Sofia Mandilara really likes her job. As a reporter for the Greek news agency Amna, she is “often at the forefront of important events”, she said. “Through us, people find out what is going on in our country.” But not all that goes on in Greece is reported. This is because Amna belongs to the Greek state and is subject to the office of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Anyone who reports critically on his conservative government is censored, the 38-year-old said.
A similar situation exists at the Italian state broadcaster, Rai, which plays a major role in shaping public opinion. It is increasingly under the influence of Italy’s right-wing populist government. Immediately after taking office in October 2022, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni filled all management positions with her followers. The two previous governments did the same, but none as radically as Meloni. Prominent reporters left and even high-profile journalist and anti-Mafia author Roberto Saviano’s show was cancelled after he tangled with Meloni. Positive reports about Meloni’s government, meanwhile, account for around 70% of all political news on Rai stations, according to the media research institute Osservatorio di Pavia.
Journalists at the Journal du Dimanche, France’s leading Sunday newspaper, have also suffered a radical change of regime. In the spring, Vivendi, owned by billionaire Vincent Bolloré, got the go-ahead to buy the publishing giant Lagardère, including the JDD. Bolloré publicly denies any political interest. But as with his acquisitions of CNews in 2016 and the magazine Paris Match last year, the buy-out was followed by a sharp turn in the editorial orientation of the JDD towards the far right.
State officials who demand censorship, party functionaries who misuse public broadcasters for their propaganda and billionaires who buy media to propagate their own political interests – what was long known only in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary – is spreading across Europe. The creeping decline in media freedom and pluralism has been documented for years by the Centre for Media Freedom at the European University of Florence, an EU-funded project. There is now “an alarming level of risk to media pluralism in all European countries”, researchers wrote in their annual report in June.
This puts Europe in a “desperate situation”, said Věra Jourová, the EU Commission vice-president for values and transparency. The Czech Commissioner has personal experience of life without a free press. “I lived under communism, that was uncontrolled power – and unchallengeable power. This should not happen in any EU member state,” she said in an interview with Investigate Europe, a co-operative of journalists from different European countries. Media are “the ones who keep politicians under control. If we want the media to fulfil its important role in democracy, we have to introduce a European safety net.” That is why she is pushing to implement a landmark EU law “to protect media pluralism and independence”, which would set legally binding standards to preserve press freedom in all EU member states.
She and her colleagues introduced the bill in September 2022. Among other things, it provides that: public service media must report “impartially” and their leadership positions must be “determined in a transparent, open and non-discriminatory procedure”; the allocation of state funds to media for advertising and other purposes must be made “according to transparent, objective, proportionate and non-discriminatory criteria”; governments and media companies must ensure that the responsible “editors are free to make individual editorial decisions”; owners and managers of media companies must disclose “actual or potential conflicts of interest” that could affect reporting; and the enforcement of journalists to reveal their sources, including through the use of spyware, must be prohibited.
All of this seems self-evident for democratic states and yet it met with massive resistance from not only Hungary and Poland, but also Austria and Germany. They argued the proposal is overreaching, “with reference to the cultural sovereignty of the member states”, according to minutes from the legislative negotiations in the EU Council, obtained by Investigate Europe. The four governments wanted a directive rather than a legally binding regulation, which would allow the governments to undermine the bill.
In Germany, media supervision is the task of regional states. On their behalf, Heike Raab from the state government of Rhineland-Palatinate, led the negotiations in the EU Council. The EU was acting as a “competence hoover in an area that was expressly reserved for the member states in the treaties”, Raab argued, saying the law would be an “encroachment on publishers’ freedom” in line with the respective lobby. If publishers are no longer allowed to dictate the content of their media alone, this would “destroy the freedom of the press”, the Federal Association of Newspaper Publishers declared. The European Publishers Association claimed that the EU proposal was in fact a “media unfreedom act”. However, Raab and the publishers’ lobby failed to present any practical proposals on how to stop the attacks on editorial freedom.
Such opposition has so far proved largely unsuccessful. Although several controversial amendments to the law have been put forward (most notably when a majority of EU governments backed a change to allow the possible use of spyware in the name of national security), the key proposals of Jourová and her colleagues were adopted in June by most EU governments. If, as expected, the parliament also gives its approval at the beginning of October, the law could come into force early next year – and trigger a small revolution in the European media system. At least that is what Jourová hopes.
The direct influence on public service media by way of appointment of politically affiliated managers, as seen in Greece and Italy, for example, would not be compatible with the new law. “The state must not interfere in editorial decisions,” Jourová said. If a member state does not comply, the Commission could open proceedings against the government for violation of the EU treaties. And if the violations continue, this could “lead to very serious financial penalties from the European Court of Justice.”
Journalists themselves could also sue governments or private media owners in national courts against censorship or surveillance on their part, the Commissioner explained.
It is questionable, however, whether this can help reverse the decline of media diversity in the right-wing populist-ruled countries. The Hungarian and Polish government are already accepting the blocking of billions in payments from EU funds because they violate the principles of the rule of law with their political control of the courts. So why should they fear further rulings by EU judges?
Viktor Orbán’s regime has for years engineered a “creeping economic strangulation” of independent media in Hungary, says journalist Zsolt Kerner of the online magazine 24.hu. The government withdrew all state advertising contracts for independent media and then pressured commercial advertisers to do the same. Today, advertising revenues only go to media loyal to the government. 24.hu survived only thanks to an economically strong and independent investor. The rest either had to close or were taken over by those connected to Orbán. This would all become illegal with the planned regulation because EU law trumps national legislation. But Kerner and his colleagues “doubt whether it will do any good in our country.” After all, the government has “many good lawyers”.
“Maybe Hungary is a bit immune now,” said Commissioner Jourová. But there, too, the government will “sooner or later feel the political impact”. An “independent European media board”, including media experts from all 27 EU states, is planned under the new regulation. While the board can decide by majority vote only on assessments without legal consequences, Jourová expects that countries “which the board certifies as restricting media freedom” will “lose their international reputation, for which most governments are very sensitive.”
This could well put pressure on the right-wing nationalists in Poland, thinks Roman Imielski, deputy head of Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s last major independent newspaper. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government has also turned public television and the national news agency into “a Russian-style propaganda machine” that brands all critics as “traitors to the nation and conspirators”, Imielski said. But if Poland looks bad to the US government, for example, “that puts pressure on it”, as happened when the government tried to sell the government-critical TVN station, owned by a US group, to a Polish buyer. Under pressure from Washington, the Polish president vetoed the corresponding law in 2021.
When or even if Jourová’s grand plan actually becomes law is still unknown. After the parliamentary adoption scheduled for the beginning of October, its representatives still have to agree on a common text with the Council. As mentioned, most EU governments want to reverse the planned ban on the use of surveillance software against journalists and explicitly allow it in cases of danger “to national security”. Article six, which obliges media owners to respect “editorial freedom”, is also highly controversial. Member states, including Germany, want to weaken this provision considerably by only granting this freedom “within the editorial line” set by media owners. If successful, the law would fail at a crucial point.
“The problem is not media concentration in itself, the problem is that it gets into the wrong hands,” said Gad Lerner, a columnist at the still independent Il Fatto Quotidiano, who worked for La Repubblica until it was sold. “More and more entrepreneurs with a core business in other industries are buying newspapers, TV or radio to give visibility to the politicians on whom they depend for their real business.”
“Of course, we don’t want rich people to buy media to influence politics. But we are not here to micromanage how the newsrooms should be organised,” Jourová said, pointing to the need for civil society and journalists to help push for stronger editorial freedoms.
The Greek journalist Sofia Mandilara, who works at the state news agency, has already given a starting signal for this. With the help of the trade union, she filed a public complaint against the censorship of statements critical of the government in one of her articles and – to her surprise – was allowed to write another article on the subject. Since then, “at least they always ask me when they want to change my texts,” she said with a laugh.
This is a modified version of an article that first appeared on Investigate Europe here
The problem: gag lawsuits against public interest defenders
The EU must end gag lawsuits used to silence individuals and organisations that hold those in positions of power to account. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) are lawsuits brought forward by powerful actors (e.g. companies, public officials in their private capacity, high profile persons) to harass and silence those speaking out in the public interest. Typical victims are those with a watchdog role, for instance: journalists, activists, informal associations, academics, trade unions, media organisations and civil society organisations.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Recent examples of SLAPPs include PayPal suing SumOfUs for a peaceful protest outside PayPal’s German headquarters; co-owners of Malta’s Satabank suing blogger Manuel Delia for a blog post denouncing money laundering at Satabank; and Bollore Group suing Sherpa and ReAct in France to stop them from reporting human rights abuses in Cameroon. In Italy more than 6,000 or two-thirds of defamation lawsuits filed against journalists and media outlets annually are dismissed as meritless by a judge. When Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was brutally killed, there were 47 SLAPPs pending against her.
(Index has recently published a comprehensive review of the laws being used to silence journalists – click on the report cover to the right to read it.)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_single_image image=”113782″ img_size=”full” onclick=”custom_link” img_link_target=”_blank” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/campaigns/the-laws-being-used-to-silence-media/”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]SLAPPs are a threat to the EU legal order, and, in particular:
● A threat to democracy and fundamental rights. The EU is founded on the rule of law and respect for human rights. SLAPPs impair the right to freedom of expression, to public participation and to assembly of those who speak out in the public interest, and have a chilling effect on the exercise of these rights by the community at large.
● A threat to access to justice and judicial cooperation. Cross-border judicial cooperation relies on the principles of effective access to justice across the Union and mutual trust between legal systems. That trust must be based on the legally enforceable upholding of common values and minimum standards. To the extent that they distort and abuse the system of civil law remedies, SLAPPs undermine the mutual trust between EU legal systems: member states must be confident that rulings issued by other member states’ courts are not the result of abusive legal strategies and are adopted as the outcome of genuine proceedings.
● A threat to the enforcement of EU law, including in connection to the internal market and the protection of the EU budget. The effective enforcement of EU law, including the proper
functioning of the internal market, depends on the scrutiny of the behaviour of individual entities by the EU, member states and – crucially – informed individuals. Watchdogs, be it media or civil society actors, play a key enforcement role. Therefore, the absence of a system which safeguards public scrutiny is a threat to the enforcement of EU law. The same reasoning applies to the management of EU programmes and budget, which cannot be monitored through the sole vigilance of the European Commission.
● A threat to freedom of movement. The absence of rules to protect watchdogs from SLAPP has an impact on the exercise of the Treaty’s fundamental freedoms, since it affects the ability of media, civil society organisations and information services providers to confidently operate in jurisdictions where the risk of SLAPPs is higher, and discourages people from working for organisations where they can be the target of SLAPPs.
The solution: an EU set of anti-SLAPP measures
The EU can and must end SLAPPs by adopting the following complementary measures to protect all
those affected by SLAPPs:
1. An anti-SLAPP directive
An anti-SLAPP directive is needed to establish a Union-wide minimum standard of protection against SLAPPs, by introducing exemplary sanctions to be applied to claimants bringing abusive lawsuits, procedural safeguards for SLAPP victims, including special motions to contest the admissibility of certain claims and/or rules making the burden shifting to the plaintiff to demonstrate a reasonable probability of succeeding in such claims, as well as other types of preventive measures. The Whistle-Blower Directive sets an important precedent protecting those who report a breach of Union law in a work-related context. Now the EU must ensure a high standard of protection against gag lawsuits for everyone who speaks out – irrespective of the form and the context – in the public interest.
The legal basis for an anti-SLAPP directive is to be found in multiple provisions of the Treaty; for example, Article 114 TFEU on the proper functioning of the internal market, Article 81 TFEU on judicial cooperation and effective access to justice and Article 325 TFEU on combating fraudrelated to EU programmes and budgets.
2. The reform of Brussels I and Rome II Regulations
Brussels I Regulation (recast) contains rules which grant claimants the ability to choose where to make a claim. This must be amended to end forum shopping in defamation cases, which forces defendants to hire and pay for defence in countries whose legal systems are unknown to them and where they are not based. This is beyond the means of most and falls foul of the principles of fair trial and equality of arms.
Rome II Regulation does not regulate which national law will apply to a defamation case. This allows claimants to select the most favourable substantive law and therefore leads to a race to the bottom. Today, victims may be subject to the lowest standard of freedom of expression applicable to their case.
3. Support all victims of SLAPPs
Funds are needed to morally and financially support all victims of SLAPPs, especially with legal defence. Justice Programme funds should be used to train judges and practitioners, and a system to publicly name and shame the companies that engage in SLAPPs, for example in an EU register, should be created.
Finally, the EU must ensure that the scope of anti-SLAPP measures include everybody affected by SLAPPs, including journalists, activists, trade unionists, academics, digital security researchers, human rights defenders, media and civil society organisations, among others.
This paper was signed by the following 116 organisations Abalone Alliance Safe Energy Clearinghouse Access Info Europe Access Now ActionAid International Adéquations Amigas de la Tierra Amis de la Terre France ANTICOR ARTICLE 19 Association Justice and Environment, z.s. Bruno Manser Fonds Terre Solidaire (CCFD) CEE Bankwatch Network Centre for Free Expression Citizens Network Watchdog Poland Civil Liberties Union for Europe Civil Rights Defenders Civil Society Europe Clean Air Action Group (Hungary) Committee to Protect Journalists Common Weal Consumer Association the Quality of Life (EKPIZO) Corporate Europe Observatory Defend Democracy European Digital Rights (EDRi) Electronic Frontier Foundation Environmental Partnership Association ePaństwo Foundation Environmental Paper Network International (EPN) Estonian Forest Aid / Eesti Metsa Abiks ETC Group Eurocadres / Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff European Center for Not-for-Profit Law European Centre for Press and Media Freedom European Civic Forum European Coalition for Corporate Justice European Coordination Via Campesina European Environmental Bureau (EEB) European Federation of Journalists European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) Fern Fitug Forest Initiatives and Communities Forum Ökologie & Papier FOUR PAWS International Free Press Unlimited Friends of the Earth Europe Friends of the Earth Nuclear Network Friends of the Siberian Forests Fundacja Otwarty Plan Fundacja Strefa Zieleni Global Justice Ecology Project GM Watch Gong Government Accountability Project Green Light Foundation Greenpeace EU Unit Homo Digitalis IFEX Index on Censorship Institute for Sustainable Development Institute of Water Policy International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) International Press Institute (IPI) Iraqi Journalists Right Defence Association JEF Europe Jordens Vänner Journalismfund.eu Justice Pesticides Legal Human Academy Maison des Lanceurs d’Alerte Mighty Earth Milieudefensie / Friends of the Earth Netherlands MultiWatch NGO Neuer Weg NGO Shipbreaking Platform Nuclear Consulting Group Ending Gag Lawsuits in Europe – Protecting Democracy and Fundamental Rights 4 Nuclear Transparency Watch OGM dangers On ne se taira pas (We will not remain silent) Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa PEN International Polish Ecological Club Mazovian Branch Polish Ecological Club Pomeranian Branch Polish Institute for Human Rights and Business Protection International RECLAIM Reporters Without Borders Rettet den Regenwald e.V. Salva la Selva Sciences Citoyennes Sherpa Society for Threatened Peoples Switzerland SOLIDAR SOMO Stowarzyszenie Ekologiczno-Kulturalne Wspólna Ziemia / Common Earth SumOfUs The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation The Ethicos Group The Good Lobby The Signals Network Transnational Institute Transparency International EU Umweltinstitut München e.V. Vouliwatch Vrijschrift vzw Climaxi Chceme zdravú krajinu / We want a healthy country WeMove Europe Whistleblower Network Germany Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) WildLeaks / Earth League International Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF) XNet Zielone Wiadomości[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship has filed an alert with the Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism following the UK government’s attempt to exclude selected journalists and media outlets from a press briefing yesterday. The platform is a public space aimed at facilitating the compilation and dissemination of information on concerns about media freedom in Council of Europe member states.
“We are increasingly concerned at the government’s attitude to media freedom,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship. “This is the ninth platform alert relating to the UK since the beginning of 2019 – and a reply has only been received to one of those alerts.” The latest alert was sent by the Council of Europe to the UK government this morning.
“Last year the government launched its Media Freedom Coalition, but how can it be seen to be serious in its promotion of media freedom around the world if it cannot respect it at home? It is extremely concerning that the government’s ill-advised approach to the media, which saw a litany of incidents during the election campaign, has continued into 2020, including with threats to appoint a member of the Conservative Party as chairman of the BBC.”
Index on Censorship calls on the government to respect the role the media in holding power to account and to refrain from actions that impede journalists from carrying out their work. It calls on the government to engage with the Council of Europe by submitting timely and comprehensive replies to the platform.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Working as a professional journalist in Serbia is hard. Being one in the country’s inland is even harder. Out of the 58 verified incidents involving Serbian media outlets and professionals reported to Index on Censorship’s European Union-funded Mapping Media Freedom, 30 have occurred outside Belgrade; the country’s political, economic and media capital. Four of these incidents have been directed at Juzne Vesti staff.
Launched in 2010 by journalist Predrag Blagojevic, Juzne Vesti is an independent news site based in Nis, a town of 257.000 in southern Serbia. In just over five years, its journalists have been subjected to verbal harassment or death threats 15 times. Though they have reported the incidents to local authorities, it has not resulted in convictions.
“Nobody has been found guilty and punished for the threats,” Blagojevic, who is also the site’s editor-in-chief, told Index.
According to Blagojevic, the main obstacle to punishing those threatening journalists comes from the prosecutor’s office. While he is quick to complement police in the town for their professional and timely investigations, he blames prosecutors for failing to act on the evidence by filing indictments quickly.
“In two situations from four to six months passed from the time the police filed a criminal charge to the prosecutor’s indictments,” Blagojevic explained.
Juzne Vesti correspondent Dragan Marinkovic from Leskovac received threats on Facebook after he published an article about the death of a woman, in which he questioned the treatment provided by a paramedic. He reported the incident to authorities. Several months later prosecutors decided not to pursue the case, arguing that “you deserve a bullet” is not a threat.
In March 2014 Blagojevic was threatened by the owner of a local football club, yet prosecutors waited until late September to indict the main suspect. The first court hearing was scheduled for December 2014; the next one at the end of this month.
While such delays are frustrating, once in court, judges have taken some dubious positions, Blagojevic said. In one case, the court said that “be careful what you write” or “do not play with fire” were not threats, but words that “merely showed the seriousness of the topic”. In another instance, where the perpetrator asked a Juzne Vesti staffer “Will you be alive in the morning if you wrote something like this in the USA?”, the court said that “the inductee, by placing the action in the foreign country, shows that he is aware that murder is prohibited by Serbian law”.
Outside the legal system, there is another obstacle to independent journalism in Serbia: money. While the Serbian government pays for advertising space, most of the earmarked money is directed at the national press. At the same time, the number of successful companies outside Belgrade and Novi Sad are few, and those that do thrive in the Serbian inland are usually aligned with local political figures. That leaves a tiny pool of advertisers.
“In these circumstances we are left with only very small companies, which are connected with political parties or dependent on municipal budgets. The game is straightforward — only if you are good to us you will get money,” Blagojevic said.
In an interview with SEEMO, Blagojevic described situations where certain media outlets have been financed with taxpayers’ money. With this line of funding, competing outlets are able to offer low rates that distort the advertising market, which puts pressure on independent media to drop their rates.
“The local government in Nis sets aside hundreds of millions of dinars in payment for these PR services,” Blagojevic said. The money is sometimes up to 80 per cent of the budget for these outlets making it even more difficult for independent media to compete.
The Council of Europe’s recent report on the Serbian media situation addressed the issue: “Instead of making efforts to create non-discriminatory conditions for media industry development, the state is blatantly undermining free market competition.”
The last issue confronting Juzne Vesti staff is one that will be familiar to small town journalists around the world — everyone knows everyone. Blagojevic tells of having to convince one journalist to file a complaint because she knew the person who had targeted her. She was reluctant because she had known the person “since they were kids”, he said.
From Blagojevic’s point of view, the toxic mix of money, political pressure and indifference from the courts causes self-censorship among journalists.
“The language from the 90s is back in Serbia. Again, journalists that criticise the work of the government or are reporting on corruption are labelled as foreign mercenaries. Threats like this come from the mouths of the highest state representatives,” he said.
An earlier version of this article stated that Nis has a population of 184,000. The latest census puts the figure at 257.000.