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

The Hindu Business Line - - THINK - VIDYA RAM

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.”

REUTERS

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