EU countries urged to protect journalists as number of attacks rises

European Commission calls for action as it says 908 media workers were attacked in 23 EU states last year

EU governments have been urged by Brussels to take action to protect journalists, after an increase in physical and online attacks on members of the press.

Issuing its first-ever recommendation on journalists’ safety, the European Commission called on EU governments to set up free contact points for media workers who face physical or online threats, in order to ensure a rapid response from police and prosecutors. It also wants to make sure journalists who become victims of crime have assured access to counselling, legal advice and shelters.

According to the commission, 908 journalists and media workers were attacked in 23 EU member states in 2020, resulting in physical and mental injuries, as well as damage to property. The intervention follows a series of high-profile murders that shocked Europe, including the killings of Malta’s Daphne Caruana Galizia and Slovakia’s Ján Kuciak, who both investigated corruption in their home countries. This year, Dutch crime reporter Peter de Vries was murdered on a busy Amsterdam street and Greek investigative reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was gunned down on his way home from work.

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) registered the murder of four journalists in the 10 years before Caruana Galizia’s murder in 2017. EU officials said they were alarmed about an increasing number of attacks.

The commission vice-president, Vĕra Jourová, said that talking to the families of Caruana Galizia and Kuciak had been the most difficult moments of her previous job as EU commissioner for justice, which ended in 2019. “I promised them that I would work to make things change. The recommendations today are a first step in filling that promise.”

In her annual “state of the union” speech on Wednesday, the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, promised to bring forward a media freedom act in 2022 to safeguard the independence of press and broadcasters, amid growing concerns about some member states.

In Hungary, many independent media outlets have closed or been bought out by pro-government figures. Poland is debating a media bill that would ban companies outside the European Economic Area from majority ownership of any TV channel, widely seen as an attempt to silence the country’s largest independent broadcaster, TVN.

EU authorities have already crossed swords with Slovenia’s prime minister, Janez Janša, who has called journalists liars and “presstitutes” during frequent diatribes against the media.

“It is unacceptable when violence is coming from the mouth of political leaders,” said Jourová, who added that aggressive rhetoric was not only coming from Slovenia.

The commission has limited power in this area, but Jourová promised to keep the pressure up.

“Of course, it’s not legally binding legislation but we will really monitor the situation,” she told journalists. “We will keep the pressure on the member states to do more because what the recommendation is about … is a very strong call on the member states: don’t underestimate the threats and the warning signs that the journalists are under.”

Governments that failed to uphold the safety of journalists damaged their reputations, she added. “It’s in the interests of the member states if they want to be trusted that they are a truly democratic country.”

The commission is urging national authorities to ensure the vigorous prosecution of all lawbreaking, working across borders with other member states or the EU police agency Europol, when necessary. Other recommendations include training for police officers to ensure better protection for journalists covering protests.

The recommendations are directed at the EU’s 27 governments, but the commission hopes EU candidate countries in the western Balkans will take them up.

Observers fear the EU has limited tools to change the behaviour of politicians who revel in aggressive tirades against the media.

Bulgaria is rated as the worst EU member state for press freedom, according to RWB. The group’s World Press Freedom Index also reveals the dismal situation for the media in Hungary (92nd place), Malta (81), Greece (70) and Poland (64).

RWB described the EU recommendations as a step in the right direction but warned about the inability or reluctance of the authorities in some countries to protect journalists.

“Every effort must be made to ensure that these recommendations become a reality,” said Julie Majerczak, the RWB representative to the EU. “We urge the leaders of EU countries to act responsibly and we call on the European Union to demonstrate a determination to ensure that these recommendations are not ignored.”

Contributor

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
European elections 2019: Tories unlikely to deliver on Brexit, says Farage – as it happened
Across EU, voters boost Greens and far right to leave centrist groups diminished

Patrick Greenfield, Sam Jones , Alison Rourke, Mattha Busby, Jennifer Rankin and Kevin Rawlinson

27, May, 2019 @9:17 PM

Article image
Ursula von der Leyen says Poland's 'LGBT-free zones' have no place in EU
In her first ‘state of union’ speech, European commission president delivers criticism of Polish ruling party

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

16, Sep, 2020 @1:13 PM

Freedom temples totter in Europe and beyond | Peter Preston
Peter Preston: Many post-Soviet nations have lost their way on the road to democracy. And no one seems to care

Peter Preston

11, Jul, 2010 @9:00 PM

Article image
Bitter divisions over migration threaten show of unity at EU summit
Germany and Italy criticise proposal by European council president, Donald Tusk, who described refugee quotas as ‘divisive’

Jennifer Rankin Brussels

14, Dec, 2017 @6:04 PM

Article image
Eastern European companies fear 'chaos' of no-deal Brexit
Trade with central and eastern Europe already affected and local GDP could shrink by 5%

Andrew MacDowall and Shaun Walker

13, Feb, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Covid in Europe: how countries are tackling second wave
A roundup of the measures affecting mask-wearing, schools and more across mainland Europe

Europe correspondents

15, Oct, 2020 @7:02 PM

Article image
EU pledges €3bn funding for Belarus if it transitions to democracy
Ursula von der Leyen comes close to calling for regime change as she urges country to ‘change course’

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Andrew Roth in Moscow

28, May, 2021 @1:15 PM

Article image
Eurozone crisis: which countries are for or against Grexit
With an emergency voting procedure potentially coming into play as eurozone splits widen, how do member states line up on the idea of expelling Greece?

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

12, Jul, 2015 @6:20 PM

Article image
Suspect in Daphne Caruana Galizia murder says he got tipoffs from official
Yorgen Fenech tells court Malta PM’s former chief of staff gave him updates on investigation

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, and Reuters in Valletta

05, Dec, 2019 @5:02 PM

Article image
Malta's new PM has only days to prove himself, says Andrew Caruana Galizia
Son of murdered journalist says Robert Abela is ‘continuity candidate’ and must break with ‘corrupt legacy’

Jennifer Rankin

13, Jan, 2020 @2:22 PM