Hands Off Press Freedom

The latest annual report focused on the state of press freedom around Europe launched today, with a focus on freelance journalists produced by the Rory Peck Trust.

Today the Rory Peck Trust, along with other partner organisations of the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, published its 2020 annual report ‘Hands Off Press Freedom: Attacks on Media in Europe Must Not Become a New Normal‘. In response to the increasing vulnerability of freelance journalists, the Trust contributed a dedicated section focusing specifically on freelancers in Europe, as well as sections on the state of press freedom in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea/Donbas.

Attacks on press freedom in Europe are at serious risk of becoming a new normal, the report warns. The fresh assault on media freedom amid the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened an already gloomy outlook. The report analyses alerts submitted to the Platform in 2019, which shows an increasing pattern of intimidation and silencing journalists on the continent. The past weeks have accelerated this trend, with the pandemic producing a new wave of serious threats and attacks on press freedom in several Council of Europe member states. Ricardo Gutierrez, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, noted that “tens of thousands of freelance journalists are totally deprived of income” as a result of COVID-19.

In response to the health crisis, governments have detained journalists for critical reporting, vastly expanded surveillance and passed new laws to punish “fake news”, even as they decide themselves what is allowable and what is false without the oversight of appropriate independent bodies. Sarah Clarke, Head of Europe and Central Asia at Article 19, highlighted the particularly vulnerable situation that freelance journalists find themselves in – especially in regards to insurance and legal fees. 

These threats risk a tipping point in the fight to preserve a free media in Europe. They underscore the report’s urgent wake-up call to Council of Europe member states to act quickly and resolutely to end the assault against press freedom, so that journalists and other media professionals can report without fear.

Other serious issues identified include expanded surveillance measures threatening journalists’ ability to protect their sources, as well political attempts to “capture” media through ownership and market manipulation, most conspicuously of all in Hungary. These threats, too, are exacerbated by the actions taken by several governments under the health crisis, which further include arbitrary limitations on independent reporting and on journalists’ access to official information about the pandemic. 

The Platform partners call for urgent scrutiny of action taken by governments to claim extraordinary powers related to freedom of expression and media freedom under emergency legislation that are not strictly necessary and proportionate in response to the pandemic. Uncontrolled and unlimited state of emergency laws are open to abuse and have already had a severe chilling effect on the ability of the media to report and scrutinise the actions of state authorities.  

While the Platform welcomes an increased focus on press freedom by European institutions, the ongoing crisis demands more urgent and stringent responses to protect media freedom and freedom of expression and information, and to support the financial sustainability of independent professional journalism. In the age of emergency rule, protecting the press as the watchdog of democracy cannot wait. 

Read the full report →