What do criminals, corrupt corporations and crooked politicians have in common? They all fear investigative journalists, whose job is to expose wrongdoing and hypocrisy by holding the powerful to account.
From the groundbreaking UK-based Bellingcat and the well-regarded multi-national Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, to the uncovering of the Panama and Paradise Papers, the dogged reporting and dedication of investigative journalists is clear. Yet these success stories mask the encroaching pressures that threaten to undermine efforts to expose the corruption eating at the foundations of European democracy.
For their work, investigative reporters have come under threat from multiple sources with the shared aim of stopping information that’s in the public interest from coming to light. Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom project, which monitors violations against media professionals throughout Europe, recorded 206 cases of investigative journalists in the 35 countries that are in or affiliated with the European Union (EU35) being targeted in their line of work between 1 May 2014 and 31 December 2018. An additional 77 reports from EU35 showed media workers other than investigative journalists being targeted for their role in reporting on corruption.
Under-financing and business models that don’t offer proper support are major problems for investigative journalism in general, but Mapping Media Freedom has also uncovered a litany of methods that have been employed as a direct means to censor journalists, including intimidation (96 instances), defamation (53), laws or court orders curtailing media outlets or workers (48), psychological abuse (35) and blocked access (48). Media workers were also physically attacked on 27 occasions and had their property attacked on 28. Civil lawsuits were taken against journalists on 27 occasions, and criminal charges were brought against journalists on 23.
The country with the largest share of reports was Italy (40), followed by Hungary (25), Serbia (24), France (19) and Turkey (18). “In these five years in Italy, investigative journalism has become increasingly risky, both for journalists themselves and for the media,” Alberto Spampinato, the director of Ossigeno per l’informazione, an Italian press freedom monitor, told Mapping Media Freedom.
Violations of media freedom regarding investigative journalists and those reporting on corruption reported to Mapping Media Freedom per annum went from a low in 2014 of 38, to a high of 75 in 2018 (2015: 51; 2016: 61; 2017: 58).
Mapping Media Freedom’s numbers reflect only what has been reported to the platform. We have found that journalists under-report incidents they consider minor, commonplace or part of the job, or where they fear reprisals. In some cases, Mapping Media Freedom correspondents have identified incidents retrospectively as a result of comments on social media or reports appearing only after similar incidents have come to light.