In 2019, the People’s Advocate of Albania monitored 31 public demonstrations organised by various entities, including opposition political parties, civil society, students, and citizens. Some of these resulted in physical confrontations. Through working groups, the NHRI monitored the situation on the ground and immediately verified cases of alleged rights violations committed by state authorities.
The law no. 91/2019 concerning audio-visual media banned media and journalists from physically attending meetings of Albania’s Parliamentary Committee. Following requests from journalists, the People’s Advocate of Albania monitored discussions between parliamentary representatives and journalists concerning the changes in the latter group’s participation. The NHRI also followed recommendations from other interest groups and international partners. The new proposal to amend the law was compared to other European regulations, and minor changes were made in relation to the use of mobile phones and video recording.
The Ombudsman of the Republic of Bulgaria is monitoring the execution of the final European Court of Human Rights judgments in the case of Bozhkov v. Bulgaria. The case relates to the violation of the right to the freedom of expression of journalists (art. 10 ECHR) due to the fact that he reported about alleged corrupt practices. Related to the above, the Ombudsman issued a statement and invited state authorities to address a gap in whistleblower protection and ensure the timely and effective transposition of the EU Whistleblower Directive.
The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia has drawn attention to the challenges and threats faced by human rights defenders and civil society in both Europe and Georgia. The Public Defender dedicated a chapter to this topic in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 annual reports it submitted to parliament. The reports underlined an increasing trend of verbal abuse, physical assaults, intimidation, and defamation, including by high-ranking political officials. Specifically, the reports pointed to challenges faced by women and LGBTI+ defenders and voiced concerns about cyber threats against and the bullying of human rights defenders. The reports analysed the rights of peaceful assembly, association and expression, as well as media freedom. The NHRI called on law enforcement agencies to undertake effective, timely investigations into any cases of human rights defenders at risk. It also provided recommendations to the government on the promotion and protection of human rights defenders.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission recommended the State to consult with children and disabled people on the General Scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill: this was to ensure a child and disability rights perspective to the legislation. The Commission has repeatedly highlighted concerns around the involvement of disabled people in decision-making processes. This was particularly notable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Legislation and policies with significant implications for disabled people were adopted, even though they were not meaningfully engaged. The Commission has stressed the importance of closely consulting and involving disabled people and Disabled Persons Organisations in legislative and policy decision-making processes in line with Article 4.3 of the UNCRPD and General Comment 7 on the participation of persons with disabilities. To ensure meaningful participation, the Commission has called on the State to actively support the further development and involvement of Disabled Persons Organisations. It can do so by providing sustainable core funding, capacity building, and training.
In 2018, the government of Luxembourg drafted amendments to the law Nº 6961 aimed at strengthening the protection of classified information. This was to be done by incorporating a security clearance system, mainly implemented by the National Safety Authority. In 2019, the Consultative Human Rights Commission of Luxembourg published an opinion on how the draft negatively impacted the right to freedom of expression and access to information, as well as to the protection of personal data. The NHRI expressed concerns that the law does not provide an exception for journalists or whistleblowers who report information about threats or harm to the public interest. The opinion provided recommendations to the government to ensure a human rights compliant revision of the draft legislation, one in which whistleblowers, informants and journalists are sufficiently protected. Additionally, the opinion advised on setting out clear modalities for the collection/use of personal data and avoiding excessive interference with privacy. The opinion took European regulations, European Court of Human Rights case law, and Council of Europe standards into account.
In recent years, the role of new electronic media, YouTube channels and bloggers has significantly expanded, covering meetings and events that remain outside the attention of traditional media. Although bloggers perform the same function as journalists, their work is not always perceived as journalistic activity. This deprives them of the protection set forth in the Law ‘On Mass Media’. This gap in legislation negatively affects journalists’ right to freedom of expression and citizens’ right to access information. In this regard, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation has been working on the detention of and imposition of administrative sanctions on journalists and bloggers covering unauthorised public events. The High Commissioner recommended to amend the legislation by defining the legal status of bloggers. It also recommended that law enforcement agencies refrain from detaining journalists and bloggers present at the venue of an unauthorised public event in order to cover it.
The Public Defender (Ombudsman) of Georgia submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Batumi City Court regarding the internal and social media code of conduct of Adjara TV. The code restricted the freedom of expression of company employees. The NHRI analysed the cases of four employees and established that their dismissal or move to another position contravened Georgia’s Labour Code and Adjara TV’s internal labour regulations. The Public Defender recommended that the Adjara TV director restore the rights of the employees. As this was not done, the NHRI asked the Prosecutor General to launch an investigation. The Public Defender also contacted both the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media in relation to the case.
In Spain, the Organic Law on the Protection of Citizens’ Security was adopted in 2015. The law extends the sanctioning power of the country’s General State Administration and could facilitate inaccurate legal interpretations, leaving things at the discretion of the police. At the same time, it could hinder media freedoms and citizens’ ability to mobilise.
The Ombudsman of Spain has repeatedly asked for its modification. It has made recommendations relating to external body searches on public roads, offences in the context of meetings and demonstrations, and the use of images or data by the police. Recent annual reports of the Ombudsman have advocated the reform of some aspects of this Law, seeking the right balance between security and freedom.
During a human rights film festival in December 2021, the Ombudswoman of Croatia organised a public consultation with civil society organisations. This was done to gain insight into challenges faced by human rights defenders and to identify key challenges in human rights protection. For its 2021 Annual Report to the Parliament, the NHRI sent out a public call inviting civil society to send data and insights, while specific questions were asked about key challenges to their work. The input from these consultations are reflected in the Ombudswoman’s Annual Report for 2021 and fed into Croatia’s Universal Periodic Review process.
The People’s Advocate of the Republic of Moldova closely monitors threats to the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, while publishing public statements to support human rights defenders and prevent polarisation within society. In one case, a politician verbally threatened media actors and civil society representatives criticising his political activities and position. In response, the NHRI issued a statement condemning his discourse. This was supported by OHCHR and major human rights organisations in the country. The NHRI also reacted promptly in 2018 when a mayor expressed threatening statements to journalists and in 2020 when government officials attacked the press. It issued statements calling on the national authorities and the General Prosecutor’s Office to investigate.
The Protector of Citizens of the Republic of Serbia has completed the technical development of a unique platform for registering and tracking harassment and attacks experienced by journalists and others working in the media. Once operational and running, the platform will, help ensure faster and more efficient responses from the competent authorities in the reported cases of violations of media freedom and freedom of expression. It will also provide a broader and more comprehensive overview of the challenges faced by journalists and contribute to enhanced public confidence in state institutions. In 2021, the platform was presented to the Government Working Group for the Safety and Protection of Journalists established in 2020.
The Protector of Citizens of the Republic of Serbia initiated changes to the Law on Public Order and Peace. These changes were presented in September 2021 at a meeting of the Working Group of the Government of the Republic of Serbia for Security and Protection of Journalists. The proposed amendments include misdemeanor sanctions for violence, threats and insults against individuals and journalists on the internet and social networks. When presenting its Annual Report to the Parliament in 2020, the NHRI also underlined the importance of regulation in the area which would stop and punish violence committed and threats and insults made on social networks.
In 2020 and 2021, journalists investigating organised crime and paramilitarism in Northern Ireland have received death threats. For example, journalist Patricia Devlin received online threats including towards her young son and graffiti featuring the crosshair of a gun next to her name. In September 2021, her complaint that the Police Service had failed to investigate the complaints or provide protection was upheld. In April 2021, a Belfast Telegraph photographer was attacked whilst covering unrest in Belfast.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) recommended that limitations of journalists’ FoE must be human rights compliant. Information allegedly linking State agents to non-human rights compliant conduct should not be withheld and HRDs should not face intimidation/reprisals for disclosing such information. The NIHRC insisted that the right to a fair trial and effective remedy for journalists are fulfilled. Additionally, it recommends that journalists have effective protection to report on issues of public importance.
At the end of 2020, a young person was murdered by a state police employee. This caused nationwide protests lasting several days that demanded the responsible person be brought to justice. The People’s Advocate of Albania launched an investigation into police conduct when arresting journalists during these protests. Media reports documented several media actors being taken to police premises. The NHRI recommended that the police analyse the cases in terms of what constitutes lawful conduct of police officers when escorting individuals. It also recommended that the police guarantee the media’s right to cover protests; train police officers to improve their conduct towards media actors; avoid violating the rights of escorted persons; and establish special rules concerning the treatment of media actors. The police have followed up on the recommendations with concrete measures and actions addressing them.
During the unauthorised public events of January and February 2021, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation established a working group to immediately review and take urgent measures to respond to all complaints received through the NHRI’s hotline. Some complaints related to alleged violations to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, access to a lawyer, obstruction of journalists’ activities and administrative detention conditions. In total, 83 requests for verification of persons under administrative arrest were submitted to the prosecutorial and government authorities. Moreover, the High Commissioner held in-person meetings with representatives of the human rights community on the above-mentioned issues, and members of her Office visited internal affairs departments and special detention centres for persons under administrative detention.