European Union Fails To Protect Journalists

watchdog slams EU for falling press freedom record

Ethiopian migrants living in Malta protest outside the prime minister’s office, calling on the European Union to stop supporting the Ethiopian government. (Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi)

In Brief

  • A new report by Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press freedom watchdog, calls on the EU to defend press freedom and hold its wayward member states accountable
  • Journalists across Europe are increasingly facing threats from governments and extremist groups, says the report
  • Repressive media laws, sweeping surveillance and violence against journalists are still at play in many EU member states, despite the Union’s commitment to upholding democracy and freedoms
  • CPJ wants the EU to implement robust mechanisms to enforce the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights

The European Union (EU), the politico-economic bloc of 28 member states, is considered privileged when it comes to democracy and freedoms, including that of the press. Most of its member states have long traditions of free and bold press. This freedom, so critical in holding true democracies accountable, is now under threat, according to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The EU, unlike many other regional bodies, has a constitution that guarantees press freedom (Article II-71). Journalists are protected by both national and international laws, in particular the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU) further mandates EU institutions to protect media freedom and pluralism.

These commitments by EU, according to CPJ’s report titled Balancing Act, are largely window dressing. The Union has failed to protect journalists and to demand accountability from member states that are continuously and increasingly muzzling the media.

Jean-Paul Marthoz, the Belgian journalist and CPJ’s EU correspondent who authored the report, said the EU must use all its muscle to prevent attacks against journalists, and ensure threats to press freedom are removed.

Marthoz pointed to Hungary’s deteriorating press freedom climate as an example of EU’s inadequacy in policing wayward countries that flaunt their commitments to press freedom.

Hungary’s downward spiral started in 2011 when the government led by Prime Minister Victor Orbán introduced a restrictive media law that allows it to control the press and impose unfair taxes and fines on dissenting media outlets.

Some of the challenges undermining press freedom within the EU, as stated in the report by Marthoz, include:

Repressive legislation

Criminal defamation and blasphemy laws still apply in several EU member states. In these countries, journalists expressing critical views are often harassed, fined or imprisoned. Criminal defamation has been eliminated only in Cyprus, Estonia, Ireland, Romania, and the UK. Of the 23 EU states in which defamation remains a criminal act, 20 retain imprisonment as a possible punishment.

Although the EU has recommended their decriminalisation, blasphemy and insult laws exist in 19 member states, with some countries still vigorously enforcing them, according to the report.

“The presence of such laws, even in countries where they are seldom invoked against the press, provides authoritarian states across the world with a way to justify repressive actions. And it subjects the EU to accusations of hypocrisy, undermining the diplomacy that proclaims support for press freedom,” writes Mathorz.

State of the Union in colours: How does you country fare?

Access to information remains limited

EU correspondents that Mathorz talked to say they face hurdles in accessing documents, covering secretive trade deals, and investigating officials’ expenses.

The EU, with a budget of about €145 billion a year, appears reluctant to fully disclose its workings despite the establishment of access to its document in the treaties and by the Court of Justice.

Article 42 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights states that “any citizen of the Union, and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a member state, has a right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents.” Yet, journalists covering the EU’s budgets, trade deals, and draft directives face limited transparency.

“The labeling of EU classified information - top secret, secret, confidential and restricted - is serious business in Brussels. Many journalists and Members of European Parliament object to what they call a culture of over-classification, which places public interest documents out of reach,” writes Mathorz.

Access to sensitive documents, particularly on external affairs and defence matters, is further hampered by the right of member states to refuse consent if the documents or information originate from them, or by the obligation to respect NATO security standards under a 2003 EU- NATO agreement on security of information.

According to EU Observerjournalist Andrew Rettman who spoke to CPJ, the release of documents is also denied because EU officials simply want to avoid embarrassment or hide their double talk.

The challenge for public interest groups and journalists clamouring for openness says the report, is to institutionalise transparency and make more documents available as a matter of routine so that checks and accountability do not depend on legal procedures, whistleblowers, and undercover journalism.

Counter-terrorism measures

In some countries, counter-terrorism measures have led to legislation and sweeping surveillance measures that censor online reporting and threaten to expose journalists’ sources.

“Surveillance and counterterrorism efforts have been brought to the forefront in the EU by revelations by former NSA contractor (Edward) Snowden of mass government surveillance and calls for greater restrictions under the guise of anti-terror measures after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

“French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve’s proposals for Web giants to work directly with the government in tracking and taking down material deemed by authorities to have links to terrorism illustrate the risk of knee-jerk reactions compromising press freedom. Demands for backdoors to encryption by the EU and its member states are of particular concern for CPJ,” writes Mathorz.

Journalists who spoke to CPJ said they are nervous about the potential extent and scope of surveillance.

According to Joe McNamee of European Digital Rights, you are safe as long as you don’t stand out. “If a journalist is searching on criminality or corruption, there is a chance that he/she will attract attention. The awareness about unchecked surveillance carries a risk of serious self-censorship.”

Alain Lallemand, author and senior investigative reporter for Belgium daily Le Soir said: “Sources are overwhelmed by technological advances in surveillance and have sometimes only a vague idea of the traceable information they can involuntarily leave when contacting journalists. And the danger often comes less from the national police or intelligence services but from snipers [detectives, pirates] and foreign secret services. It implies a change of mindset to be up to the new threats.”

When it comes to the protection of sources, the report finds, journalists are unable to rely on support from EU-wide legislation.

While the EU is keen on recovering what it deems as lost grounds in the global digital market, the reluctance to enforce human rights standards and press freedom on the Internet should be of greater concern globally.

The report records; “Journalists and press freedom groups who met with CPJ said they have been warily watching developments, as the EU and individual member states form up their stance on issues including the so-called right to be forgotten, which allows people to request links be deleted from search engines; calls by member states for backdoors to encryption and greater control over online content; and debate over source protection and data protection.”

[Granting backdoor encryption to third parties is akin to making bugging of newsrooms legal, a world where third parties can constantly go through our reporters’ notebooks as they work. Editor]

As Alain Lallemand, a Belgian member of Washington-based Consortium of Investigative Journalists told the reports author, “Journalists do not know what means can be legally used against them, how the law specifically protects them.”

The EU-Court of Justice endorsed censorship in the right to be forgotten fiasco. This clearly contradicts the Union’s own Charter for Fundamental Rights as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While in the initial case the court of justice ruled that the media house, Barcelona daily La Vanguardia had a right to keep the content on its website, it allowed Google to decide on how to handle such requests. In essence, whenever it is convenient for the search engine to suppress particular results, they would be free to do so.

The same Union is currently pursuing Google in what its antitrust commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, claims to be the search engine’s abuse of its market dominance. The Union wants to have its cake and eat it too.

Unsafe environment

Though violence is rare, journalists have been targeted by criminal organizations in Italy and Bulgaria, bullied by police in Spain, and murdered by religious extremists in France.

CPJ has documented violence across the EU from police and protesters, despite the ability of journalists to work freely defined as a fundamental right. In a worrying trend for press freedom, after protests against austerity measures imposed by the EU, Spain passed a law in July 2015 preventing journalists from taking photographs of rallies outside government buildings, or of police.

Media oligopoly

The concentration of ownership of media companies is another concern for press freedom advocates who spoke with CPJ.

“In a number of countries, corporations whose business depends largely on government decisions (public works, arms trade, telecommunications) have taken majority stakes in media outlets at the risk of creating conflicts of interest and of acting as private proxy censors on behalf of the state,” writes Mathorz.

Control of advertising and distribution compounds this problem, as it can be used to stifle media opponents and lock out competition.

Mathorz quotes a New York Times report on media ownership trends across Eastern Europe. Politically connected oligarchs and investment groups are reportedly acquiring newspapers and other media companies, prompting deep concern among journalists and others about press freedom.


The report contains a slew of recommendations to the EU institution.

The CPJ wants the institution to hold member states responsible for keeping to their commitments under the EU treaties and suspend voting rights for members that break press freedom commitments.

The watchdog also calls for legal prohibition of mass surveillance and regulation of targeted surveillance to ensure the privacy of journalists and their sources.

The CPJ wants the EU to actively advocate within the United Nations for policies and norms that uphold media freedom. It also calls for increased support for independent journalist and media outlets under threat by authoritarian governments or other violent groups.

Click here to access the full report.