Working with partners, the MFRR will lead a range of fact-finding, fast response and advocacy missions across EU member states and candidate countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these missions will be replaced with virtual missions to ensure we can still hold states and other entities to account during this unprecedented period. The missions will enable the MFRR to capture first hand information about a range of threats to press and media freedom, establish partners and contacts across the continent and engage directly with policy makers. Missions will be documented in meetings and reports that will be shared publicly and form the basis of future advocacy, as well as legal and practical support.
Stemming the Tide of Greek Media Freedom Decline
Media freedom in Greece has experienced a clear period of deterioration in the last few years. In 2022 and 2023, the country ranked as the worst for media freedom in the European Union in the World Press Freedom Index. International press freedom groups have increasingly been warning about the most serious factors contributing to this decline, from the murder of a reporter and threats to journalists to spyware scandal and underlying issues regarding media pluralism and independent journalism. This erosion of media freedoms and the increasing attention of domestic and international media organisations sparked concern in Brussels and beyond and led to a number of initiatives from the Greek government led by the ruling New Democracy party to address the issue.
In this context, the partner organisations of the MFRR consortium, joined by Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, coordinated a mission to Greece in the wake of the 2023 election victory of New Democracy to take stock of the latest developments and assess the current state of media freedom and independent journalism.
This report provides a detailed analysis of the most serious challenges facing media freedom in Greece, exploring the four major systemic themes identified by the delegation. It also provides an assessment of the impact of different measures taken by the government in the last few years to try and address these issues, and offers the first international assessment of the work of the government’s Task Force for the safety of journalists, which was established in 2022 after a recommendation by the European Commission. The report also provides multiple detailed recommendations in each of the chapters to both the Greek government and journalists and media workers for steps that can be taken to achieve progress and further stem the tide of media freedom decline in the country.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Media Freedom in Survival Mode
In its report published in November 2023, the European Commission expressed concerns about the key priority of freedom of expression, freedom of the media, as well as the protection of journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It points out a “backsliding” in media freedom, noting that legislative and political pressure have increased and intimidation and harassment towards journalists continued without appropriate institutional follow-up.
The international press freedom mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina in September 2023 broadly confirmed these observations. Overall, journalists in the country continue to operate in a suffocating environment and poor working conditions. The situation is particularly alarming in Republika Srpska (RS), Bosnia’s Serb entity, where President Milorad Dodik is steadily tightening the screws on independent media, using hostile rhetoric to denigrate journalists and stigmatise critical reporting.
What prompted the mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina was the reintroduction of criminal penalties for defamation in August 2023 in Republika Srpska, which caused an outcry among media freedom and journalists’ organisations. More problematic legislation was discussed in RS around the same time, including the so-called “foreign agent” law and a media law, although the content of the latter is yet to be revealed.
Meanwhile in the Sarajevo canton, a proposal of a regulation that would allow sanctions for the dissemination of “fake news” is currently pending. The ongoing financial crisis in the country’s public service broadcasters was also closely scrutinised.
These issues were discussed in detail with the MFRR partners and the different stakeholders met during the delegation’s visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. This report presents the main findings of the mission in three key areas: the legislative initiatives, the safety of journalists, and the
public service media. It then outlines a set of recommendations to national and entity level authorities and the international community.
Poland: Media freedom at a crossroads: Journalism in Poland faces uncertain future ahead of election
From 11-13 September 2023, an MFRR delegation consisting of representatives from ARTICLE 19 Europe, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), and International Press Institute travelled to Warsaw, Poland to assess the media freedom situation in the country ahead of crucial elections. The mission concluded that media and journalists in Poland are facing unprecedented challenges including legal threats, financial precarity, political pressure, regulatory capture and growing polarisation.
The mission report explores how media capture and the widespread use of vexatious lawsuits have been used to create a hostile climate for independent journalism that weakens media’s ability to contribute to free and fair elections.
Key findings include:
- The public media have been fully converted into a propaganda arm of the ruling party.
- The National Broadcasting Council, KRRiT, has abused its licensing powers to create business uncertainty and is applying arbitrary financial penalties to impose fear and self-censorship in newsrooms.
- Media pluralism was compromised when, in 2021, the state-controlled oil company, PKN Orlen, took over the largest regional media company, Polska Press. The subsequent editorial purge and shift in editorial lines to favour the ruling party ahead of upcoming elections makes it one of the most flagrant examples of media capture in Europe.
- State advertising has been weaponised by the government to fund favourable media outlets and undermine independent journalism which exacerbates the financial pressure on media.
- Polish media are subjected to one of the largest number of vexatious lawsuits, or SLAPPs, in the European Union. Most are initiated by ruling party politicians, state companies, and public institutions and therefore financed by public money.
- While Polish media have proved resilient thanks to the presence of foreign owners, the hostile economic climate may force many to withdraw. Such a move is likely to have a devastating impact on media pluralism.
- The overwhelming majority of commentators met by the mission expressed deep concern that the country was at a crossroads and that four more years of the current policy would accelerate media capture and push Poland down the path to emulating the media environment in Hungary, Turkey, or Russia.
Relocation of Journalists in Distress in the European Union
May and June 2023
Uncovering the truth is dangerous and can put journalists and media workers at serious risk. When a journalist finds him- or herself in danger because someone wants to keep the public in the dark, a situation can occur where the only way to safety is to seek refuge in another country. However, restrictive asylum and visa policies all too often hamper the pathways to international protection.
In May and June 2023, Free Press Unlimited (FPU) and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) conducted a thematic fact-finding mission aiming to examine six pioneering relocation mechanisms for journalists in distress within the European Union. The mission report reviews existing schemes in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Poland, revealing salient differences and similarities in the scope and features of the responses.
Turkey: Throttling the Media in Crucial Election Year
In October 2022, the MFRR partners took part in a fact-finding mission to Turkey ahead of a pivotal election year.
The mission met with representatives of the Constitutional Court which has issued some important rulings including the August 2022 ruling that the arbitrary and consecutive bans on public advertising in independent newspapers by the Press Advertising Agency (BIK) violated freedom of expression and press freedom. However, there remain major challenges on the implementation of its rulings by lower courts and the delays in addressing important freedom of expression violations underscoring that justice delayed is justice denied.
We call on the new government to reinforce the independence and capacity of the Constitutional Court to pursue and speed up justice for journalists and ensure its rulings, and those of the European Court of Human Rights are followed by the lower courts.
The mission report further notes how, under the conditions, the survival of Turkey’s journalism can be attributed to some incredible and courageous individuals dedicated to their journalistic mission, backed by networks of journalists’ organizations, nationally and internationally, ready to support their members and colleagues wherever possible. It is also a result of a public thirst for independent reliable news that cannot be quenched. Turkey’s journalists still have a pivotal role to play in this election year and the building of a strong democratic society to come.
The mission was led by the International Press Institute (IPI) and included ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropea (OBCT) and Amnesty International Turkey (AI). It was organized as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) programme.
Italy: Who is afraid of journalists? Defamation, SLAPPs, Safety.
From 4 to 6 April 2022, a delegation of the MFRR was in Italy for a fact-finding mission focused on two main topics: defamation and future legislative developments against SLAPPs on one side and the safety of journalists and State protection measures on the other. In 3 days there were 8 meetings in 2 regions (Rome and Campania), with 11 MFRR participants.
The fact-finding mission provided the MFRR with an opportunity to assess the legislative delays that are preventing Parliament from responding to the repeated calls of the Constitutional Court in reforming defamation laws, and to get to know the coordinated State monitoring and protection system implemented in Italy for intimidation acts against journalists, a good practice mentioned in a recent Recommendation of the European Commission.
The MFRR fact-finding mission to Italy presented a unique opportunity for a deep dive into two sets of substantial challenges faced by the journalistic community: violence, intimidation, and other threats emanating from organised crime, and legal threats in the shape of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) and other abusive lawsuits. Throughout our meetings with local stakeholders, it was confirmed that, taken together, these threats serve to undermine independent and critical journalism and the freedom of the press in the country while having a significant detrimental impact on individual journalists’ safety and their professional and private lives. While the mission identified several good practices and positive developments that show recognition of the problem and a way forward towards its resolution, each needs further action to ensure a truly free and safe working environment for Italy’s journalistic community.
Netherlands: Towards a safer haven: Advancing safety of journalists amidst rising threats in the Netherlands
Following interviews with more than twenty local stakeholders, the MFRR concludes that policy and practice around the safety of journalists in the Netherlands in many ways constitutes a best practice example, thanks to its pioneering PersVeilig mechanism. Nevertheless, there remains a need to strengthen several areas to better protect journalists and media workers against the increasingly hostile climate pursuant to intensified societal polarisation and threats emanating from organised crime.
The report details the findings and recommendations of the MFRR’s online fact-finding mission that took place in February 2022, led by Free Press Unlimited (FPU) together with the European Centre of Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and the International Press Institute (IPI), with the participation of the other MFRR partners plus the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, and in collaboration with the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Journalisten (NVJ).
The Netherlands generally remains a safe haven for journalists and media workers. The pioneering PersVeilig mechanism is a key actor in ensuring and advancing journalists’ safety and is a noteworthy example of constructive cooperation and dialogue between the journalistic community and state authorities. Both symbolically and practically, PersVeilig makes it clear that attacks and harassment of reporters are not tolerated and are addressed collectively.
While the assessment of PersVeilig is overwhelmingly positive, both among the MFRR’s partner organisations and its interlocutors during the fact-finding mission, room for improvement remains in a number of areas. These include implementing agreed-upon protocols more consistently and ensuring the project’s capacity and continuity.
Despite the relatively favourable conditions for press freedom and a pioneering mechanism, the MFRR mission confirmed that aggression against journalists is on the rise amidst a hardening of public debate and increasing polarisation in society. Subsequently, and despite the high willingness to cooperate between the journalistic community and law enforcement, the need remains to ensure a better understanding of the role of the press during protests, as well as changes to operational procedures to protect this role.
Certain categories of journalists suffer specific threats, particularly freelance reporters and women journalists. In this regard, it became clear throughout the mission that the Dutch approach to the safety of journalists lacks a gender lens. Moreover, while the Dutch policy approach scores well when it comes to putting in place mechanisms to protect journalists and prosecute offenders, there is room for improvement as concerns prevention.
Furthermore, with regard to threats from organised crime, there is a need to study the creation of tailored protection packages and consider improvements to the protection of journalists who cover high-profile criminal trials.
In light of its findings and to ensure that the Netherlands maintains its leadership position when it comes to the safety of journalists, the MFRR issued more than twenty specific recommendations to the authorities of the Netherlands, law enforcement, the journalistic community, PersVeilig and social media platforms.
Greece: Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece
The fact-finding mission to Greece, involving interviews with more than thirty local stakeholders, was implemented by the MFRR together with Reporters Without Borders in December 2021. The partner organisations conclude that challenges to the independence of the media and the safety of journalists are systemic in the country. While the problems are not unique, their intensity is highly problematic and sets it apart from most other EU Member States.
The result of this crisis is that news that is inconvenient or unflattering for the government, which includes reporting on serious human rights violations, does not get reported in many outlets. This creates a significant obstacle for the public’s access to information and, subsequently, their informed participation in the democratic process.
Understanding the political polarisation and fragmentation of the media landscape requires taking the long view. The current situation has been shaped by more than a decade of severe financial and political crisis which has harmed the way journalism is understood. At the same time, there has been a deterioration of press freedom since Nea Dimokratia’s electoral victory in 2019, who are “obsessed with controlling the message” and minimising critical and dissenting voices, as we heard again and again during the fact-finding mission.
The murder of crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz represents a low point for media freedom in Greece and drew international attention to the significant problems with journalists’ safety. The investigation progress appears slow and lacks basic transparency, which has had a chilling effect and leads to mistrust about the authorities’ ability or willingness to protect the journalistic community.
Migration policy, human rights violations committed in its implementation including pushbacks, and the humanitarian crisis that the refugee stream has created are highly sensitive topics for the government. Reporting on the issue is increasingly difficult, as journalists face obstructions including arbitrary arrest and detention, restriction of access to migration hotspots, surveillance, and harassment.
Reporting on protest is another particularly problematic area of journalistic practice in Greece. Journalists face aggression and harassment from law enforcement and from protesters. Overall, there is a lack of political will to ensure that journalists can safely report from demonstrations, which translates to a lack of adequate protection at the operational level.
Legal threats are also a significant problem for media freedom in Greece, including criminal prosecutions as well as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). Such threats can lead to self-censorship.
In light of these findings, the MFRR has issued a series of recommendations to the Greek authorities and to the European community, including the institutions of the European Union and the other EU Member States.
Slovenia: Hybrid Fact-Finding Mission
A fact-finding mission to Slovenia was held in a hybrid structure model between May 24 – June 2, 2021 online and followed up with an in-person visit on October 6, 2021. During the online meetings, the MFRR consortium representatives had in-depth meetings with journalists, editors from across the media spectrum as well as leading figures in the Slovenian public television and news agency. The delegation also met with the director of UKOM, the Government Communications Office, the Parliamentary Committee on Culture and the representatives of the Ministry of Culture.
The findings of the mission were published in the MFRR Report: Press Freedom Deteriorating in Slovenia under Latest Jansa Government. The report was launched on June 30 in an appeal to the EU leaders to address media freedom issue in the country as the Slovenian government took over the rotating chair of the European Council.
A mission report written by IPI was published on 30 June 2021 on the occasion of the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and translated in Slovenian. The report was presented during a press conference on Zoom on 5 July 2021. The report received wide media coverage from EU and Slovenian media outlets.
Serbia: Virtual Fast Response Mission
January / February 2021
An online international mission to assess the state of media freedom and the safety of journalists in Serbia will take place from 28 January to 1 February 2021. The mission is led by ARTICLE 19 as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR). The mission is organised in partnership with the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS).
The MFRR partners and NUNS will meet virtually with key stakeholders in the framework of media freedom in Serbia. The mission partners expect to build a comprehensive picture of the situation of media freedom and safety of journalists in the country; preliminary findings from the MFRR monitoring identified verbal and physical harassment, threats against journalists during protests, attacks from police, and tax investigations as the most recurrent obstacles to journalists’ safety and media freedom in Serbia, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Poland: Virtual Fact-Finding Mission
November / December 2020
An online international mission took place between November and December 2020 to explore the health of the media freedom environment as the government continues to wage a multi-pronged attack on independent media to muzzle critical reporting and undermine watchdog journalism.
The MFRR partners met with key stakeholders including a wide range of editors-in-chief and journalists from across the political spectrum, as well as academics, journalist associations, civil society organizations, the Polish Ombudsman, diplomatic missions and MEPs.
Of central concern is the Law and Justice (PiS) led Government’s plans for media reform. These include efforts to “repolonise” and “deconcentrate” the media market. Ostensibly aimed at creating greater pluralism, in reality these dual legal mechanisms are intended to concentrate more media under the control of the ruling party and its allies. This further been underpinned by a unique model of state capture, where private media companies have been effectively nationalised via state-owned and controlled companies. This model achieved its first results in December when a state energy firm headed by PiS appointees acquired control of Polska Press, in a deal that hands PiS indirect control over 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers.
On 11th February, IPI published the mission report, Democracy Declining: Erosion of Media Freedom in Poland, which can be read below.
Montenegro: Virtual Fast Response Mission
As Montenegro’s new coalition government under the leadership of Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić was formally approved by the Montenegrin Parliament on 4 December, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) and key partners, urge it to put press and media freedom high on its agenda. The detailed report from their virtual fact-finding mission raises a number of concerns. To advance media freedom and, ultimately, the country’s accession bid to the European Union (EU), the new administration must commit to the necessary reforms for building and maintaining a free and pluralist media landscape.
This is a unique chance to make a break from the past after 31 unbroken years of Democratic Socialist (DPS) rule under Milo Đukanović’s leadership. The results from our virtual fact-finding mission by seven international civil society organisations that took place in September 2020, show decisive action is needed to establish a free and pluralist media landscape. Our findings are outlined and analysed in the mission report: Uncertain Optimism, or Optimistic Uncertainty: Virtual MFRR Mission Report published in December 2020.