Prime Minister Victor Orbán was elected in 2010 and changed the constitution to take control of independent government institutions and initiated government policies to limit operations of opposition groups, journalists, and universities. According to non-profit Freedom House, the judiciary is unstable and controlled by the Prime Minister’s office, making it unusable in the struggle for free speech in Hungary. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) credit these policies for inspiring other European countries including Poland and Slovenia to institute similar restrictions on journalists.
Hungary’s coronavirus legislation gave the government almost unlimited power to handle the pandemic, a crisis which solidified Hungary as an information police-state where the prime minister can rule by decree without parliamentary oversight. Anti-scaremongering policies, meant to stop anyone “blocking the government’s anti-pandemic effort,” were used by Orbán to intimidate government critics and also temporarily suspended data protection policies. This fits with other incidents of government officials using their authority to suppress stories for their convenience.
Journalists who are caught conducting routine drone investigations in properties without express permission could get up to three years in prison under section 422 of the Hungarian criminal code, which focusses specifically on “illicit” data collection. Two journalists, Gabriella Horn and Balázs Gulyás, were threatened with this when investigating why military vehicles were present on land owned by businessman and friend of Orbán, Lőrinc Mészáros. It is a policy that shows the extent the government will go to, to side with government officials and oligarchs over journalists.
In May, journalist Júlia Halász appealed criminal charges of defamation and illegal recording for her publications after reporting on the harassment she endured while covering Hungarian diplomat, László Szabó.
Many journalists from the media company Magyar Hang reported government officials and their supporters harassing them for opposing Orbán’s reelection in 2018, and since the pandemic legislation, the head of the company, Csaba Lukács told the Committee to Protect Journalists, “reporting has become increasingly dangerous. This new legislation is a clear threat.”
In addition to government oppression, media publications face economic barriers in Hungary. Hungary’s government media council’s decisions have been criticised for being politicised because they prevented the consolidation of independent media companies while encouraging pro-government media outlets. Hungary’s largest independent newspaper closed in 2016, and the government oversaw the merger of hundreds of small media outlets in a major blow to Hungary’s media diversity.
France may have placed at the top of the group on Wednesday, but their free speech record is mediocre. Generally, France has an independent judiciary, fair and free elections, and free and independent media that protect free speech rights in France.
In recent years, political turmoil has given France a bad record of violence against journalists. RSF described it as an overall “hostile environment for reporters.” Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim demonstrations in France have been increasingly violent, and while covering them, journalists are often arbitrarily detained with their equipment seized or subjected to teargas grenades, flashbangs, and baton beating. At least two journalists in 2020 were called before French police and claimed to have experienced harassment under questioning. Policies implemented in 2010 make it possible for the government to claim “overriding public interest” to force journalists to break source confidentiality.
Journalists are targets of police violence during the recent large-scale protests over France’s “Global Security Law”, which makes it illegal to “maliciously share” images that may lead to the identification of a police officer. The police response to the Gilets Jaunes – or “Yellow Vests” – movement has been widely criticised for putting bystanders and journalists in harm’s way.
Journalists were the target of the worst terrorist attacks in France. Nine Journalists were killed in 2015 during the Charlie Hebdo shooting which was an attack on the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. The gunmen identified themselves as members of the Islamist group, Al-Qaeda, and five years later, a second stabbing attack outside Charlie Hebdo is also suspect to have an Islamist terrorist motive.
In April of 2021, French Journalist Nadiya Lazzouni received a death threat with sexist and anti-Muslim slurs and proof that the sender had been watching her. She filed a complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office but has not heard anything in response as of 15 April. For some journalists in France, both extremists and the police can be a threat to their safety.
An active effort with constitutional safeguards to avoid repeating the country’s past has made Germany a stable democracy with well-protected civil liberties and political rights. Recent challenges with immigration have given a new rise to right-wing extremism and has created a more volatile environment for journalists. RSF’s 2021 report on Germany states “an independent judiciary ensures a favourable environment for journalists in Germany.” In recent years, the judiciary has been vital in preventing government policies that are harmful to journalists.
Despite the balanced government structure, Germany can still be a dangerous place for journalists. Extremists, mostly from the far right with some leftists, often use journalists as targets for violent attacks, and, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, some politicians encouraged distrust in media outlets to promote populist agendas. In July of 2021, demonstrators protesting the Covid-19 lockdown physically blocked reporter’s cameras with their fists and shoved journalists while threatening them not to report on their protests. In May of 2021, Pro-Palestine demonstrators threw rocks and firecrackers at news crews in Berlin, and police used excessive force to prevent journalists from covering controversial evictions in October of 2020.
The Network Enforcement Act, a controversial law enacted in 2018, was brought in to regulate online hate speech and led to media companies deleting posts that would not have been considered hate speech. A majority of Germans, according to Freedom House, stated they are careful what they post online for fear of repercussions as a result.
Several government policies in response to extremism have been criticised for having unfair restrictions on journalism. In May of June 2021, their federal court ruled a law that was used to force journalists to reveal their sources was unconstitutional. Most recently in June 2021, a new law increased government surveillance and hacking power while removing judicial oversight and protections for Journalists during terrorism investigations, sparking concerns around protecting journalist sources from government retaliation.
Portugal has a long history of restricting press freedom, but following the Portuguese Constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression in 1978, it has grown to be ranked ninth-best in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index of 2021. Despite a vocal minority that criticises the extent to which freedom of expression is allowed, Portugal now has a decent free speech record, but journalists are hindered by the economic downturn’s effect on their media industry. With a near-perfect score from Freedom House, Portugal earned a 96/100 for its effective political system and balanced judiciary Portuguese media outlets struggled with funding during the pandemic, and in response, Prime Minister António Costa advanced what the state planned to pay in government advertising to support the industry. Generally, public broadcasters have and struggle against commercial television outlets, which gives diverse viewpoints but some risk of populism.
Wrongful surveillance of journalists by police has been an issue. In January 2021, police were allegedly surveilling journalists illegally, without a court order, attempting to uncover their sources, and the Lisbon prosecutor’s office was exposed using electronic surveillance on two journalists in an attempt to reveal their sources in 2018. If charged for “breaching judicial secrets”, the two journalists could face up to two years in prison.
Another challenge Portugal has been facing is recent corruption scandals. In September of 2020, 17 people, including three judges, were charged with corruption. Portuguese authorities, complying with the international effort identified those involved and froze their assets, but some concerns remain around the poor resources provided to investigators and the ineffective anti-corruption and whistleblower protection legislation passed in 2019.
A Russian fan at the Euro 2020 match between Belgium and Russia. Stanislav Krasilnikov/Tass/PA Images
In celebration of one of football’s biggest international tournaments, here is Index’s guide to the free speech Euros. Who comes out on top as the nation with the worst record on free speech?
It’s simple, the worst is ranked first.
We continue today with Group B, which plays the deciding matches of the group stages today.
Unlike their relatively miserable performances on the football pitch, Russia can approach this particular contest as the clear favourites.
The group would be locked up after the first two games, with some sensational play from their three talismans: disinformation, oppressive legislation and attacks on independent media.
Russian disinformation, through the use of social media bots and troll factories, is well known, as is their persistent meddling in foreign elections which infringes on the rights of many to exercise their right to vote based on clear information.
Putin’s Russia has increased its attacks on free speech ever since the 2011 protests over a flawed election process. When protests arose once again all over the country in January 2021 over the detention of former opposition leader Alexei Navalny, over 10,000 people were arrested across the country, with many protests violently dispersed.
Human rights organisation, the Council of Europe (COE), expressed its concerns over Russian authorities’ reactions to the Navalny protests.
Commissioner Dunja Mijatović said: “This disregard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law is unfortunately not a new phenomenon in a country where human rights defenders, journalists and civil society are regularly harassed, including through highly questionable judicial decisions.”
Unfortunately, journalists attempting to monitor these appalling free speech violations face a squeeze on their platforms. Independent media is being deliberately targeted. Popular news site Meduza, for example, is under threat from Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ law.
The law, which free expression non-profit Reporters Without Borders describes as “nonsensical and incomprehensible”, means that organisations with dissenting opinions receiving donations from abroad are deemed to be “foreign agents”.
Those who do not register as foreign agents can receive up to five years’ imprisonment.
Being added to the register causes advertisers to drop out, meaning that revenue for the news sites drops dramatically. Meduza were forces to cut staff salaries by between 30 to 50 per cent.
Belgium is relatively successful in combating attacks on free speech. It does, however, make such attacks arguably more of a shock to the system than it may do elsewhere.
The coronavirus pandemic was, of course, a trying time for governments everywhere. But troubling times do not give leaders a mandate to ignore public scrutiny and questioning from journalists.
Alexandre Penasse, editor of news site Kairos, was banned from press conferences after being accused by the prime minister of provocation, while cartoonist Stephen Degryse received online threats after a cartoon that showed the Chinese flag with biohazard symbols instead of stars.
Incidents tend to be spaced apart, but notable. In 2020, journalist Jérémy Audouard was arrested when filming a Black Lives Matter protest. According to the Council of Europe “The policeman tried several times to prevent the journalist, who was showing his press card, from filming the violent arrest of a protester lying on the ground by six policemen.”
There is an interesting debate around holocaust denial, however and it is perhaps the issue most indicative of Belgium’s stance on free speech.
Holocaust denial, abhorrent as it may be, is protected speech in most countries with freedom of expression. It is at least accepted as a view that people are entitled to, however ridiculous and harmful such views are.
The law means that anyone who chooses to “deny, play down, justify or approve of the genocide committed by the German National Socialist regime during the Second World War” can be imprisoned or fined.
Belgium has also considered laws that would make similar denials of genocides, such as the Rwandan and Armenian genocides respectively, but was unable to pursue this due to the protestations of some in the Belgian senate and Turkish communities. It could be argued that in some areas, it is hard to establish what constitutes as ‘denial’, therefore, choosing to ban such views is problematic and could set an unwelcome precedent for future law making regarding free speech.
Comparable legal propositions have reared over the years. In 2012, fines were introduced for using offensive language. Then mayor Freddy Thielemans was quoted as saying “Any form of insult is from now on [is] punishable, whether it be racist, homophobic or otherwise”.
Denmark has one of the best records on free speech in the world and it is protected in the constitution. It makes a strong case to be the lowest ranked team in the tournament in terms of free speech violations. It is perhaps unfortunate then, that they were drawn in a group with their fellow Scandinavians.
Nevertheless, no country’s record on free speech is perfect and there have been some concerning cases in the country over the last few years.
2013 saw a contentious bill approved by the Danish Parliament “reduced the availability of documents prepared”, according to freedominfo.org. Essentially, it was argued that this was a restriction of freedom of information requests which are vital tool for journalists seeking to garner correct and useful information.
Acts against freedom of speech tend to be individual acts, rather than a persistent agenda.
Impartial media is vital to upholding democratic values in a state. But, in 2018, public service broadcaster DR was subjected to a funding cut of 20 per cent by the right-wing coalition government.
There have been improvements elsewhere. In 2017, Denmark scrapped its 337-year-old blasphemy law, which previously forbade public insults of religion. At the time, it was the only Scandinavian country to have such a law. According to The Guardian, MP Bruno Jerup said at the time: “Religion should not dictate what is allowed and what is forbidden to say publicly”.
The change to the law was controversial: a Danish man who filmed himself burning the Quran in 2015 would have faced a blasphemy trial before the law was scrapped.
In 2020, Danish illustrator Niels Bo Bojesen was working for daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten and replaced the stars of the Chinese flag with symbols of the coronavirus.
Jyllands-Posten refused to issue the apology the Chinese embassy demanded.
The Council of Europe has reported no new violations of media freedom in 2021.
A good record across the board, Finland is internationally recognised as a country that upholds democracy well.
Index exists on the principle that censorship can and will exist anywhere there are voices to be heard, but it wouldn’t be too crass of us to say that the world would be slightly easier to peer through our fingers at if its record on key rights and civil liberties were a little more like Finland’s.
Vehkoo described Oulou City Councilor Junes Lokka as a “Nazi clown” in a private Facebook group.
A statement by the CPJ said: “Junes Lokka should stop trying to intimidate Johanna Vehkoo, and Finnish authorities should drop these charges rather than enable a politician’s campaign of harassment against a journalist.”
“Finland should scrap its criminal defamation laws; they have no place in a democracy.”
Indeed, Finnish defamation laws are considered too harsh, as a study by Ville Manninen on the subject of media pluralism in Europe, found.
“Risks stem from the persistent criminalization of defamation and the potential of relatively harsh punishment. According to law, (aggravated) defamation is punishable by up to two years imprisonment, which is considered an excessive deterrent. Severe punishments, however, are used extremely rare, and aggravated defamation is usually punished by fines or parole.”
The study also spoke of another problem, that of increased harassment or threats towards journalists.
Reporter Laura Halminen had her home searched without a warrant after co-authoring an article concerning confidential intelligence.
North Macedonia fans at Euro 2020. Razvan Pasarica/SPORT PICTURES/PA Images
In celebration of one of football’s biggest international tournaments, here is Index’s guide to the free speech Euros. Who comes out on top as the nation with the worst record on free speech?
It’s simple, the worst is ranked first.
We continue today with Group C, which plays the deciding matches of the group stages today.
Ever heard of the “Information War”? It is probably the biggest threat to freedom of speech in Ukraine and consumes most of the attention directed towards the state where there is often a distinct lack of freedom of expression. The information war between Russia and Ukraine is supposedly solely pro-Russian propaganda, but recent trends show that Ukraine is just as guilty of press freedom violations in this area.
The former Index employee currently detained in his native Belarus Andrei Aliaksandrau explained the tensions and Information War between the two countries back in 2014.
He wrote: “The more you lie, the less you need to shoot. And if you are very good at propaganda, you don’t need to shoot at all to win a war. The principles of an information war remain unchanged: you need to de-humanise the enemy. You inspire yourself, your troops and your supporters with a general appeal which says: “We are fighting for the right cause – that is why we have the right to kill someone who is evil.””
Essentially, propaganda between the two has forced true, fact-checked information to become secondary to a slanging match that has accompanied a territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea.
Ukrainian law stripped three Russian state TV channels of their licences in February earlier this year and they can no longer be shown in Ukraine.
At the time Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk said: “Even if the desire to combat propaganda is legitimate, it does not justify the use of censorship, and banning these TV channels is liable to stir up violence against journalists. This violation of freedom of expression violates Ukraine’s international obligations.”
The situation has also created an atmosphere in which journalists can be targeted and physically attacked. Eight journalists have been killed in Ukraine since 2014, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, four of them seemingly in a crossfire between Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist forces.
The most recent killing was in 2019 with the death of Vadym Komarov, killed after a Facebook post revealed that he planned to publish allegations of corruption within local authorities.
Komarov was found in the city of Cherkasy, central Ukraine, with blunt trauma injuries to the head on 4 May 2019, he died in hospital on 20 June.
2nd North Macedonia
In North Macedonia, journalists are no stranger to threats and harassment. This, added to the actions of corrupt officials leads to what Reporters Without Borders (RSF) describes as a “culture of impunity”.
Violent threats towards reporters are common. Journalist Miroslava Byrns was subjected to threatening messages online after reporting on a wedding with 200 guests in the town of Tetovo, during the Covid-19 pandemic in July 2020. Byrns received one message that read “you will see what will happen to you” and was given 24-hour police protection in response.
Similarly, journalist Tanja Milevska received equally disgusting abuse after questioning the use of “Macedonia” by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The country’s name was changed in 2019, ending a long running dispute with Greece.
As a result, Milevska received a variety of awful online threats and abusive messages, including those of rape and graphically detailed violence.
Threats, sadly, are indicative of a culture of targeting bred by some North Macedonian officials.
In February 2020, then assistant head of department at North Macedonia’s Central Registry Emil Jakimovski, sent threats that included sexual comments to Meri Jordanovska and Iskra Korovesovska, the deputy editor of news website A1on and editor-in-chief of local broadcaster Alfa TV respectively. Jakimovski was later sacked.
The incident was not unusual. In 2019, local government staffers in the town of Aračinovo attempted to force a journalist and cameraman from TV21 to delete camera footage of interviews with local residents after requesting an interview with Mayor Milikije Halimi.
There is general distrust between the media and government. In 2015, the Macedonian government were found to have been wiretapping citizens, as well as over 100 journalists. The scandal led to the downfall of the then government.
It was found that the government was using the spying software FinFisher. FinFisher, according to Computer Weekly, is “a sophisticated and easy-to-use set of spying tools that is sold only to governments”.
Use of this technology is a clear violation of the rights of North Macedonian journalists to report without fear or intimidation.
Most of the concerns around free speech in Austria arise due to defamation suits.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps) are common in Austria. Slapps are a type vexatious defamation lawsuit usually aimed at journalists by large corporations or governments. The aim is to stop the journalist from publishing certain information, or pressure them with court cases that are time consuming and extremely costly.
According to Georg Eckelsberger of the investigative media outlet Dossier, letters threatening legal action are often received by journalists in Austria.
In 2017, for example, vice president of the autonomous province Bolzano in Italy and its minister for agriculture Arnold Schuler filed a Slapp against the Jurek Vengels and the Munich Environmental Insititue (MEI) and author Alexander Schiebel. The MEI and Schiebel had helped uncover the use of dangerous pesticides by farmers in Germany.
Commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe Dunja Mijatović cited the case in expressing her concerns over Slapps. She said: “While this practice primarily affects the right to freedom of expression, it also has a dramatic impact on public interest activities more broadly: it discourages the exercise of other fundamental freedoms such as the right to freedom of assembly and association and undermines the work of human rights defenders.”
The non-profit organisation Freedom House pointed towards libel laws protecting politicians from proper questioning, particularly members of the right-wing populist party, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). The FPÖ have been responsible for the targeted bullying of Austrian journalists.
A growing trend in the country is also tensions between press and anti-lockdown protesters, something that has been echoed across Europe (BBC Newsnight political editor Nick Watt was hounded outside Downing Street only last week).
On 6 March 2021, several photojournalists covered anti-lockdown demonstrations in the Austrian capital of Vienna. Once again, the FPÖ were heavily involved and signs and placards were seen that read “the lying press”.
The Netherlands’ record on free speech is generally good.
Perhaps one of the clearest developments regarding free speech in the Netherlands in recent years is the court case involving the online abuse of journalist Clarice Gargard.
The case, which took two years to reach a judgement, saw 24 people convicted of incitement, insult and discrimination after Gargard was abused during a live stream of a protest she took part in against Zwarte Pieta, a blackface caricature part of traditional Christmas celebrations in the Netherlands.
The case exists now as a precedent that may deter people from sending the kind of racist and sexist abuse Gargard was subjected to.
Freedom of speech is protected by the Dutch constitution but is not absolute and it is the incitement law that is contentious. Dutch people can be charged with incitement even if the comment is in relation to an inanimate object.
Generally, however, there is little to stop someone one the Netherlands, legislatively speaking, from speaking out. Also, on the case of incitement, 70 to 90 per cent of cases don’t go to trial, according to an article by The New Republic.
That said, the International Press Institute (IPI) has expressed concern over an increase in threats to reporters after government-imposed coronavirus curfew restrictions. A number of senior reporters in news organisations have noticed increasingly threatening attitudes towards journalists during the pandemic. Partly, some believe, due to conspiracy theorists equating government restrictions such as lockdowns a face masks being supposedly due to a media narrative.
They said: “In 2020, monitoring groups in the Netherlands charted a significant increase in threats and acts of aggression against journalists, with figures nearly trebling on the previous year from 52 to 141. While this may in part be down to the success of the new PressVeilig (Press Safety) hotline – a joint initiative of the NVJ, the Association of Editors-in-Chief, the Police and the Public Prosecution Service – editors have still noted a clear increase in hostility.”