Today is a day to celebrate free media expression—except for those journalists, even in Europe, denied the capacity to do so.
As we mark this year’s World Press Freedom Day, the memory of the attack at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris hangs in the air. So, too, do the shootings in Copenhagen, where a cartoonist was again among the targets. So far 2015 has not been much of a friend to freedom of expression. I’m afraid that I do not have good news: across the full length of our continent, media freedom is now under threat.
My annual report shows that the safety of journalists is deteriorating in over a third of European states. Investigative journalists have been killed, imprisoned and harassed. Media outlets have been shut down—including, dramatically, the Crimean Tatar TV station ATR which was forced off air. Cyber-terrorists have attacked national television networks. And all this in just a matter of months.
Most troubling is the prolific nature of our problems. They are not limited to a handful of states.
Journalists have been murdered in Ukraine. Greek reporters have complained of police assault, while their counterparts in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have received death threats in the form of funeral wreaths delivered to their homes. Turkey has made headlines by banning Twitter. France’s new legislation to block websites ‘inciting terrorism’ has raised concerns. In these, and many other, cases states point to national security, but it is essential that such acts are proportionate, necessary and submitted to appropriate judicial review.
In the majority of European states defamation remains a criminal offence, frequently inhibiting free speech and encouraging self-censorship. Too many public-service broadcasters still suffer from political interference. Even in countries where reporting is considered independent and robust, ownership is overly concentrated and a murky relationship persists between political and media elites.
Across the continent, wherever you look, journalists are increasingly struggling to hold power to account. Media freedom, it seems, has become Europe’s longest frontier in the fight for democracy and human rights.
The dangers are clear. Free and forthright journalism is essential to any healthy system of checks and balances. Without it, the abuse and mismanagement of power remains concealed and there can be no competition of ideas. Progress and plurality give way to stagnation and disempowerment. Fewer outcomes could be worse for a continent still gripped by social tension and economic strife.
For the sake of strong and stable democracies, we at the Council of Europe—the continent’s human-rights watchdog—will now redouble our efforts to protect free speech. Advancing media freedom will be given new priority status in our work with our member states, of which there are 47. We will develop a three year, pan-European programme to improve the protection provided to journalists, helping ensure that their safety receives the attention it deserves.
To this end we have established a Platform for the Safety of Journalists, where journalists themselves can sound the alarm. Armed with the standards and laws that bind European nations, the Council of Europe can then address these concerns directly with member states.
As I make this pledge, I call on governments to do the same. Freedom of expression is not limitless. It is wrong to incite violence and hatred and there will be times when state authorities will need to curb liberty temporarily to protect people and save lives. The bar, however, must be set extremely high and we must strive, always, to enable journalists, whistle-blowers and watchdogs to serve their vital democratic function.
Let us resist the slide to censorship, committing instead to scrutiny, opposition and dissent. Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of modern democracy. Right now, it needs our help.
Thorbjørn Jagland is secretary general of the Council of Europe and a former foreign minister of Norway.
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