While the press plays a fundamental role in holding governments and other powerful actors to account, a Council of Europe report on democracy warned that “the free flow of information and ideas suffers greatly in an environment in which media professionals are subjected to physical attacks, intimidation and arbitrary or selective prosecution.”
“Impunity remains a serious concern, as demonstrated by the Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists… As alerted on the platform, five journalists were killed in the territory of Council of Europe member states in 2017 and 13 murder cases from previous years remain unpunished.
“The assassinations of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017 and of the Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak in February 2018 served as a reminder that journalists all over the continent are potentially exposed to deadly violence,” the report stated.
Among the criteria listed to ensure the protection of journalists and freedom of speech, the report said journalists should not be subjected to verbal intimidation that is “instigated or condoned by authorities, or to harmful rhetoric in political discourse.”
It also said that crimes against journalists should be met by “independent, prompt and effective investigations.”
Underlining the essential role free and independent media plays in the fight against abuse and corruption, “sometimes at high personal cost to the journalists and editors behind the stories,” the report said that serious journalism is not possible without a protective legal and institutional environment.
“Flawed defamation laws, impunity for attacks against and intimidation of media professionals, failure to guarantee the confidentiality of sources and legal protection for whistleblowers, or the denial of access to information held by public authorities – all inhibit free speech and, ultimately, undermine accountability,” the report said.
On the advent of social media and the digital revolution, the report noted “the great democratisation of information brought about by the internet can be no substitute for good journalism. Corrupt officials are unlikely to be scared by casual online opinion, but they will use everything in their power to thwart serious investigative reporting into their affairs.”
The Council of Europe’s report, entitled ‘State of Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law’ added that “impunity deters rigorous journalism, and exposes reporters to even greater dangers in the future. Protection of confidential sources and unhindered access to public records are essential tools of journalism that must be guaranteed in law and practice.”
Growing partisanship, populist attacks and the fragmentation of public discourse into ideologically charged echo chambers have contributed to de-legitimising the press, the report said.
Moreover, it said that media independence “is undermined by the arbitrary shutdown of media organisations, attempted financial manipulation by government and commercial entities, and widespread pressure on public service media in many member states,” adding that conflicts of interest and excessive concentration of ownership is a threat to pluralism.
It also highlighted the need to extend protection to journalists who fall outside the definition of “mainstream media.” The report said that legal protections for “other media actors” – including bloggers, online reporters or other contributors who do not meet the definition of mainstream journalism – remain insufficient due to the failure to upgrade existing legal regimes in ways that adequately cover new media players.
The report said that this lack of protection often leads to non-traditional media being denied recognised journalistic privileges, ranging from protection of confidential sources, to personal safety, and protection from unlawful interference with their journalistic work, despite their growing contribution to the dissemination of information and ideas.