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Media freedom and pluralism

Media freedom and pluralism

ENNHRI members across the region pointed to an overall decline in media freedom and pluralism over the past year.

This was mentioned as a general concern by ENNHRI members in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Greece, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. In Greece and Kosovo, ENNHRI members also deplore a general deterioration of working conditions for journalists, including in terms of financial stability. Only ENNHRI member in Montenegro indicated a certain, albeit slow, progress in this area, although attacks and pressure on journalists and media remain widespread.

Various problematic issues are raised by ENNHRI members as regards media freedom and independence. These range from political pressure on independent media, as reported in Poland, and on public service media, as reported in Slovenia, to weak media authorities, as ENNHRI member alerts in Ireland. In Albania, ENNHRI member raised concern about the creation of a state agency for media and information which is essentially under the control of the executive and could thus negatively affect media freedom and independence.

Some ENNHRI members also point to a lack of media pluralism. This is a particular concern for ENNHRI member in Moldova in relation to the Transnistrian region, while ENNHRI member in Ukraine points to control of information circulation, including through the introduction of a strict licensing system, in the temporarily occupied territories. Media pluralism is also said to be affected by high risks of concentration, also in countries with a traditionally enabling media environment, such as Finland, as well as the lack of transparency of media financing and ownership, as reported in Greece, Slovakia and Slovenia. In Poland, the NHRI reports about attempts to “re-nationalise” the media market, while ENNHRI member in Finland regrets unequal conditions in the access to public service media content, particularly for minorities.

ENNHRI members in several EU and non-EU countries also report about an increasing incidence of harassment, threats and attacks against journalists and outlets. These include violent physical attacks reported in Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine (particularly in the temporarily occupied territories). In this regard, ENNHRI members in Croatia, Georgia, Germany and Luxembourg cited, in particular, attacks targeting journalists covering protests – including the pride march in Georgia and protests against COVID-19 related measures in the other countries mentioned. Verbal attacks and hate speech, offline as well as online, against journalists are at worrying levels, as reported in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Kosovo, Latvia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and Slovenia.

Attacks also concretise in legal harassment including SLAPPs, as reported in Croatia, Great Britain, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Romania and Slovakia. In some countries, journalists seem particularly vulnerable when working on sensitive issues such as anticorruption, as reported in the Netherlands and Romania, or COVID-19, as reported by ENNHRI member in Latvia. ENNHRI member in Finland alerts about journalists’ fear of being subjected to pressure and intimidation, which leads to censorship especially on certain sensitive topics such as migration, the public health crisis or environmental protection.

ENNHRI’s members reporting reveals little action taken by the authorities to enhance the protection of journalists, the most notable being the National Action Plan adopted in Great Britain by the National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, and government plans reported by the Slovakian member, which however informs that no concrete proposal was yet presented.  A number of ENNHRI members point in this respect to the police’s inability to effectively deal with threats and offences against journalists and media, as reported in Georgia and Ukraine particularly.

Indeed, in certain countries, journalists and outlets are the object of intimidation, smears, attacks and harassment, including SLAPPs and prosecutions, by authorities themselves. The situation in Albania, Georgia, Moldova and Slovenia, as well as in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, is reported as particularly concerning, with journalists subject to smears, attacks, SLAPPs and censorship by authorities and government representatives. Journalists are also reportedly targeted by SLAPPs brought by pro-government media and representatives of the ruling party in Poland, where the NHRI also reports about obstacles to reporting at the Belarus border – based on provisions eventually declared unlawful by the Supreme Court.

Additionally, ENNHRI members report about threats and an excessive use of force and coercion against journalists by police, as reflected particularly in reports on Albania, Bulgaria, Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the Russian Federation, where complaints concerning detention of journalists by law enforcement agencies were also reported, ENNHRI member informs of recent amendments to the law aimed at protecting journalists, including from arrests, covering unauthorized demonstrations. In Albania and Romania, ENNHRI members further alerted about criminal prosecutions triggered against journalists by politicians and public authorities. Elsewhere, charges are brought against journalists based on the alleged disclosure of classified or confidential information, as reported in Finland, Slovakia and Northern Ireland, while in Denmark some editors-in-chief of the biggest media outlets perceived it as an intimidation when they were approached by the intelligence service after a leak of classified information.

ENNHRI members in Great Britain, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Northern Ireland and Ukraine also mention how limitations on access to information obstruct journalistic work, while in Albania attempts were reported to ban media presence from parliamentary sittings. In this respect, ENNHRI members in Slovakia and Ukraine deplore the inadequacy of the legal framework regulating the access to public interest information.

ENNHRI members further alerted about laws affecting the delicate balance between freedom of expression and of information and competing rights and interests, such as new provisions on disinformation in Greece, defamation laws in Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece and new provisions included in the law on adherence to Republican values in France, which introduced summary trial proceedings for certain speech related offences. In Great Britain, ENNHRI member is concerned that the legal framework penalising the unauthorised disclosure of government information does not include an exception for disclosure made by journalists in the public interest.

Role of the NHRI in promoting and safeguarding an enabling environment for media and freedom of expression

A number of country reports highlight the role of NHRIs in promoting free, balanced and pluralistic media. Examples include monitoring and inspection activities, and the  formulation of recommendations addressed to public authorities (as illustrated in reports on Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Serbia and Ukraine), efforts to improve the legal framework for the protection of journalists’ safety and the promotion of media freedom (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia), as well as public statements, awareness raising and public education (Albania, Georgia, Kosovo and Serbia). In some cases, such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, efforts benefitted from partnerships with media representatives and journalists’ associations.

Key recommendations

Several ENNHRI members across the region point to a further deterioration of media freedom and pluralism. There was an increase in reported physical and verbal attacks, intimidation and harassment targeting journalists and media outlets, including through arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and SLAPPs – also favoured in a number of countries across the region by the existence of laws unduly restricting freedom of assembly, free speech and freedom of information. In some countries, journalists faced further obstacles to reporting on sensitive issues while information control, concentration, political and economic pressure continue to affect media, including public service media. At the same time, the rise in disinformation and hate speech overall does not seem to be met with adequate responses.

Considering the crucial importance of free, independent and pluralist media for the enjoyment of all human rights, and for rule of law and democracy, ENNHRI and its members believe it is urgent to address these challenges and recommend to national authorities and regional and international actors to work together, in close cooperation with ENNHRI and NHRIs, to:

1.Ensure that national legal frameworks contemplate adequate sanctions, including by means of criminal law, for threats and attacks against journalists and media actors by private or public actors;

2. Ensure that threats and attacks against journalists and media actors are regularly monitored and recorded and promptly investigated and prosecuted, including by building capacity of judicial and law enforcement authorities to deal with such cases, for example through targeted trainings;

3. Take steps to protect journalists and media outlets from the abuse of laws or procedural laws which result in forms of legal harassment, including SLAPPs;

4. Better protect media independence, including by strengthening independent media authorities, preventing and addressing political and economic pressure on media and improving journalists and media actors’ working conditions;

5. Safeguarding the pluralism of the media market, by means of measures to ensure transparency of media ownership and to prevent and address market concentration;

6. Secure a conducive environment for journalists to carry out their work, including by ensuring free access to public interest data and information, the protection of journalistic sources and the protection of whistle blowers;

7. Fostering a free and balanced public debate, by ensuring access to public service media content without discrimination, countering disinformation, hate speech and illegal content, in particular online, while safeguarding freedom of expression and information, as well as by fostering media literacy and promoting adherence of all journalists and media to professional standards and ethics;

8. Evaluate, in consultation with media actors, existing laws and practices regulating or otherwise affecting the exercise of freedom of expression and information against national, EU and international legislation, including regional and international human rights standards, and repeal or revise rules resulting in undue restrictions, in particular as regards defamation laws, other forms of criminalization of speech, rules on disinformation and illegal content, in particular online, as well as rules on secrecy and data protection;

9. Ensure a regular and transparent dialogue between state authorities, media actors and press freedom organisations, in order to evaluate evolving trends in media freedom, pluralism and journalists’ safety and take timely action to tackle identified challenges.

NHRIs, individually and collectively through ENNHRI, will continue to pay attention to challenges affecting media freedom, pluralism and freedom of expression and information across the region, and will step up efforts to contribute to positive impacts, including through engaging further on regional initiatives such as the EU legislative proposal on the European Media Freedom Act.