The future of our democracies demands that we protect journalists

Press freedom has been deteriorating significantly in Western nations all over the world. The moniker of “fake news” is being used to discredit professional journalists in the U.S. 156 journalists currently remain imprisoned in Turkey. And within the last 6 months, two journalists in EU member states have been killed for their investigative work.

All these regional cases have one thing in common: journalists’ rights are being violated, which has chilling effects on the quality of democracy in Western countries. Let’s break it down, case by case. It is crucial to understand the connections and implications for our societies, because the time for action is now.

The term ‘fake news’ was named as Collins Dictionary’s 2017 Word of the Year for its ubiquitous presence after use of the term had increased by 365 per cent since 2016. Although many high-level politicians like to use the term to attack and discredit the mainstream media, we should refrain from repeating it. ‘Fake news’ fails to describe the complexity of the ‘information disorder’ we are currently confronted with. Last year, the Reuters Institute published a study that made a distinction between three categories of so-called ‘fake news’: (1) news that is ‘invented’ to make money or discredit others; (2) news that has a basis in fact but is ‘spun’ to suit a particular agenda; and (3) news that people do not feel comfortable about or don’t agree with.

As Damian Tambini, a professor in media and communications at the London School of Economics, correctly stated, ‘fake news’ is not the main problem in the relationship between journalism and democracy. In fact, ‘fake news’ is so high on the political agenda because it is used as a kind of scapegoat. Politicians and people in positions of power make use of the concept to simply discredit journalists. The underlying problem lies in a global mistrust of the media, which is something that poses a serious threat to our democracies. “Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear,” warned German political theorist Hannah Ahrendt.

A survey recently conducted by the global market research company Kantar Sofres about citizens’ trust in the media in France shows a dramatic decline in public trust in radio, TV, print and internet media since 2015. This development, prevalent in numerous other Western countries, coincides with the increased usage of what is described as ‘fake news’, fueled by social media. But what can be done to address this complex issue? It is crucial that initiatives aimed at countering specific problems of disinformation are precisely targeted and formulated to ensure that they do not enable public or private authorities to restrict free speech (e.g. German law on hate speech, and the recently announced French law on Fake News). The European Commission set up an ‘EU High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation’, which delivered a report proposing a global multidimensional approach, based on five pillars:

  • enhance transparency of online news, involving an adequate and privacy-compliant sharing of data about the systems that enable their circulation online;
  • promote media and information literacy to counter disinformation and help users navigate the digital media environment;
  • develop tools for empowering users and journalists to tackle disinformation and foster a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies;
  • safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem, and
  • promote continued research on the impact of disinformation in Europe to evaluate the measures taken by different actors and constantly adjust the necessary responses.

Within the whole debate around “fake news”, Daniel Patrick Moynihan puts it straight: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

The situation in Turkey has severe effects on press freedom in a completely different way. Following the failed Turkish coup d’état attempt on president Recep Tayyip Erdoğanon on 15 July 2016, numerous journalists were imprisoned and prosecuted in trials where the ‘crime’ was journalism and the only ‘evidence’ was journalistic activities. In February 2018, German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel was finally released after spending a year in pre-trial detention, while six Turkish journalists were sentenced to life. Press freedom in Turkey continues to deteriorate as president Erdoğan exploits the ongoing state of emergency in the country that was extended for the seventh time in April 2018. The world must not forget about the jailed journalists in Turkey who are deprived of their basic rights simply for doing their job. The international community must continue exerting economic, political and diplomatic pressure on the Turkish government and urge for the release and fair treatment of journalists.

On a European level, the second murder of an investigative journalist within the EU during the last six months was a cruel wake-up call to country leaders and citizens alike. Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated with a car bomb on 16 October 2017. She was reporting on corruption allegations that involved many high-level politicians within the Maltese government. I had the honour to meet one of her sons, Andrew Carauana Galizia, at a press conference in Brussels on World Press Freedom Day. He spoke of a new era of threats to journalism. “It is unacceptable for any state to benefit from a journalist’s death. When a journalist is not protected after exposing corruption in the state, it is extremely dangerous for the health of a democracy. Europe needs to wake up and recognise this threat. If you let a small member state like Malta get away with this level of impunity, you are sending a dangerous signal to bigger member states. What happened to my mother and Ján could happen again.”

Ján Kuciak (27) and his fiancée were shot dead in their home in Slovakia on 21 February 2018. He was investigating tax fraud and ties between the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, and Slovak businessmen, as well as top-level politicians. The murder of the young couple sparked international outcry. It triggered the biggest peaceful protest in Slovakia since the Velvet Revolution in 1989 with up to 65,000 citizens marching ‘For a decent Slovakia’.

What these cases have made clear is that there is a lack of legislation and legal protection for journalists. “The murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ján Kuciak and many other journalists were not due to fate, but to structural deficiencies in state institutions that should have protected them […] Politicians must protect press freedom, not bury it,” warned Dunja Mijatovic, High Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe. In order to address this issue, a resolution on the protection of investigative journalists in Europe, passed by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) last month during the plenary session in Strasbourg, calls for better protection of investigative journalists and whistle-blowers. MEPs are demanding

  • better protection of journalists who are regularly subject to lawsuits intended to censor their work
  • a permanent financial EU scheme to support independent investigative journalism
  • a draft EU directive to protect whistle-blowers
  • the Commission to address challenges to media freedom and pluralism in the EU
  • better monitoring of media ownership concentration

President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, emphasised “The murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak are an attempt to undermine our fundamental values, and a blow to the rule of law in the European Union. This Parliament wishes to strengthen the rights and duty of journalists to stand by free and independent information. We owe this to Daphne and Ján and to all European journalists who fight on the frontline every day in defence of our democracy.”

Journalism is fundamental to the health of a democracy. Declining press freedom is one of the first signs that democratic principles are being lost. In environments where journalists cannot work independently without fear for their life, human rights violations and abuses of power remain undiscovered. We are at a turning point. The way we react to these violations of journalists’ rights will not only shape the future of the press, but the future of our societies.

Jennifer Oroilidis  (Brussels, Belgium)

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