European Federation of Journalists

Council of Europe report highlights the need for independent journalism

Sofia Liluashvili, Nika Gvaramia's wife, speaking at the Press Club in Brussels on 7 March 2023. Credits: EFJ

The Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists, with the European and International Federations of Journalists (EFJ/IFJ) and other partner organisations, launched in Brussels on 7 March the 2023 Annual Report: ‘War in Europe and the Fight for the Right to Report‘.

The report discusses the impact of the war in Ukraine, and the need for robust and independent journalism. It highlights the need for Member States to harmonise their legislations, and the danger of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), as well as the case of Belarus, impunity, detentions of journalists and restrictive legislation. Other topics mentioned were the stakes surrounding public service media, media capture, and the issue of surveillance and spyware.

Led by Tom Gibson from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the panel consisted of seven participants: Sarah Clarke, Head of the Europe and Central Asia team, Article 19, Nicola Frank, Head of Institutional and International Relations, European Broadcasting Union, Flutura Kusari, Senior Legal Advisor, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Oliver Money-Kyrle, Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes, International Press Institute, Maria Ordzhonikidze, Director, Justice for Journalists Foundation, Ernest Sagaga, Head of Human Rights and Safety, International Federation of Journalists, and Nik Williams, Policy & Campaigns Officer, Index on Censorship.

289 alerts in 37 countries were reported in 2022. The report urges the Member States of the Council of Europe to be more proactive, and asks the Council of Europe to “encourage member states to take measures to effectively address concerns and recommendations for reform”. It also asks the European institutions to adopt the European Media Freedom Act and give more visibility and recognition of positive measures taken by EU member states. 

Last year was defined by the war in Ukraine. More than 11,000 journalists have been accredited by Ukrainian authorities to report on the invasion, but covering the war is a particularly difficult exercise with many challenges, including a crackdown on independent journalism. Russia is no longer a part of the Council of Europe.

“The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the need for more independent journalism,” says Nik Williams.

The report also underlines a similar situation happening in the neighbouring state of Belarus. Not yet covered by the Platform, the partner organisations have still decided to include the country in the annual report due to the alarming situation. In 2022, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) reported 32 cases of detention of journalists and 55 cases of searches of editorial offices or journalists’ homes.

In 2022, out of the 289 alerts sent to the platform, 13 concerned journalists killed in Europe, the highest death toll ever recorded since the launch of the platform in 2015.

“It’s been said about the killing of journalists, 12 in Ukraine and one in Turkey, that it is the highest death toll since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in 2015 in Paris,” Ernest Sagaga points out, adding that the war on journalism goes beyond killing journalists.

If no new alerts have been added to the Platform in 2022, 35 impunity cases were still unresolved, 26 of which concern impunity for murder cases. Beyond impunity cases, a lot of arbitrary arrests and detentions were listed. At the end of 2022, a record number of 127 journalists were behind bars in Europe, reminds Maria Ordzhonikidze. 

“We call for the Council of Europe to encourage the Member States to work together to see that the powers are not abused,” she adds.

The case of imprisoned Georgian investigate journalist Nika Gvaramia was also highlighted, through Sofia Liluashvili, his wife, who was present. Sofia urged the member states to fight against impunity and unlawful arrests and detentions, saying: 

“Nika is not only a political prisoner and my husband, he is a victim of the Russian regime. […] He is in prison just because he wants freedom for our country and fights for democracy.” 

In terms of SLAPPs and abusive legal actions against journalists, Flutura Kusari reminds that the use of such legal actions are aimed at silencing the media. “The EU observers are forced to invest a lot of time and energy and money instead of doing what they are supposed to do: journalism.” The report called on the Council of Europe Member States to harmonise their legislations, and that now is the time for all Member States to start taking action against SLAPPs lawsuit.

On media capture, the Platform documented how state economic and regulatory powers are abused to ‘capture’ public and private media to turn them into propaganda arms of governing parties. Media capture represents a real danger to media pluralism and media freedom in Europe: we need a stronger European Media Freedom Act to protect free media. 

The report also showed that threats posed to journalists and media workers from surveillance increased in 2022: surveillance has become a pressing concern in the wake of the revelation of the Pegasus scandal. 

For the work of the Platform and the Council to succeed, we need Member States to engage.