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Peter R de Vries (composition + photo: DWDD) Library

“When journalists can no longer report without fear, it…

“When journalists can no longer report without fear, it affects us all”

An interview with investigative reporter Benedikt Strunz about the attack on Peter de Vries

When leaving the TV studio in Amsterdam, crime reporter Peter de Vries was shot in the head. ECPMF spoke with Benedikt Strunz, expert for organised crime at German public broadcaster NDR. Strunz says: “We need more reporters like him, not less.”

Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries is fighting for his life in hospital after being shot down in Lange Leidsedwars street in Amsterdam on 6 July at around 7.30 pm. De Vries had just left the RTL Boulevard studio on foot, where he had been a guest. After leaving the building, he was shot five times at close range, including in the head, in a side street of the studio. The police have arrested three suspects.

Peter R. de Vries (64) is a well-known Dutch investigative journalist who covered high-profile criminal investigations. He worked for De Telegraaf, Panorama magazine, Algemeen Dagblad and had his own crime programme on television. He won an international Emmy Award in 2008 for his work investigating the 2006 disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba.

According to a media report, De Vries has been threatened in the past and had received police protection. He said on Twitter in 2019 that he would be on a death list. He has been acting as a counselor to a state witness testifying in the case against Ridouan T., suspected of murder and drug trafficking. Before the attack on De Vries the brother and the former lawyer of the state witness had been murdered.

The General Secretary of the Dutch Journalists’ Union Thomas Bruning declared: “This is what you always hoped would not happen. Of course, it remains to be seen what De Vries’ activities are related to, but the attack took place outside RTL Boulevard. It goes straight to the heart of journalism. Let’s hope and pray for his health.”

 

ECPMF spoke to investigative journalist Benedikt Strunz, an expert on organised crime working for German public broadcaster NDR.

 

Photo: Benedikt Strunz

ECPMF: Mr Strunz, the attempted murder of Peter de Vries shocked the European public sphere. How do you assess this gruesome act?

Benedikt Strunz: I am honestly deeply shocked. I have been following Peter’s work for many years, he is an absolute authority on organised crime. And even though I have no illusions about the current development in the field of organised crime in the Netherlands, I would not have thought such an act possible. I very much hope that he will recover. We need more reporters like him, not less.

 

ECPMF: De Vries is a prominent person in the Netherlands. What kind of message is linked with attacking him?

Strunz: The message that goes out from this assassination attempt is: we can get any of you. And neither your social status nor the police can protect you. And this message is not only addressed to us investigative journalists. This attack is directed against a whole society.

 

ECPMF: It is still to be proved if the attempted murder is related to his work as an investigative journalist. The probability is high, to say the least. How dangerous is the work for investigative reporters in the Netherlands and/or in Germany?

Strunz: I know from very close colleagues that the situation in the Netherlands has worsened considerably. Some colleagues working in the field of reporting on organised crime are nowadays under police protection. This is actually impossible for an investigative journalist, because it makes it almost impossible to guarantee source protection and confidentiality. I think the situation is better in Germany, but I also know colleagues here who are regularly attacked and threatened because they report on criminal clan families. Of course, you take risks in this working-field and there are threats every now and then. But what happens in Amsterdam, Rotterdam or North Brabant is definitely something different.

 

ECPMF: If it was organised crime having commissioned this assault, de Vries stands in one row with Jan Kuciak,Daphne Caruana Galizia and most likely Giorgos Karaivaz. What effect do these murders have on the European community of investigative journalists?

Strunz: In Europe, we have come to know and live a very beautiful principle in recent years. It comes from the organization Forbidden Stories and it says: if you kill one of us, many of us will come and continue his or her or their work. Organised crime needs silence and darkness to grow. I can’t speak for all of my colleagues, of course, but those I’ve spoken to about the assassination attempt are very united in saying that we will continue our work undaunted. But of course, an attack like this is something that makes you think. The only weapons we have to defend ourselves are the pen and the microphone. We now need very strong civil society and political support to outlaw such crimes.

 

ECPMF: The Netherlands are a role model regarding the protection of journalists. Nevertheless they remain a vulnerable group. What do you think has to be done to improve the protection of journalists?

Strunz: The Marengo case has become a test for the Dutch rule of law. And I think the police and the judiciary would do very well to fully clarify this case, with all its entanglements. So that in the end no one can have the feeling that murder or intimidation paid off. And of course it is our task as journalists, whether we work investigatively or in the newsroom, to report on this case. As I said, organised crime hates nothing as much as the light of publicity.

But I also think that we urgently need a European response. I remember very well the horrible murder of Daphne. At that time I thought to myself: I hope I will not experience something so terrible a second time in my professional life. Today, a few years later, murders of journalists are a recurring phenomenon in Europe as well. We therefore need programmes for journalists under threat in Europe as well, and the European community must ensure that attacks on us in partner countries are ruthlessly investigated. In some of the cases mentioned here, I do not have the impression that this is happening. I can therefore only issue a warning. When journalists can no longer report without fear, it affects us all. Because democracy needs the free word in order to live.

About Benedikt Strunz:

Benedikt Strunz works as an investigative journalist for the public broadcaster NDR in Hamburg. His research focuses on organised crime and white-collar crime. Benedikt has been involved in several international investigations, including Luxemburg Leaks, Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, FinCen Files and Cartel Project. He is author of the podcast “Organisiertes Verbrechen- Recherchen im Verborgenen” (https://www.ndr.de/nachrichten/info/podcast4992.html). His work has been awarded with the German Radio Award twice.

Erk Acarer - photo: Twitter upload (https://twitter.com/eacarer) Library

Germany: Exiled Turkish journalist attacked outside his apartment in…

Germany: Exiled Turkish journalist attacked outside his apartment in Berlin

On 7 July, exiled Turkish journalist Erk Acarer was attacked with “fists and knives” outside his apartment in Berlin. Acarer has lived in German exile since 2017 because of his critical reporting of the Turkish government. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) joined its German affiliates, the German Journalists Association (DJV) and the German Journalists Union (dju in ver.di), as well as its Turkish affiliates in strongly condemning this aggression.

The attack took place on Wednesday night in the Berlin district of Neukölln, where three assailants beat him with their fists and knives in his yard. The journalists reported the attack on Twitter, where he shared photos of his injuries and described what had happened. In a video, Acarer said that one of the attackers shouted “You will not write!” . “I know the perpetrators. I will never surrender to fascism,” the journalist reacted. Acarer said that security told him not to disclose names.

The journalist was treated in a hospital for his head injury, which was reportedly not severe. He and his family have been placed under police protection. On Thursday, Berlin police confirmed the attack but did not share details of the suspects.

Facing threats in Turkey because of his critical reporting on the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Acarer and his family came to Germany in 2017. He was also charged for publishing classified information on state security and intelligence activities.

Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, also living in exile in Germany, called it a “direct message” from the Turkish head of state that Turkey could attack a journalist critical of the regime – even in Berlin.

The DJV called the attack “shocking” and drew comparisons with the Skripal case, saying that “the Turkish president is apparently learning from his colleague in Moscow”.

Monique Hofmann, dju in ver.di General Secretary, said: “Only by systematically investigating the motives behind the crime and prosecuting the perpetrators can we prevent the threats to media workers, which they have fled to their home countries, from continuing here.”

“We are appalled by this attack and call on the German authorities to thoroughly and swiftly investigate this cruel aggression. We need governments to do everything to protect all journalists, be they journalists in exile, freelancers or staff journalists,” stated Renate Schroeder, Director of the EFJ.
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UK whistleblower Jonathan Taylor released from extradition hell

UK whistleblower Jonathan Taylor released from extradition hell

We are delighted to announce that on Wednesday 7 July 2021, Croatian Justice Minister Ivan Malenica formally rejected the request by Monaco to extradite UK whistleblower Jonathan Taylor. Jonathan Taylor’s Support Group extends its gratitude to the Minister for taking the right decision.

The move comes following sustained calls for the past 11 months from human rights and civil liberties campaigners across Europe – and UK MPs –  for his immediate release and safe return home. Legal experts backing the release of Jonathan Taylor said there was no proper legal basis for Monaco to seek Mr. Taylor’s extradition and the process was retaliatory in nature. Lawyers acting on behalf of Jonathan Taylor argued that it constituted an abuse of process.

Jonathan Taylor was arrested whilst on a family holiday in Croatia last July, and has been restrained there since. He has been isolated, away from his family, and unable to support himself or his family, all of which have taken an extreme toll on his mental wellbeing.

A former in-house lawyer for oil firm SBM Offshore based in Monaco, Jonathan Taylor blew the whistle in 2013 on a massive bribery scheme. Jonathan’s whistleblowing disclosures led to SBM Offshore paying over $800 million in fines in the US, Netherlands and Brazil and investigations which led to successful prosecutions of two former CEOs for fraud-related offences.

Yet nine years later, he was arrested on a questionable Interpol Red Notice  whilst on holiday, and wanted for questioning in Monaco over allegations made by his former employer over his settlement. The Red Notice was withdrawn by Monaco last December on the eve of Interpol making a determination on its validity. Jonathan denies wrongdoing and his lawyers have long argued there is no legal basis for extraditing him for questioning as he is neither charged nor convicted of any offences.

“I am of course elated that justice has finally prevailed and I am appreciative that Minister of Justice Ivan Malenica was able to pay regard to the salient legal arguments of my lawyers that were seemingly overlooked by the Courts in making his decision to reject Monaco’s flawed attempt at extraditing me,” states Jonathan Taylor.

“Special thanks go to all my supporters in Europe, overseas and in Croatia who somehow kept me sane in my year of need! Be assured that I remain resolute and proud of exposing serious wrongdoing at SBM Offshore and I will never be intimidated by the corrupt and those that shamefully seek retaliation against me for exposing them. I continue to stand ready to assist the Monaco Prosecutor in the event that a decision is made to pursue those responsible for SBM Offshore’s illicit business practices instead of me.”

We agree with Jonathan. The Minister of Justice of Croatia, Ivan Malenica, carefully considered the position of Jonathan Taylor as a whistleblower and a protected witness. His decision in this case has wider implications for the rule of law in Europe: it is a victory for the public’s right to know about wrongdoing by protecting the messengers of that information. Whistleblowers play a vital role in Europe’s fight against global corruption. Croatia has demonstrated its commitment to the rule of law and to the protection of whistleblowers.

We now call on Monaco to drop any further proceedings against Jonathan Taylor and to focus on the actions of SBM Offshore as a proper target for their investigations.

We wish Jonathan a safe return to the UK where he can begin to rebuild his life.

Signed by:

  • Access Info Europe
  • ARTICLE 19
  • Baroness Kramer, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Whistleblowing (UK)
  • Blueprint for Free Speech (Germany and Australia)
  • Centre for Free Expression (Canada)
  • Eurocadres – Council of European Professional & Managerial Staff
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • European Organisation of Military Associations and Trade Unions (EUROMIL)
  • Free Press Unlimited
  • GlobaLeaks
  • Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers (United Kingdom)
  • Martin Bright, Editor, Index on Censorship (United Kingdom)
  • Mary Robinson MP, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Whistleblowing (UK)
  • Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Pištaljka (Serbia)
  • Professor David Lewis, Middlesex University (UK)
  • Protect (United Kingdom)
  • Sherpa (France)
  • SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd
  • The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation (Malta)
  • The Government Accountability Project (USA)
  • The Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF)
  • The Signals Network (USA/France)
  • Transparency International – Bulgaria
  • Transparency International EU
  • Transparency International Italy
  • Transparency International Secretariat
  • WhistleblowersUK (UK)
  • Whistleblowing International Network (WIN)
Peter R de Vries (composition + photo: DWDD) Library

Netherlands: Shocking attack on veteran crime reporter requires swift…

Netherlands: Shocking attack on veteran crime reporter requires swift action

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) is appalled by the attack on veteran Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries.

We call on the Dutch authorities to swiftly investigate and establish whether de Vries was targeted for his work as a journalist. The perpetrator(s) and mastermind(s) behind this horrific crime must be brought to justice without delay.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) is appalled by the attack on veteran Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries.

We call on the Dutch authorities to swiftly investigate and establish whether de Vries was targeted for his work as a journalist. The perpetrator(s) and mastermind(s) behind this horrific crime must be brought to justice without delay.

De Vries is well-known for his investigative reporting on the Dutch underworld and has repeatedly received serious threats as a consequence of his work. On Tuesday evening, de Vries was gunned down on the street in Amsterdam by an unidentified attacker after appearing as a guest on TV show RTL Boulevard. He was taken to hospital in critical condition. As reported on national broadcaster NOS, five shots were fired and de Vries was shot in the head. 

Regardless of the motive, the attack on de Vries is a tragic event for Europe’s journalistic community. Without safety for journalists, there can be no free press. 

“We are shocked by the attempted murder of investigative crime reporter Peter de Vries in the Netherlands. The manner in which he was attacked reminds us of the murders of Ján Kuciak, Daphne Caruana Galizia and Giorgos Karaivaz. We have to face the fact that investigative journalists exposing the actions of organised crime are in constant danger. The state must protect them”,

says Lutz Kinkel, Managing Director of ECPMF.

“The King and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands rightly called this an attack on journalism, press freedom and the rule of law. Now we ask them to follow through with conducting a thorough investigation of the case. The Netherlands are a role model regarding press freedom. But the horrible attack on de Vries also makes clear that the protection of journalists must be improved.”

Peter R. de Vries (Photo: DWDD) Library

Dutch crime journalist fighting for life after being shot…

Dutch crime journalist fighting for life after being shot five times

The International Press Institute (IPI) today expressed horror at the shooting and serious wounding of Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries in Amsterdam and urged authorities to do all they can to ensure that all those responsible for both carrying out and possibly ordering the hit do not escape impunity.

A veteran investigative journalist focusing who has long reported on the Dutch criminal underworld, de Vries was seriously wounded after being shot five times including once in the head in a broad daylight attack in downtown Amsterdam at 7.30pm on Tuesday.

The journalist was rushed to hospital and is currently fighting for his life. Three arrests have so far been made including the suspected gunman, though no motive has yet been suggested by police.

“The shooting of courageous crime journalist Peter R. de Vries is a direct attack on the country’s journalistic community, on the freedom of the press and on Dutch society and democracy as a whole”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “We express our full support and solidarity with Peter, his family and his colleague and we hope he pulls through and makes a full recovery.

“While no movie has yet been confirmed by police, all signs point to this being a targeted and calculated attack aimed at silencing de Vries’s journalistic work. To see yet another journalist who has spent their career fighting for justice and exposing criminal acts gunned down is shocking and disturbing, and another heart-breaking day for media freedom in the European Union.

“The reaction so far from the authorities in the Netherlands – immediate arrests, strong condemnation from the Prime Minster and engagement with the national security and terrorism agency – has been commendable. Yet while the swift arrests are welcome, as previous cases of such attacks on journalists within the EU have shown, arrests and prosecutions do not guarantee convictions. Authorities must take the utmost care to ensure all those who carried out and possible ordered this assassination attempt must be swiftly brought to justice.”

 

de Vries, 64, was gunned down at close distance on Lange Leidsedwars minutes after he left the studio of daily television programme RTL Boulevard, where he had just appeared as a guest. Witnesses at the scene heard five gunshots and found the journalist in a pool of blood.

During his career, de Vries had worked on numerous high-profile investigations into the criminal and drug underworld of the Netherlands. Previously had had reported for newspapers De Telegraaf and Algemeen Dagblad, where he investigated and helped police solve cold cases. For the last two decades he had also hosted his own televised crime show

The well-known reporter, who is also the director of a law office, had received numerous death threats in the past due to his work and had previously been under police protection. He has regularly appeared as a spokesman for victims or as a witness and two years ago, he posted on Twitter that he was on a “death list”.

On Wednesday, Amsterdam’s police chief confirmed that one of the suspects arrested was “probably” the suspected shooter. Two individuals were arrested while driving a car on the motorway and another in Amsterdam, following information from witnesses at the scene. No further information has been provided on the suspected motive of the attack.

Police have cordoned off the area of the shooting and are currently analysing forensic evidence and CCTV footage from the scene.

Peter R. de Vries (Photo: DWDD) Library

Dutch journalist in critical condition after being shot five…

Dutch journalist in critical condition after being shot five times

Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries is fighting for his life in hospital after being shot five times in Lange Leidsedwars street in Amsterdam yesterday evening at around 7.30. The police has arrested three suspects. The European and International Federations of Journalists (EFJ/IFJ) condemned the murder attempt as another tragic blow to press freedom in Europe.

On Tuesday evening, Peter R. de Vries was a guest on daily television programme RTL Boulevard. After leaving the building, he was shot several times at close range, including in the head, in a side street of the studio. Amsterdam’s mayor Femke Halsema told a press conference that the investigative journalist was “fighting for his life.” The police have arrested three suspects.

Peter R. de Vries (64) is a well-known Dutch investigative journalist who covered high-profile criminal investigation. He worked for De Telegraaf, Panorama magazine, Algemeen Dagblad and ran his own crime programme on television. He won an international Emmy Award in 2008 for his work investigating the 2006 disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba.

According to media reports, De Vries has been threatened in the past and was granted police protection. In 2019, he said on Twitter  that he would be on a death list. He has been acting as a counselor to a state witness testifying in the case against Ridouan Taghi, suspected of murder and drug trafficking.

The General Secretary of the Dutch Journalists’ Association (NVJ) Thomas Bruning said: “This hits journalism right in the heart. Of course, it remains to be seen what De Vries’ activities are related to, but the attack took place outside RTL Boulevard. De Vries is a fierce crimefighter, persistent and courageous. We can only hope he survives.”

EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregard said: “I send my thoughts to Peter and expect an immediate investigation bringing the masterminds of this awful attack to justice. Enabling and protecting the crucial work of (investigative) journalists to deal with crime and other essential issues is key for any democracy.”

The EFJ had recently alerted over the escalation of violence against media professionals with an increase in attacks since last year and repeatedly called on the Dutch authorities to do the utmost to protect journalists and investigate all attacks.

IFJ President Younes MJahed said: “We are shocked by this attack against a journalist who has reported extensively on matters of public concerns and has taken huge risks to tell the truth. This is an attack on press freedom and we urge authorities to swiftly investigate this case. Our thoughts are with Peter, his family and friends.”
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Slovenian government eroding media freedom as it takes over…

Slovenian government eroding media freedom as it takes over EU Presidency

The Slovenian government of Prime Minister Janez Janša is overseeing an increasingly systematic effort to undermine critical media, a coalition of press freedom organisations and journalism groups warn today in a new report.

The report concludes that Slovenia, which assumes the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, has seen press freedom deteriorate ever since Janša returned to power in March 2020. Since then, the ruling SDS party has embarked on a multipronged campaign to reshape the media landscape in favour of a pro-government narrative, renewing tactics successful during previous administrations and forging ahead with new forms of pressure.

The front line of this campaign is an aggressive attempt to seize greater control of the country’s public service broadcaster and national news agency using a mix of legal and administrative pressure, as well as vicious, often highly personal smears aimed at undermining the integrity and independence of these institutions.

The Slovenian Press Agency (STA), the lifeblood of the media market, has been drained of state funding since the beginning of the year in a calculated effort by the Government Communication Office (UKOM) to subdue the organisation and cement greater control over its financial and managerial operations.

Though the recent announcement that the government will finally pay an advance of €845.000 for 2021 costs is welcome, serious concerns remain over the conditionality of this agreement and its detrimental effects on the independence of the agency. We believe the government is only making this move because of the sustained criticism it has received for its actions and the need to remedy the situation before assuming the EU Presidency.

More broadly, leading government officials, including Janša himself, are stoking the toxicity of public debate by insulting and denigrating journalists – including via official government channels. This inflammatory rhetoric has led to rising self-censorship and an upsurge in threats against the press, both online and offline. Women journalists are particularly targeted with misogynistic and sexist insults.

Behind the scenes, an effort by SDS is underway to limit critical journalism at mainstream media and strengthen a network of partisan outlets linked to the government. Propaganda media are being rewarded with lucrative state advertising contracts, while government officials have sought to pressure editorial offices and reduce challenging coverage at some of the country‘s biggest commercial outlets.

These tactics raise alarm as they reflect elements of the media capture strategy employed by Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. Moreover, an influx of Hungarian capital linked to Orbán’s Fidesz party is being used to prop up Slovenian pro-government media. Recently, Slovenia’s state-owned telecoms company suspended the sale of a media company after a Hungarian pro-government media outlet was outbid, raising questions about market manipulation and efforts to sell state media assets to SDS‘s political allies in Budapest.

The Janša administration has defended its media policy as necessary to “rebalance” a media landscape it claims is dominated by a historic leftist ideology. Aside from the fact that governments have no business interfering with the editorial lines of media outlets, SDS’ actions and rhetoric do not indicate a genuine interest in fostering greater pluralism but rather in delegitimizing independent media in favour of government-friendly coverage. The depiction of the press as beholden to a political ideology is used to divide the journalistic community down political lines and taint watchdog reporting as biased “opposition journalism”.

While legitimate concerns remain regarding post-independence media ownership concentration and transparency in the Slovenian media market, plans by the ruling SDS party would exacerbate those issues or pose new problems. Legislative proposals to tackle alleged bias at the STA would likewise increase political control over its oversight bodies, rather than lessen it.

While a fragile governing coalition and pushback from civil society and the journalistic community have so far limited the worst of the government’s attempts to erode critical journalism, significant damage has already been caused to the STA and media freedom more widely is once again under sustained threat.

The report follows a two-week online mission to Slovenia carried out by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) between 24 May and 2 June 2021. Jointly led by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Press Institute (IPI), it was joined by MFRR members Article 19, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Free Press Unlimited and Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa. Representatives of Reporters without Borders, European Broadcasting Union, South East Europe Media Organisation and the Public Media Alliance also participated

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Italy: Defamation law must be reformed

Italy: Defamation law must be reformed

A year after the Constitutional Court ruled on the unconstitutionality of prison sentences in cases of defamation through the press, on 22 June 2021 the Court issued a follow-up decision declaring art. 13 of Law 47/1948 (Press Law) not compliant with the Constitution. The Court has however declared art. 595(3) of the Penal Code, which provides for a sentence between one and six years of prison or the payment of a fine, compliant with the Constitution, but applicable only in cases of “exceptional severity”.

In June 2020, the Constitutional Court invited the Italian Parliament to remove specific provisions declared unconstitutional and promote a wider reform of the defamation framework. However, the Parliament did not meet the deadline set by the Court and failed to legislate on this matter, returning the decision to the judiciary. In its decision on 22 June 2021, in light of the lack of such initiative, the Court renewed its call on Parliament urging the promotion of a reform that could adequately balance the “freedom of expressing one’s own thought and (the) protection of individual reputation”. The lack of parliamentary initiative in pushing for comprehensive reform of the defamation framework in Italy is a long-standing issue that contributes to the erosion of a free and independent press and an increase in SLAPPs against journalists.

Data from Istat (Italian National Statistics Institute) shows that, in 2017 alone, a total of 9,479 proceedings for defamation were initiated against journalists, of which 60% were dismissed after preliminary investigation and 6.6% went to trial. Plaintiffs are often public figures – politicians, businessmen, or individuals involved in organized crime – who start legal proceedings against journalists with an aim to silence them and bury articles that often contain information on  corruption, tax evasion, or mafia collusion.

A reform of defamation laws is urgently needed to stop SLAPPs against journalists, which often lead to self-censorship and discourage newspapers and editors from publishing sensitive or controversial information for fear of incurring lengthy and expensive legal proceedings. The European Commission – aware of the need to counter this phenomenon within the EU – committed itself to promoting measures to counter SLAPPs within the EU block, following a request of an Anti-SLAPPs Coalition composed of 60 organizations in Europe, including the members of the Media Freedom Rapid Response. The European Parliament also recently took action against SLAPPs by promoting an “own-initiative report (INI)”, to be discussed on 28 June 2021, with an aim to push the Commission to adopt legislative measures to address SLAPPs.

The undersigned organisations urge the Italian Parliament to begin comprehensive reform of defamation laws in line with international freedom of expression standards as soon as possible. Such reform should center on the decriminalisation of defamation and set limits within civil law on the amount in damages that can be sought to avoid creating undue obstacles to the journalistic profession. Furthermore, this reform should address specific challenges posed by SLAPPs against journalists within the Italian framework. While the Italian Civil Code includes some provisions aimed at countering SLAPPs – art. 96 provides that those plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit in “bad faith” must compensate the defendant – judges rarely recur to this provision in practice.

We call on the Italian Parliament to prioritise the reform of both criminal and civil defamation laws, drive discussions that will lead to the identification of measures that address Italian issue areas, and establish a framework that will protect journalists from indiscriminate use of the law to silence or discredit.

Cases of criminal defamation and civil lawsuits, such as SLAPPs, can be reported to mappingmediafreedom.org. The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) also provides financial legal support for journalists, media workers, and media outlets. For further information on legal aid, please visit https://www.mfrr.eu/support/legal-support or contact Flutura Kusari on kusari@ecpmf.eu.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • Federazione Nazionale Stampa Italiana (FNSI)
  • Sindacato Unitario Giornalisti Campania (SUGC)
  • Articolo 21
  • Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)

This statement was first published by Article 19 on 23 June 2021

Deutscher_Bundestag_by_OlafKosinsky_2695-1 Library

Germany’s Federal Constitutional Protection Act removed protection for journalists

Germany’s Federal Constitutional Protection Act removed protection for journalists

On 10 June 2021, the German Bundestag approved amendments to the Federal Constitutional Protection Act, removing legal provisions that exempted journalists from surveillance and hacking during terrorism investigations. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) joined its German affiliates, Deutscher Journalisten Verband (DJV) and Deutsche Journalistinnen und Journalisten Union (dju) in ver.di in criticising the Act as an infringement of journalists’ fundamental rights and a threat to the anonymity of whistleblowers.

Under the law, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the federal police will be given more powers to secretly monitor online activity and encrypted communications, such as on WhatsApp. Journalists are not exempt, so intelligence services will also be able to hack into journalists’ computers or smartphones on the strict condition that this is done in the context of terrorism investigations.

The EFJ President, Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, said: “Without exemptions for journalists, this law would not only violate press freedom but could be counterproductive for its own purpose having a negative impact on investigative journalism. With no exemptions, journalists risk running dry for sources in critical stories, and whistleblowers may be much more hesitant to reveal important information.”

The approval of these so-called “state Trojans” has drawn strong criticism, not only from members of the opposition of the Bundestag – who called such move “unconstitutional” – but also from journalists’ organisations, lawyers and experts, who warned that the provisions carried a considerable risk of abuse. They intend to file a constitutional complaint on press freedom grounds against the legislation with the country’s highest court. Journalists in particular, who rely on confidential communication with their informants, could be affected by this law.

Monique Hofmann, dju in ver.di General Secretary, said that the media are already being targeted by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution on “questionable grounds”. “Instead of creating a remedy through more transparency and control, the law in its current form cements this deficiency,” criticised Hofmann.

DJV press speaker Hendrik Zörner said: “Those affected do not notice the surveillance, nor do they need to be informed. So how should a journalist be able to guarantee the anonymity of his or her sources in the future? Not at all.”

Zdjęcie przedstawiające postać Daniela Obajtka Library

Poland: PKN Orlen media purchase violates EU merger rules…

Poland: PKN Orlen media purchase violates EU merger rules and media pluralism standards

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today said that allowing the acquisition of regional newspaper publisher Polska Press by Poland’s state-controlled oil giant PKN Orlen to go forward would violate both EU and Polish merger rules and undermine media pluralism.

The MFRR supports legal arguments to this effect made by consortium member ARTICLE 19, which recently submitted an amicus brief to the Warsaw regional court of competition. The court is currently hearing the appeal of the Polish Human Rights Ombudsman against the January decision by Poland’s competition regulator, UOKiK, to approve the purchase.

The MFRR and other international media freedom and civil society groups have previously warned that the deal would hand the Law and Justice (PiS) government greater control over the media landscape ahead of upcoming local elections and lead to a purge of critical journalists and editors akin to the takeover of Telewizja Polska in 2016.

The purchase risks the acceleration of state-led media capture in Poland and echoes developments in Hungary in the mid-2010s, when government-backed oligarchs snapped up the country’s regional newspapers, turning them into party mouthpieces.

While Orlen is nominally a private company, the Polish state is the main stakeholder in the company and holds 32 percent of the voting rights. Orlen has itself stated, in recent occasions, that the Polish state has “de facto control” over the company.

Since finalising the sale, Orlen has broken clear commitments to respect editorial independence and staffing by dismissing or pushing out eight editors-in-chief at Polska Press titles, in contradiction of the court’s interim decision suspending the purchase.

Ahead of the ruling, the MFRR supports the appeal brought by Ombudsman Adam Bodnar and joins ARTICLE 19 stressing that the Regional Court in Warsaw must ensure its decision complies with both EU law on mergers and with Poland’s obligations with regards to European standards on media pluralism.

 


Legal analysis

We believe UOKiK’s failure to examine the extent of the Polish state’s control over Orlen and the clear risks to editorial independence this may pose – in addition its failure to consider the impact the acquisition has on competition and media pluralism – invalidates the entire assessment and constitutes sufficient ground for annulment of its original decision.

Firstly, it is clear that the Polish state wields de facto control over Orlen, with combined voting rights of 32.42%. The company’s CEO  was appointed by the government and has clear political allegiances to PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński. This raises serious questions about the future editorial independence of Polska Press and the risk of indirect government censorship.

Given the Polish government’s increasingly alarming record on media freedom and concerns about PiS’s use of Orlen to direct public advertising revenue away from critical outlets and distort the media market, UOKiK had a duty to assess the question of state control. However, its original assessment failed to examine this fundamental issue.

Orlen has already replaced the editors-in-chief of numerous Polska Press titles with journalists coming from the state-controlled broadcaster TVP and other pro-PiS media, in a first move to end criticism and ensure favourable coverage. Orlen’s other investments in the media sector, most prominently the creation of the Sigma BIS advertising agency with the state-owned insurance company PZU, is another sign of coordinated state cooperation and control.

Secondly, under EU law media pluralism is one of the factors that must be considered when assessing a merger. In testing the purchase with regards to the Polish Anti-Monopoly Act, which reflects the same test provided by EU merger rules, UOKiK should therefore have taken into account the risk that the transaction may have a negative impact on media pluralism in Poland. Its failure to do so constitutes sufficient ground for annulment of the decision.

Thirdly, by failing to assess whether the proposed takeover led to an infringement of Article 11(2) of the EU Charter regarding the freedom and pluralism of the media, UOKiK violated Article 4(3) TEU and Poland’s obligation of sincere cooperation with the European Union while carrying out its merger control assessment – another significant violation.

Lastly, UOKiK failed to consider media pluralism under the European Convention of Human Rights. By authorising a merger that would negatively impact media pluralism, or at the very minimum by authorising a merger without duly scrutinising the impact it could have on media pluralism, the state, through UOKiK, infringed its duties under Article 10 of the Convention.

Taken together, the MFRR firmly believe these failures by UOKiK warrant a decision by the court to repeal its original decision approving PKN Orlen’s December 2020 purchase of Polska Press from German company Verlagsgruppe Passau. Doing so would not only represent a victory for the rule of law, but also be an important victory for media freedom, pluralism and independence in Poland.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)