have a bodyguard accompany her at the Labour party conference last year. “That’s a damning indictment of the current situation,” says Ginsberg.
Little support from top
The trouble has been that even at the very top most levels the message hasn’t always been the most positive. Earlier this week, European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker attacked the British media for failing to respect the human rights and privacy of politicians in its coverage. “Press freedom also has its limits” he was quoted as saying to the dismay of many.
“Politicians need to realise that by smearing all media as peddlers of fake news, they are feeding an environment that undermines a vital pillar of democracy,” says Ginsberg. “We need to hear a more robust and consistent defence of a free press. As journalists we can also help keep our house in order by acting in solidarity with one another when we see journalists in fellow news organisations unfairly maligned — even when we disagree with them politically. And by making sure we meet the highest standards of reporting.”