Source: EC - Audiovisual Service
In recent years press outlets and journalists have been subjected to much contestation and doubt. Narratives about “fake news” and mis-information campaigns have occasionally put journalists into precarious positions including physical harm. In light of such phenomena it is useful to think how to better protect and promote press freedom.
It is more important than ever for the EU and the Council of Europe to continue their efforts against disinformation and in favour of an independent press during the pandemic. As public health preconditions public trust via transparency and accountability this is of utmost importance for the successful handling of the current crisis. To that end, both journalists and governments should fulfil their respective mandates in a transparent and responsible way and in accordance with the highest human rights and democracy standards. At the same time, states have to ensure that journalists conduct their job safely and without any pressure or intimidation. It is undeniable that for democracy to operate properly having a free and independent press is essential. Journalists are responsible to inform citizens and scrutinise governments and politicians; their function forms the backbone of a well-informed electorate.
The EU has always recognised this and is steadfastly promoting and defending press freedom both in its member-states and in partner countries. Article 11 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights explicitly mentions the EU’s commitment to respect the freedom and pluralism of the media as well as the right to the freedom of expression - which includes the right to receive and impart information without interference by public authority. It has also adopted specific EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline. In this document the Foreign Affairs Council provided clear guidance on international human rights standards on freedom of opinion and expression and political and operational guidance to officials and staff of the EU Institutions and EU Member States. Of equal importance is the 2016 EU guidelines on Human Rights defenders, as journalists are also considered as such especially when they are targeted for denouncing rights abuses by authorities and companies. To further foster these principles the EU has taken a number of initiatives, including the funding of projects related to media freedom and to protect human rights defenders and targeted actions to counter disinformation campaigns.
The action of Council of Europe in this field is no less important and complementary. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to freedom of expression and the European Court of Human Rights has developed an ever-increasing case law on this topic. The Council of Europe via its reports and monitoring activities is also attempting to assess the challenges that emerge for the freedom of press in its member-states. To that end it has established a Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists. This platform operates as a public space to facilitate the compilation, processing and dissemination of information on serious concerns about media freedom and safety of journalists in Council of Europe member States. The platform has produced a considerable amount of information, which is reflected in the Annual Report by its partner organisations. For 2019, the Platform recorded 142 serious threats to media freedom, including 33 physical attacks against journalists, 17 new cases of detention and imprisonment, 43 cases of harassment and intimidation, and two new cases of impunity for murder. The report showed a worrying growing trend of journalist intimidation that needs to be urgently addressed.
The EU and the Council of Europe have also established numerous joint programmes with the aim of fostering freedom of press in regions where this has proved difficult. For example, the South-East Europe freedom of expression (JUFREX) project aimed to provide series of training activities targeting the judiciary, as well as specific activities directed to regulators, journalists and public service media, relating to the freedom of expression and exercise of human rights in the Western Balkans.
The two organisations have now to build further on this cooperation and enhance their operational complementarity to address the new challenges entailed by the Coronavirus pandemic for the field of press freedom. The EU has already emphasized the need to fight misinformation and disinformation in the health space during the COVID-19 era, while it has also authored a report on the narratives and disinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic. Our initiatives clearly show that the fight against disinformation does not come at the expense of freedom of expression and the safety of journalists.
The Council of Europe guidance on how to protect media freedom and counter disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic is also very useful in this regard. The guidelines suggest that states should avoid limiting journalists’ ability to criticize and control their actions. At the same time, they call on media organisations and journalists to adhere to the highest professional and ethical standards and to give priority to authoritative messages regarding the crisis, while refraining from publishing, and thus amplifying, unverified stories. As stated by the Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić “Governments are facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 crisis, but the situation must not be used to silence or hinder journalists”.
These recent worrying trends that have been documented by Council of Europe are indicative of the challenging way ahead and of the increased scope for synergies and complementary that exists between the EU and the Council of Europe.