European Federation of Journalists

Safety of Journalists report: serious concern about the use of spyware, abusive lawsuits and journalists in exile

The unlawful deployment of spyware against journalists, the use of abusive lawsuits against journalists to hamper their investigative work (SLAPPs) and the precarious situation of many journalists in exile, notably from Russia and Belarus, are some of the main concerns expressed by the European and International Federations of Journalists (EFJ-IFJ) and the other partner organisations to the Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists in their 2024 annual report.

Released under the title “Press Freedom in Europe: Time to turn the Tide”, the report assesses the major issues undermining press freedom – including threats and intimidation, detention, restrictive legislation, abusive lawsuits, media capture and attacks on public service media – and issues recommendations to address them.

In 2023, the platform partners published 285 alerts on serious threats or attacks to media freedom in Europe compared to 289 alerts in 2022*. Although in 2023 the number of journalists killed and street violence against them decreased, the alerts on the platform show a growing diversity of threats, pressure and constraints under which journalists must do their work.

For the first time, the annual report includes a chapter on the working conditions of journalists. The Platform’s partners remind governments of their commitment to developing “labour and employment laws that protect journalists against arbitrary dismissal or reprisals, and against precarious working conditions”. The report cites the latest study by the Media Pluralism Monitor, according to which only four of the 32 European countries analysed offer good working conditions for journalists: Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Sweden. By contrast, the social situation of journalists is particularly precarious in Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro and Romania.

Reacting to the report’s publication, the Council of EuropeSecretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić said: “The Safety of Journalists Platform report shows the increasing risks and obstacles that journalists and media face in Europe. We need determined action from states to protect journalists and counter threats to media freedom such as abusive lawsuits and illegal surveillance. To enhance journalists’ safety, our member states should show a strong commitment to respecting media freedom standards and promote the Council of Europe’s ‘Journalists matter’ campaign at national level.

The report underscores that media freedom and the digital security of journalists continued to be threatened by the ongoing use of spyware technology to surveil journalists and media actors, and accountability for reported abuses continued to be evasive.

At the launch of the report in Thessaloniki, Greece, EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez denounced the passivity of public authorities in the face of cases of illegal surveillance of journalists and repeated breaches of the protection of journalistic sources: “Hundreds of cases have been documented, but so far not a single person responsible for deploying spyware against journalists has been convicted”.

The report also points out the unprecedented number of media workers in Europe – from Russia and Belarus in particular – driven into exile abroad due to physical risk to their life and liberty, legal prosecution, threats and intimidation, which often continue once they are in exile against them and their families.

Another trend highlighted in the report is that media freedom was hindered by abusive legal actions, including Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), initiated by politicians and business actors based on national laws on the protection of reputation, aiming to harass journalists and media by exposing them to criminal convictions, the payment of high compensation for damages and heavy fines.

In 2023, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine continued to have significant effects on media freedom and the safety of journalists. Two journalists – Bohdan Bitik and Arman Soldin – were killed while reporting in Ukraine and several other journalists were injured. Another worker of the media, the security guard Pal Kola, was killed in an attack to the Top Channel TV station in Albania.

As of 31 December 2023, 55 journalists and media workers were in detention in Council of Europe member states – including the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia – and 65 in Russia and Belarus, where the crackdown on independent journalists intensified. Russia returned to the practice of institutionalised hostage-taking by arresting the US journalists Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva. The list of 120 journalists in prison in Europe includes Julian Assange in the UK and Pablo González in Poland.

In 2023, five cases of impunity for murder of journalists were added to the Platform, those concerning Sokratis Giolias and Giorgos Karaivaz (Greece), Aleh Byabenin (Belarus), Milan Pantić (Serbia) and Yuri Shchekochikhin (Russia). By the end of the year, there were 30 alerts of impunity for murder concerning 49 media workers active on the platform. The case of the Ukrainian journalist Viacheslav Veremii was declared closed.

In the report, the partners, including EFJ and IFJ, express their support to the Council of Europe Campaign for the Safety of Journalists “Journalists Matter”, launched in October 2023, and call on member states to carry out reforms of the police and justice systems to fully comply with the 2016 Committee of Ministers Recommendation on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors.

Read the report: in English, in French.

* The Platform report covers the 46 Council of Europe member states, as well as Russia, following its expulsion from the Council of Europe in 2022, and Belarus.