The EU is one of the safest places for journalists and media workers to work. But is that really the case? This perception has unfortunately changed in recent years, mainly due to the several unsolved murders of journalists in the member states for which investigations are largely still open and those who ordered these crimes remains unpunished. This is one of the main reasons why on September 16, 2021, the European Commission adopted recommendations for the safety and protection of journalists in order to strengthen the critical media and thus the media pluralism in the EU.
Raising awareness of the consequences that may occur for the democratic values of EU member states as well as motivating institutions across the continent to find new mechanisms to ensure the safety of journalists are part of the goals of the European Commission’s new recommendations. The recommendations aim to provide safer working conditions for all media professionals who work professionally in the journalistic profession in a way that will free them from the fear of intimidation, whether the threats are in the online sphere or in public or anywhere. What is specific about this set of recommendations is that it puts a special focus on women journalists, primarily because of the specificity of the threats and attacks they face, but also because of the increasing trend of pressure on them, which is especially visible in the Western Balkans. As a reminder, this negative trend is also present in North Macedonia, where according to the annual reports of the Association of Journalists in 2020, out of 14 more serious attacks and threats against journalists, more than half are against women journalists.
Why do questions about the safety of journalists have political weight?
It was the killings of a group of journalists that took place in several EU member states that triggered the alarm that the safety of journalists must be guaranteed. But not only the killings additional factor is the lack of capacity or willingness of some governments in these countries where journalists were killed to deal with the consequences and seek justice. Guarantees for the safety of journalists therefore need to be at the level of political culture, and measures arising from governments and legal provisions need to be taken in accordance with the recommendations of international political organizations such as the Recommendations of the Council of Europe CM / Rec ( 2016) 4 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists and other media actors. Of course, the judiciary also needs to understand the seriousness of impunity in cases where the rights of journalists are violated, because in that way the right of citizens to information is denied, and additional violence can be encouraged not only against journalists but also against other critical voices such as various human rights activists.
Prompted by the importance of these issues, the UK immediately after the “Brexit”, wanting to publicly emphasize the political commitment to provide a safe environment for journalists to work, prepared its own document in this regard. Thus, in June 2019, at the Global Media Conference in London, an International Commitment to Respecting Media Freedom was signed with an emphasis on the safety of journalists. This document was also signed by the Government of the Republic of Northern Macedonia.
Chronology of murders of journalists in the EU in recent years
Journalists and media organizations in Europe have increasingly faced restrictive laws in recent years that could jeopardize journalistic freedom, criminal measures, and physical violence, or threats to the lives of individuals in the media sector. Too often, whether working with traditional media or digital platforms, professional and critical journalists pay for their commitment with their freedom or their lives.
The last confirmed tragic event took place in the first half of 2021 in the older EU member states where two journalists lost their lives on a public place executed by firearms by unknown perpetrators. The first journalist is George Karaivas from Greece and Peter de Vries from the Netherlands, and what they both have in common is that they have dedicated part of their journalism career to investigations related to organized crime. Both cases are currently under investigation. Other serious cases of which the wider European public is aware, most notably that high-ranking officials have resigned, include the case of Jan Kucijak and his partner Martina Kushnirova, who were violently killed near their weekend house near the Slovak capital in 2018. The second case for which there was also an unsatisfactory investigation due to which there were political resignations is the murder of investigative reporter Daphne Galicia in 2017 in Malta.
The most serious case in which several members of a newsroom were killed was the terrorist attack on the print media Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015 in which 12 people were killed.
At the level of the Western Balkans, no officially registered case of murder of a journalist by a competent authority has been registered, but there have been attempted murders and one of the most drastic is the case of journalist Olivera Lakic who was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant in front of her home in the center of Podgorica in 2018. She is known for her investigative reports, which the Montenegrin journalistic community considers to be the motive for the assassination attempt. An ongoing investigation about this case continues.
EU recommendations should be taken seriously otherwise they will not be credible
These recommendations adopted by the European Commission, which have previously been discussed as a topic at the level of the European Parliament, should be taken into account by the Member States and implemented with great care. Countries that have candidate status need to show even more not only political will but also real capacity if they have sincere intentions to create working conditions for media workers in which they will be safe and, if there is indeed an incident that would disrupt their security that there will be no policy of impunity and that the state will do everything in its power to punish those who raise their hand against journalists, and thus the right to freedom of expression and the right to information.
At the technical level and in short, these recommendations should produce:
– Proactive measures of the member states in ensuring the protection of journalists in accordance with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and in particular with the principles of media freedoms and the right to expression and information and with the constitutional traditions of the member states,
– Promotion of existing laws, protocols, but also other norms and in accordance with EU and international law in order to protect journalists and the independence of the media as well as pluralism in the media and
– Undertaking activities of the member states in accordance with the national legal systems, but also professional standards and rules.
Interestingly, the recommendations provide guidance that effective and independent investigations into the prosecution of journalists are the basis for overcoming the policy of impunity. This can be achieved through efficient litigation in line with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
A useful part is the recommendation for continuing the cooperation of law enforcement agencies and associations representing journalists. Finding models for joint work and coordination when the rights of journalists between trade unions and the police, the prosecution and the judiciary are violated is extremely important. For that to happen, a constant dialogue on these topics between these institutions is needed. In addition, the police in exceptional cases need to provide security for journalists and their close family members who are at risk. In the direction of concrete cooperation with associations, free telephone lines for assistance to journalists, systems or rapid reaction services in cooperation with an institution of persecution are just some of the models suggested in the recommendations.
On the other hand, the recommendations point to the importance of the institutions’ openness to journalists as well as the risk of imposing restrictions that need to be in line with Council of Europe practices.
The need for constant training and capacity building efforts not only in the field of journalism but also for the representatives of institutions and tackling topics related to the importance of reporting on high risk events, social and economic protection of journalists are also addressed in this document.
Finally, if Republic of North Macedonia really aspires to show the European Commission, but also the local journalists and above all the citizens that it cares about their safety, it is necessary to take into account these recommendations as soon as possible and to implement them. This is important because only in that way will end the negative trend of attacks and threats against journalists, the policy of impunity will be reduced and it will be shown that in our country there is a democratic capacity that promotes freedom of expression.
Prepared by: Aleksandar Gjorgievski
This thematic story was made within the project “Safe Media Workers for Quality Journalism in Macedonia” funded by the Balkan Trust for Democracy through the media freedom program.
“The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway, the Balkan Fund for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States or its partners.”