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New Report Shows Curbs to Media Freedom in Europe

FILE - Protesters with signs reading "Free Media" gather outside Poland's state TVP building in Warsaw, Poland, Feb. 10, 2021.

Leading media organizations and watchdog groups have issued a new report concerning threats to press freedom across Europe. It documents a record number of reported violations including physical attacks, harassment, intimidation and online violence against journalists in 2020 — in some cases intensified by COVID-19 pandemic measures.

This is the third annual report authored by media groups partnering with the 47-member Council of Europe to promote press protection and safety in a region stretching from Portugal to Russia.

Among its key findings: eroding legal protections for journalists and government interference are threatening free expression and the media’s role as watchdog against abuse.

William Horsely, media freedom representative with the Association of European Journalists, said 2020 saw a record 201 reported press freedom violations — up 40 percent from the previous year.

“There’s also a record of 52 alerts for violent assaults and acts. Including two deaths, one in Albania, one in Russia. And a record number, 70, related to acts of intimidation, harassment of journalists — in person or online—many of them at the street in protests. Other alert categories are imprisonment, impunity and other acts having a chilling effect on media freedom,” he said.

Horsley said about half the reported violations were committed by politicians and public officials.

In countries like Poland and Hungary, the report said, authorities essentially blacklisted media critical of them, in favor or government-friendly ones. In other cases, like Turkey and Russia, it found a monopolization of media outlets curbed diversity of expression.

The report found COVID-19 health restrictions further curbed media freedoms in many countries, sometimes increasing surveillance and restricting journalists’ ability to cover the pandemic—including at the risk of criminal penalties.

It also described expensive, bogus lawsuits and other measures by powerful entities aimed at silencing critical media coverage. Those measures are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs.

The report also highlighted growing online harassment, especially against female journalists.

“They are increasingly victims of sexist insults and threats. There are cases in Serbia, Spain, in a context of total impunity,” said Ricardo Gutierrez, general secretary for the European Federation of Journalists.

“Our report denounces the passivity of online platforms and public authorities in the face of these threats,” he said.

The report outlines measures to protect press freedoms and echoes some of the findings on COVID-19-related restrictions in Reporters Without Borders’s latest global report. Here in Europe, it said, the policies went against the Council of Europe’s warnings against restricting public access to information.

Overall, it found little progress since 2016, when member states themselves agreed that attacks on journalism and media freedom had become alarming and unacceptable.