Erosion of media freedom in Europe casts a shadow on safety of journalists
The year 2022 was defined by war. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine became the most acute manifestation of the ongoing shrinking of civic space in Europe and further deteriorated the environment for press freedom. While journalists working on the frontline were thrown into a situation of imminent life danger, their colleagues outside the war zone were facing a vast arsenal of methods deployed to silence independent journalism, including legal threats, restrictive legislation, detention and surveillance.
Our ‘War in Europe and the fight for the right to report’ of the Council of Europe’s Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists examines the main threats to media freedom in Europe and addresses recommendations to the Council of Europe, the European Union and their member states on actions needed to tackle these challenges. In addition, we discuss the States’ responses to the alerts documented in our monitoring.
Over the years, the tactics to limit freedom of expression and hinder journalistic work have been refined. Those who aim to avoid public scrutiny have started to take advantage of legal actions. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (known as SLAPPs) are abusive litigation used by well-resourced and powerful individuals to stifle public debate on vital issues such as corruption, mismanagement of public resources, and human rights violations by dragging their critics into time-consuming and costly legal proceedings. ARTICLE 19 Europe conducts comprehensive research into the increasing trend of SLAPPs against journalists and other public watchdogs across Europe. As part of The Coalition Against SLAPPs in Europe (CASE) and the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) we have been advocating for robust measures to combat abusive litigation including through contributing to the CASE Model Directive.
In the course of nearly two years since the rigged presidential election that sparked mass protests across Belarus, the regime has continued to quash dissent, harass journalists and activists, as well as banning and blocking hundreds of news websites and media outlets.
Though overshadowed by Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, the situation for human rights in Belarus remains suffocating and dire. Lukashenko continues to weaponise shameful repressive practices against human rights defenders, journalists and any independent critical voices. This sweeping crackdown has been exacerbated by the recent draconian verdict in a trial against Viasna leaders, which has been described by human rights advocates as a ‘travesty of justice’.
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In recent years, freedom of expression in Central Asia has become increasingly restricted. The global pandemic further underscored the important role the internet and digital platforms play in supporting human rights movements and access to information. In this context, it is clear that autocratic regimes are repeatedly cracking down on the internet in order to quell activism in the region. Governments in Central Asia have adopted a series of controversial laws allowing them to exert further control over online content and abuse existing legislation to force their critics into self-censorship.
We promote freedom of expression in Central Asia by monitoring legislation, media regulation and the safety of journalists. We conduct research on curtailing freedom of speech online and provide legal recommendations for countries to meet international standards and raise violations to UN bodies and the Human Rights Council.
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Freedom of expression in Turkey has been under attack for years, with a drastic decline since the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The government and the police’s extremely violent reaction to the peaceful protest was a turning point in relations between civil society and the authorities.
The government further used certain Turkish criminal legal provisions disproportionately to silence critical voices and opposition in Turkey. Hundreds of journalists, academics and writers are in jail. In addition, the Turkish authorities have severely curtailed freedom of assembly and regularly forbid or quash gatherings by government critics.
We provide a legal analysis of the Turkish legal framework in the context of international freedom of expression standards and review the provisions most commonly misused to target civil society e.g. the recently enacted ‘disinformation bill’. We develop case profiles as well as submit expert opinions and third-party interventions in individual cases to national, regional and international courts.
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ARTICLE 19 Europe’s work in the Western Balkans focuses on key priorities related to cross-cutting across the region. As part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Safety of Journalists, we monitor and document the ongoing erosion of press freedom and organise fact-finding and advocacy missions to examine the threats to journalists in the member and candidate states (including Albania and Kosovo). The safety of journalists remains a key concern in many countries in the Western Balkans, with journalists being targeted while covering protests or investigating controversial public interest news. Women journalists face specific forms of harassment, especially online. SLAPPs constitute a growing threat to independent journalists in the region; in Serbia for example, we documented 26 cases of SLAPPs against journalists in the last decade. The frail state of media freedom can be described by politicisation and media concentration, favouring political and business elites across the region.
Read more on Albania
Read more on Kosovo
Read more on Bosnia and Herzegovina
Read more on Serbia
Stand with Ukraine
We stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in the face of Russia’s aggression. The Russian Federation’s actions constitute an act of war and a blatant breach of international law and treaties, deserving of unequivocal international condemnation. Standing in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and with all those suffering in the war, Alongside our partners, activists and experts we are working to ensure the facts can no longer be ignored.
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About ARTICLE 19 Europe
ARTICLE 19 Europe works across many countries, but focuses on three priority subregions in particular:
- The EU and Candidate Countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, Malta, Poland, Serbia, Spain, The Netherlands, Turkey;
- Eastern Europe: Belarus, Ukraine, Russia;
- Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan
Working with national partners in our priority countries and international coalitions of human rights defenders and experts we monitor the state of freedom of expression across the region and conduct sustained campaigning and advocacy to European institutions and global human rights mechanisms. Our ultimate goal is to empower individuals and marginalised groups to speak out and be heard and to protect press freedom.
The Expression Agenda
The Expression Agenda is our global human rights strategy. Through it, we target the best means of protecting rights and freedoms on the ground, while enhancing international instruments that protect freedom of expression and the right to information around the world. Each year we contribute to a unique report on the state of freedom of expression globally. The “XpA Report” looks at trends across major issues of freedom of expression and information, and how they are experienced in various countries.