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Human Rights Commissioner calls for action to counter attacks against press

Football fans storm newsroom of Radio Sarajevo in Bosnia, hold reporter hostage until article is taken down. Commissioner raises issues in Malta and Croatia too.

Dunja Mijatović Human Rights Commissioner at the Council of Europe

Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, has called for action to counter attacks on journalists, including those committed against Daphne Caruana Galizia and journalists of Radio Sarajevo in Bosnia.

Several journalists were threatened by a group of fans of the Football Club Sarajevo on 27 September. One reporter was held hostage until a news article was taken down, according to the Council of Europe’s platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists. 

“After breaking into the newsroom, a group of supporters of the football team came to the Radio Sarajevo editorial office where a radio reporter was taken hostage for more than two hours, under threat of killing him and his family, and asked to remove the article from the website,” the platform reported.

The journalist was then “forced to call” other editorial boards of portals and newspapers in Bosnia and Herzegovina asking them to delete the same article. According to the radio station, fans were angry over the news that a supporter of the Sarajevo soccer club had received five years in prison in Belarus for drug possession.

This, the Commissioner said, undermined not only press freedom but the ability of all citizens to access reliable information. “This is only the latest of many attacks against journalists in the region, and beyond… Attacks against journalists always go beyond the individual case and concern us all because they endanger journalists as much as democracy,” Mijatović said in an open letter to the 1st Regional Journalists’ Days held in Sarajevo.

In her letter, the Commissioner also referred to her correspondence last month with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. “Last week I published a letter to the Prime Minister of Malta stressing the need to drop the posthumous defamation lawsuits against the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia.”

A few days earlier,Mijatović had expressed her concerns about the arrest and fine of Croatian journalist Gordan Duhacek and called on Croatia’s authorities to avoid undue pressure on journalists.

Those suspected of carrying out the attack on Radio Sarajevo were arrested and then released with a ban on access to media outlets and journalists within 100 metres. A few days later, journalists gathered in Sarajevo to demand an end to violence against media workers in the country.

The OSCE Representative on Media Freedom, Harlem Desir also condemned the attacks, saying “attacks on journalists in 2019 seem to have reached an alarming level.” He said this was “unacceptable” and called on authorities to “intensify efforts to protect the media”.

Commissioner’s warning to Malta and Croatia

The Commissioner had also addressed Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in a letter on 19 September, saying the post posthumous defamation lawsuits being pursued against the late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had “a chilling effect on investigative journalism”.

She urged the Prime Minister to drop the cases, saying they put “unwarranted psychological and financial pressure” on the Caruana Galizia family and may interfere with the right to protect journalistic sources. Muscat rejected the request.

The Prime Minister said he would only drop the case if the family accepted the findings of an inquiry into the ownership of a Panama company that the late journalist had accused his wife of owning. The family has never been permitted to see the full report. They refused Muscat’s condition, saying they “will not concede to extortion by public servants”.

Mijatović also highlighted the case of Croatian journalist Gordan Duhacek who was fined for an “anti-police tweet. She called on the local authorities to avoid undue pressure on journalists.

The Commissioner went on to explain how smear campaigns, verbal and physical attacks, repressive libel and defamation suits, and prosecution were being used to “compromise media pluralism and independence”.

“We must keep threats to journalists under a spotlight and maintain pressure on national authorities to ensure their protection, end impunity and improve legislation concerning media freedom,” she said. 

She then called for “stronger action” to counter attacks and hostility against media workers, as well as steps to “remedy the structural deficiencies in State institutions that should protect them.”

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