February 21. 2024. 7:01

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Safety of journalists: Press freedom ‘backsliding’, report says

The Council of Europe’s (CoE) annual report on the safety of journalists highlighted ‘continuous backsliding’ of press freedoms in both EU member states and third countries, citing violence, use of spyware, and “strategic lawsuits” against journalists as key problems.

The annual report, published by the human rights organisation CoE, found a 60% increase in the number of journalists in detention in comparison to 2021 data.

As of the end of December, 127 journalists were detained in Europe according to the study: the highest number being in Turkey (52), followed by Belarus (32), Russia (22), Russian-occupied Ukraine (14), Azerbaijan (four) and the United Kingdom, Georgia and Poland (one in each).

A rise in the reported number of journalists arrested while covering protests on climate change was also reported in EU countries. In total, eight journalists have been prosecuted in the past year because of their covering of climate change protests in France, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

“The [report shows] this sort of continuous backsliding where we see in member states [that] journalists are threatened, harassed, subject to surveillance, intimidated, deprived of their liberty, physically attacked and even killed,” EU representative and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) advocacy manager Tom Gibson told a press conference on Tuesday (March 7).

“We’re urging states to not only agree on actions but to reverse that backsliding and we’re very serious about seeing this through,” Gibson continued.

The report also highlighted attacks on and violence towards journalists, with 74 reports of attacks on the physical safety and integrity of journalists. In 2021, the figure was 82, according to CoE’s 2022 annual report.

“This [number] may be lower than the year before but clearly this is still very high indeed, and this is a cause for concern,” said the head of human rights and safety of the International Federation of Journalists, Ernest Sagaga.

The report noted that journalists and media staff face barriers to reporting due to harassment online and offline. In 2022, alone there were 94 alerts of harassment and intimidation of journalists reported. The same year saw the highest recorded death toll since the study began in 2015, with 13 journalists killed.

“Media bashing and online mob harassment, which create environments and conditions where violence against the press is legitimised, are a major concern,” the 2023 report states.

Spyware Concerns and SLAPPs

The report’s authors highlighted the use of spyware and lawsuits as methods of silencing and controlling journalists, with at least 20 defamation and other types of legal proceedings documented in 2022 and thousands of euros sought in damages in the name of reputational harm.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) are defined in the report as “the use of legal actions aimed at intimidating and silencing journalists and media – by dragging them into courts and wasting their time and money”. They were described as “a favourite tool for certain politicians, businessmen and other powerful figures”.

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“The main finding of our annual report is that there is continued degradation of press freedom across the continent [and] the use of SLAPPS contributes to this degradation,” said Flutura Kusari, senior legal adviser of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom.

The report also pointed out the use of spyware tools such as Pegasus and Predator. These tools allow for smartphones to become surveillance devices, and the use of such tools was reported in various member states such as Hungary and Greece.

Pegasus scandal one year on: Europe still stumbles in the dark

One year after the Pegasus scandal broke, much is still unknown as the lack of transparency, accountability and regulation make it difficult to grasp the full picture. But it is clear that Pegasus is just the tip of the iceberg.