Council of Europe platform tracks violations of press freedom, attacks against journalists

Oct 30, 2018 in Digital and Physical Safety

In April, the Council of Europe (CoE) made an unprecedented move, launching a platform that tracks attacks against journalists and violations of press freedom in its 47 member states. By mid-November, 99 alerts covering 25 countries had been posted on the site.  

Among recent incidents: An ABC News cameraman was attacked and detained by Albanian police; riot police in Montenegro fired teargas at a group of around 30 journalists covering a protest of the opposition, and two Turkish journalists were imprisoned for “inciting armed rebellion.” There also were reports of threats to media in France, Belgium and Serbia.

“All evidence points to the fact that conditions for free media have been worsening throughout the continent in recent years and there have been calls, notably from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, for an instrument on media freedom,” said Matjaz Gruden, CoE director of policy planning, in an email interview.

Following is a Q&A with Gruden about the CoE’s journalism safety net, how it came about and what the platform hopes to accomplish:

IJNet: What was the motivating factor behind CoE’s decision to create this platform?

Matjaz Gruden: Freedom of expression and media freedom go to the very core of the Council of Europe’s identity as an institution whose focus is human rights, rule of law and democracy. Without free media there is no scrutiny of power and securing the safety of journalists is a necessary condition for it. While Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights guarantees freedom of expression, until now there was no instrument contributing to systematic public accountability of the member states.

Where do you get the model for the platform? Was it designed especially for CoE?

While there are several organizations and platforms gathering information on the media violations throughout Europe, many of them good and reliable, what is particularly unique about our model is that it gives a direct input to selected journalists’ organizations into the processes of an intergovernmental structure. These organizations collect and send the alerts on media freedom violations in member states based solely on their own sources, verification methods and assessment criteria, without any “filtering” from the Council of Europe.

The platform was set up in cooperation with prominent European associations of journalists and international NGOs active in the field of freedom of expression - European Federation of Journalists, International Federation of Journalists, Article 19, Reporters without Borders, Association of European Journalists, Index on Censorship and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists.

Have there been any surprises in the results so far?

The platform was launched in April, so it is probably too early to draw meaningful and definitive conclusions.

Still, the first important surprise is that media freedom issues are more widespread geographically than initially thought. It has been six months since the platform became operational and the partner organizations recorded 99 alerts from 25 countries, just over half of the 47 member states of the CoE, and the list continues to grow. Attacks on the physical integrity of journalists, which are the greatest concern, represent close to one third of all alerts. Increasingly, alerts refer to the issue of protection of expression online – interference with online content, mass surveillance, blocking of websites and the social media.

What do you hope will come of this?

By facilitating the dialogue between the Council of Europe and the member states, we hope it will help address systemically many of the violations reported. ... There have been already encouraging results.

One of the alerts in the platform (Slovenian journalist charged over intelligence material) led to the launch of the dialogue between the Secretary General and the Slovenian authorities, which contributed to the dropping of the charges against the journalist and the modification of legislation in order to decriminalize actions of publishing information when public interest prevails. There have been other good examples, notably with some of the alerts from Turkey and Germany.  

It is not its purpose and it does not have the means to force member states into addressing these threats. However, by highlighting the issues of freedom of expression and media freedom, making them public, widely disseminating and systematizing them, the platform contributes to maintaining these issues high on the CoE agenda.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via James St. John