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Slovakia: Two Denník N journalists face charges for Kuciak…

Slovakia: Two Denník N journalists face charges for Kuciak murder probe revelation

IPI calls for criminal indictment to be dropped immediately

  • UPDATE 21-09-2021: Shortly after publication of this article, it was reported that the Bratislava Regional Prosecutor’s Office has annulled the criminal indictment as illegal and unfounded. IPI welcomes this vital vindication of Denník N’s public interest reporting.

 

The IPI global network today condemns the criminal charges against two Slovak journalists from independent daily Denník N involving the publication of a 2018 article related to the Ján Kuciak murder investigation. IPI urges the authorities to immediately drop the indictment.

On September 20, it was reported that the Slovak police prosecutor’s office had filed charges against Denník N investigative journalist Monika Tódová and Deputy Editor-in-Chief Konštantín Čikovsky. The charges stem from a report published in October 2018 in which the journalists revealed that former journalist-turned-spy chief Peter Tóth had monitored several journalists at the behest of Marián Kočner, the alleged mastermind in the murder, including Kuciak and Tódová herself.

Police prosecutors have now accused both journalists of revealing confidential information by disclosing Tóth’s identity as a secret witness. If found guilty, they could spend up to one year in prison.

“The indictment of Monika Tódová and Konštantín Čikovský is a deeply disturbing attack on press freedom in Slovakia”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Their reporting was accurate and clearly in the public interest. It is therefore outrageous that they are now facing criminal charges for doing their job. Moreover, the timing of this complaint, years after the article was published and just weeks before the expiration of the statutory time limit, itself raises serious questions. We call for the immediate withdrawal of this indictment as well as for a review as to why it was issued in the first place. The IPI global network stands in solidarity with Denník N and its journalists, who, together with other leading Slovak media, have played a crucial role in ensuring that the truth about the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, and the circumstances behind it, comes to light.”

The journalists have three days to file an appeal to the indictment, Denník N’s editor-in-chief, Matúš Kostolný, told IPI. “We will definitely do so and our lawyers are already preparing the appeal.” Kostolný said he “strongly believed” the Bratislava prosecutor would accept the appeal and drop the charges. “We published an article which was correct at the moment and is still correct. The case is connected to the murder of Ján Kuciak. The people of this country have the right to know who was behind the murder and who organized it. That was the reason we published the article three years ago, and we have the same answer today.”

The newspaper accurately reported in 2018 that Tóth had decided to cooperate with investigators when it became apparent that his role in illegally gathering information on journalists would be discovered. Just before publication, Tóth went public himself and commented about the case on Facebook. After publication, he filed criminal charges alleging that the journalists could have put him in danger. This was rejected at the time by the police prosecutor. This changed in September 2021 when the Bratislava Prosecutor’s Office ordered the police prosecutor to press charges.

Kostolný questioned the decision by the Bratislava Prosecutor’s Office, which his newspaper has reported on critically in recent months, to order an indictment three years after the allegation was first made. “I would not be surprised if this was a punishment for our critical reporting”, he said.

Kostolný told IPI that the journalists received a high level of solidarity from fellow journalists and politicians. “The prime minister talked about it, and the minister of culture, who is responsible for the media, expressed her concerns.” The Slovak general prosecutor furthermore urged the Bratislava Prosecutor’s Office to review the case.

“We didn’t do anything wrong and our colleagues understand this. We only want to report freely”, Kostolný said. “I believe that justice will be done. None of us believes that it might end up putting them in jail for a year. It is clearly a stupid case and even in Slovakia, there are normal judges, prosecutors and pollice officers, who will not allow putting my colleagues under arrest.”

The Slovak government is currently working on an updated media law to strengthen journalistic safeguards and the protection of sources, among other changes. “The biggest problem for Slovak media is however not legislation, but the hate speech public figures express towards journalists”, Kostolný said. “We all know the result of this, as we have seen by the killing of Ján Kuciak three years ago.” He continued: “Such violence starts when public figures frame journalists as enemies of this country, as if we are the reason for all problems. This cannot be solved by a law alone.”

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Romania: Filmmakers badly beaten while shooting documentary on illegal…

Romania: Filmmakers badly beaten while shooting documentary on illegal logging

The undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today express serious concern over the brutal beating of two filmmakers who were shooting a documentary about illegal logging in Romania and call on the country’s prosecutor general and law enforcement authorities to ensure all those responsible are swiftly brought to justice.

On 16 September 2021, journalist and freelance filmmaker Mihai Dragolea and director Radu Constantin Mocanu were attacked and badly beaten by a group of 20 people armed with sticks and axes while they were documenting the issue of illegal logging in a forest in Suceava County, northeastern Romania. An activist, Tiberiu Bosutar, who was aiding them in tracking down environmental crimes in Bucovina, was also beaten.

Two of the victims reportedly lost consciousness as they were transported by emergency services to hospital in Vatra Dornei. All three are reported to have suffered non-life-threatening injuries and received treatment and are in a stable condition. All their footage was deleted and the equipment was destroyed by the attackers.

In an interview, Dragolea said the team had travelled by car into a section of the forest after a villager had reported unusual activities. After they were approached by the group, the team took refuge in the vehicle but were dragged out and beaten by four people. The filmmaker was hit in the face and then fell into a nearby ravine, from where he called the emergency services. The activist Boșutar was stripped naked and humiliated. At one point the attackers threatened to kill them.

Our organisations are appalled by this horrific attack on a documentary crew for simply doing their jobs. While the identification and interrogation of at least 11 individuals is a welcome first step, we urge police in Vatra Dornei to ensure that all those involved are charged and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The interior minister, the general inspector of the Romanian Police and the prosecutor general should engage to ensure the case is handled with the utmost urgency. The condemnation by Prime Minister Florin Citu is a welcome sign that this kind of violence is unacceptable. However, this is far from the first time the media have faced violence for reporting on illegal logging and corruption in Romania. State authorities have failed to dismantle the mafia-style networks responsible for these crimes and must take swift action and measures to combat illegal activities as such.

In recent years, journalists and filmmakers documenting the plight of the forest and those defending it have been among hundreds of people, mostly staff from the national forestry authorities, to be attacked by those working for timber groups. Intimidation is commonplace and whistleblowers face serious threats. The fact that many of these attacks go unprosecuted has contributed to a sense of impunity and possibility to act beyond the reach of the law. The Romanian authorities must also uphold international commitments regarding the safety of journalists and media workers, especially those courageously working to shed light on this environmental destruction. The MFRR stands in solidarity with those attacked and is ready to provide funding for the replacement of their recording equipment and support the pursuit of legal action against the aggressors.

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)
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MFRR partners welcome European Commission’s Recommendation on protection, safety…

MFRR partners welcome European Commission’s Recommendation on protection, safety and empowerment of journalists

The partner organisations in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) welcome the European Commission’s Recommendation on ensuring the protection, safety and empowerment of journalists and media professionals in the European Union, presented today. The document is a testament to the Commission’s much-needed engagement in the defence of press freedom and media pluralism as critical elements of the Union’s foundational values in the face of increased attacks and threats to journalists and media workers across the region in recent years. At the same time, it serves as an indictment of the lack of meaningful action by a number of member states and candidate countries who, despite the existence of clear laws and standards to improve the safety of journalists and media workers such as those set out in Council of Europe Recommendation 2016(4) among others, have done too little to turn the tide on this worrisome trend.

The Commission’s Recommendation includes a host of measures that, taken together, should drive member states to improve journalists’ safety and put a halt to an emerging climate of impunity, if they are duly implemented. We welcome the repeated call on the member states’ authorities to engage with the media community and seek the views of journalists, media workers and civil society on ways to prevent and address threats and attacks. Furthermore, as partner organisations in a Europe-wide response mechanism, we particularly appreciate the recommendation to set up national independent response and support mechanisms to provide legal advice, psychological support and shelter for journalists and media workers who face threats and attacks. It is evident that the needs in this regard far outstrip capacity, and local action is needed to close this gap: with the MFRR, we have documented no less than 482 incidents in the EU between January 2020 and June 2021, affecting 1256 persons or media entities in 24 member states. Considering moreover that nearly one out of every three incidents occurred during demonstrations, the particular attention paid to this context in the Recommendation is appropriate. Equally welcome is the call for better social protection for journalists and the specific focus on the distinct protection needs of women journalists and those belonging to minority groups or reporting on equality, and those working in non-standard forms of employment, all of whom are particularly at risk.

The key to the Recommendation’s success will lie in effectively following up on its outcomes and holding the member states to account if their implementation is lacking. We call on the Commission to closely involve journalists and media workers, their unions and associations, and civil society in developing the key performance indicators and in the subsequent monitoring of the implementation. In the meantime, we call on the EU’s member states and candidate countries to heed the Commission’s recommendations and step up their action to ensure the protection, safety and empowerment of journalists and media workers.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
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EU action needed to tackle spyware abuses after Pegasus…

EU action needed to tackle spyware abuses after Pegasus revelations

As the European Parliament today debates the Pegasus spyware scandal, the undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) call for an immediate investigation into the alleged use of the spyware against journalists by Hungarian authorities and urge the strong implementation of new EU rules on the export of cyber-surveillance technology around the world.

 

Revelations by the Pegasus Project that at least 180 journalists in 20 countries had their phones infected by the NSO Group’s spyware underscored the need for urgent action by the international community to tackle the unregulated spread of such technology and to create safeguards for the protection of human rights, including the freedom of the press.

Within the European Union, credible allegations indicate that Pegasus was illegally deployed by Hungarian intelligence or national security services in 2018 and 2019 against at least five journalists, including András Szabó and Szabolcs Panyi from Direkt36, one of Hungary’s last remaining independent media outlets. Fresh revelations surfaced last week when Hungarian media reported that Zoltán Páva, the publisher of the news portal Ezalenyeg.hu and former Member of the European Parliament, had been surveilled using Pegasus as recently as May this year.

Last week it was also revealed that the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) secretly purchased the technology from NSO in 2019. In France, prosecutors are probing allegations that journalists from media outlets including Le Monde, Agence France-Presse and FRANCE 24 were surveilled by Moroccan intelligence services using Pegasus.

The failure to control the acquisition, trade and use of such intrusive technology inside the bloc means that the number of EU member states to have bought Pegasus or other similar cyber-surveillance technology remains unknown. Current estimations may represent the tip of the iceberg. This opacity poses significant threats to journalistic sources, privacy and safety, undermines media freedom and constitutes a clear failure by the EU to close the gaps in its regulatory framework.

As Parliament debates the matter, our organisations again urge the European Commission to conduct an independent and impartial investigation into alleged abuses by the Hungarian authorities against journalists and others. The Commission must establish the extent of Hungary’s use of Pegasus, identify what safeguards have been implemented and react to any abuses. Until such an investigation is carried out, the Pegasus revelations will continue to undermine journalists’ safety and have a chilling effect on what remains of independent media within the country. Robust and effective legal protection must be guaranteed within EU member states against unlawful surveillance by domestic intelligence, national security and law enforcement agencies to guard against human rights violations, including the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy as protected under domestic, European and international law.

At the same time, the EU needs to protect journalists from illegal surveillance outside as well as inside its borders. Reports by NSO that suggest that EU member states Cyprus and Bulgaria granted export licenses for its technology are also deeply disturbing. While Cypriot authorities have denied to the Commission that it has any export links with NSO, the assurances remain unsatisfying. Meanwhile, the response from the Bulgarian authorities has yet to be disclosed. The Commission must renew its engagement with the relevant authorities in Sofia to seek immediate clarity. If confirmed, immediate action must be taken to revoke the export license and establish how and when it was granted.

EU member states themselves have a role to play. On September 9, after a decade of negotiation, new EU export controls came into force with the Recast Dual-Use Regulation, which among other things aims to strengthen controls on the international trade of so-called “dual-use” cyber-surveillance tools. The MFRR urges all 27 member states to swiftly implement this landmark regulation and to collaborate in a transparent manner with the Commission on the sharing of information involving the export of such surveillance tools from the customs union.

The subsequent annual report prepared by the Commission under this regulation should act as a much-needed tool for holding the national authorities authorising the sale of this technology to account. It will also lift the veil on the potential sale of spyware tools by commercial actors based in EU member states to authoritarian regimes around the world. For too long the industry has been able to escape proper oversight and regulation. The Commission should closely monitor and enforce states’ adherence to the new rules. Moving forward, more frequent compilation of information and updates about the buying and selling of advanced surveillance tools may be required to address a fast-changing market.

Despite the modest advances in rights protection in relation to the licensing of these technologies for export from the EU subsequent to the entry into force of the recast dual-use regulation, there evidently remains the need for an internationally applicable regulatory framework that can prevent, mitigate and redress the negative human rights impact of surveillance technology. Until this is in place, we continue to call for a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of spyware technology. The European Union should lead the way on pushing for international agreements on the freeze of sales of these cyberweapons around the world.

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)
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France: Journalist Thomas Dietrich interrogated for two hours by…

France: Journalist Thomas Dietrich interrogated for two hours by police

Police summoned Le Média journalist Thomas Dietrich to Puteaux police station (Paris), where he was interrogated for two hours over a recent journalistic investigation. The International and European Federations of Journalists (IFJ/EFJ) joined their affiliate in France, the SNJ-CGT, in denouncing the attempted intimidation and have called on the authorities to dismiss the groundless complaint against him.

The summons followed a complaint filed by the former head of the Chadian political police, Mahamat Ismaël Chaïbo, for “threats to commit a crime or an offence” after the journalist went to his home in Paris to ask him questions. The journalist denied making any threat during the interview with Chaïbo, which took place last week on the doorstep of his apartment and was recorded. During the interview, Chaïbo responded to a few questions and eventually called his lawyer, saying a journalist was asking “dumb questions” and requested him to “prepare a complaint”.

Dietrich was released after three hours in custody, during which the police asked him questions for two hours regarding Chaibo’s allegations of threats. No charges have been filed against the journalist but the complaint has not been dismissed. Dietrich says he believes the action was designed to pressure him to stop his investigation and find his sources.

Dietrich is an experienced journalist who has been investigating Franco-African relations and crimes committed by authoritarian regimes close to French governments for several years.

“We can only be astonished at the speed of these intimidation maneuvers by the French police against our journalist, even though the authorities have twice allowed Mr. Chaïbo to return to Chad, despite his summons and the publication of our investigation,” said Le Média in a press release.

The French journalists’ union SNJ-CGT denounced the move as a clear attack on the right to information: “This obvious desire to put pressure on a journalist who is well known to the Chadian services and the government in power is intolerable. The SNJ-CGT is doing everything in its power to ensure the safety of a journalist who is in the sights of the Chadian regime and some Franco-African networks, so that he can continue his investigations,” said deputy secretary for International affairs Pablo Aiquel.

IFJ General Secretary, Anthony Bellanger, said: “We cannot accept that the authorities harass and judicially pressure a journalist to stop him from doing his job. We stand in solidarity with Thomas and urge this groundless case to be closed.”

EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez added: “This case is serious as it is an attempt to intimidate a journalist and interfere with his investigative work. Thomas Dietrich was only doing his job as a journalist, asking questions and confronting the facts. His case must be closed immediately.”

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Urgent solution needed as Slovenian Press Agency funding crisis…

Urgent solution needed as Slovenian Press Agency funding crisis passes 250 days

More than 250 days have now passed since the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) last received state funding for carrying out its public service mission from the government of Janez Janša, which currently presides over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

 

Since the beginning of the year, the STA has been forced to operate without public funds guaranteed to it under two separate laws while a contractual dispute manufactured by the Government Communication Office (UKOM) is played out with the aim of forcing the agency to submit to greater government control.

As the Slovenian government took over the rotating presidency of the European Council in July, an end to the crisis appeared to be in sight after the administration pledged to resolve the issue. However, the reworked public service agreement for 2021 included conditions which left the STA’s management with a choice between its existence or independence and it was not signed. Despite repeated calls for negotiations, UKOM refused and the government instead passed a controversial regulation on STA’s financing. Top government officials have meanwhile continued to try to discredit and undermine the STA on social media.

Two months on, UKOM’s summer pledge to resolve the crisis has proven to be hollow and the STA now faces imminent financial collapse. Recent warnings by the agency’s unions are stark. If some form of state funding is not reinstated immediately, the STA could face insolvency by the beginning of October 2021. More than 80 journalists, media workers and other staff would be laid off. A central part of the country’s media ecosystem would fall silent and an important pillar of Slovenia’s democracy would be dismantled.

On Monday, Slovenia’s Supreme Court issued an important judgement confirming that the state has a duty to fund the STA in 2021 in line with the agency’s business plan. Yesterday, UKOM and the STA announced a resumption of negotiations. However, it is the belief of our organisations that this dispute has been  intentionally drawn out by UKOM to drain the agency of resources, heap pressure on its management and ultimately back the STA so far against a wall that it has no choice but to accept its conditions. As detailed in a report by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), this move to strongarm the agency into submission is not an isolated incident but part of a wider attack on the independence of public service media in general.

As new talks begin, the undersigned journalism and media freedom organisations call on UKOM and the government of Prime Minister Janša to immediately end the economic suffocation of the STA and take steps to ensure sustainable funding before its collapse. This will involve making a genuine effort to compromise on the most concerning elements of the agreement and creating a contract which safeguards both the STA’s financing and its independence.

At the very least, the administration must provide emergency funding to ensure the STA’s immediate survival while negotiations continue. Discussions can then begin on providing back payments for lost income. Moving forward, we urge the Slovenian authorities to provide guarantees that the STA’s funding and independence is ensured in the long-term.

The European Union cannot stand by as the leading press agency of a member state heading the EU Council presidency is silenced. We call on the European Commission to redouble its efforts to engage with the country’s leadership to end the crisis. Only then will the STA be able to continue the mission it was established to fulfill 30 years ago.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • Balkan Free Media Initiative
  • European Alliance of News Agencies (EANA)
  • European Broadcasting Union (EBU)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)
  • Index on Censorship
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Media Diversity Institute
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Public Media Alliance
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • Slovene Association of Journalists
  • Slovenian Union of Journalists
  • Society of Journalists, Warsaw
  • South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
  • The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation
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Slovak journalists denied entry to press conference on high-level…

Slovak journalists denied entry to press conference on high-level corruption case

IPI joins leading Slovak media in protesting move.

The IPI global press freedom network today condemned the decision of the Slovak general prosecutor’s office to arbitrarily bar journalists from joining a press conference on a matter of major public interest on September 2, 2021. IPI urges the general prosecutor’s office to ensure that such incidents are not repeated and to grant journalists free access to press conferences in the future. 

On September 2, the office of Maroš Žilinka, the Slovak general prosecutor, organized a press conference to which several media outlets were denied entrance. During this conference, Žilinka was due to offer an explanation of the controversial dropping of charges of several people, including an ex-spy boss. Journalists from the media outlets Denník N, Sme and Aktuality.sk arrived at the scene to report, after hearing about the 2pm press conference by accident, but were not allowed to attend. According to Sme, only journalists from four selected TV channels were allowed into the press conference, which the general prosecutor accredited to a lack of space. The general prosecutor did not publish a list of invited media.

“IPI joins leading editors in Slovakia in protesting against the unacceptable decision to block reporters from three leading media from accessing the general prosecutor’s press conference”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “There was no basis for this exclusion, which runs counter to democratic norms. There can be no discrimination against the press when it comes to access to information in the public interest. We urge the general prosecutor’s office to review its practices and ensure that similar incidents do not occur in the future.”

In response to the decision, the editors of the three outlets sent a letter to the general prosecutor in which they condemned the discriminatory decision. They also asked for an explanation as to why his office had violated the Press Code, which states that journalists have free access to information. “It is not clear to us by what criterion you excluded journalists from the three major news media from informing the public”, the letter, signed by Beata Balogová (Sme), Peter Bárdy (Aktuality.sk), and Matúš Kostolný (Denník N), stated. “The argument about lack of space is very poor and we cannot take it seriously.”

The editors call it “incomprehensible” that the prosecutor general’s office ignores the press law, which guarantees free access to information for journalists. “We urge you not to continue a similar selective approach to journalists and not to hide from critical media issues that are irreplaceable for democracy”, the letter concluded. The decision of the general prosecutor to ban the journalists from the conference was also criticized by politicians from several parties, such as Juraj Šeliga of Za Ľudí, Kristián Čekovský of OĽaNO and Ondrej Dostál of Sa.

Slovenia Flag - credit: Balkan Photos Library

Slovenia: MFRR calls for firm response after storming of…

Slovenia: MFRR calls for firm response after storming of public broadcaster RTV

Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners today strongly condemn the attack on the Slovenian public broadcaster RTV Slovenija (RTVS) by Covid-19 deniers and anti-vaccination protesters last Friday.

At around 8:30pm on 3 September 2021, protesters broke into the RTVS studio in Ljubljana. The group of about 20 protesters, believed to be from the OPS group (Aware Residents of Slovenia), entered the building and managed to break into a newsroom. The group’s main demands are to share their views about the Covid-19 pandemic on RTVS platforms, and for RTVS to halt its coverage of the health crisis and vaccination program. The group was demanding greater airtime on RTVS platforms to share their anti-vaccine views and an end to what they said was “censorship” in the broadcaster’s coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Friday’s attack follows four months of demonstrations outside RTVS offices. While protesting outside the building, the group reportedly insulted and harassed staff. RTVS filed official complaints to the Ljubljana Police Centre during this time and police have launched an investigation.

After breaking through the security area and once inside the building, maskless protesters roamed the halls making demands and giving speeches denouncing RTVS through a microphone. No one was injured and the Ljubljana police said they would investigate the incident and act accordingly. RTVS filed a restraining order against the OPS members.

In a press release, the management of RTV Slovenia said that in their “violent intrusion into the premises of Television Slovenia, the protesters grossly abused the right to peaceful protest.” The press release said that security around the building would be strengthened and talks with relevant authorities will be planned.

Manica Janežič Ambrožič, the RTVS news programme editor, said it was an “unacceptable attack on the media, journalism and democracy”. Andrej Grah Whatmough, RTVS director general, condemned “in the strongest terms” a “grave attack”. Whatmough added that the management had been trying to raise the issue for months, but that because the area outside the RTVS building was public property little could be done by the authorities to stop the protesters assembling.

In a statement, the Slovenian Association of Journalists (DNS) denounced an attack on democracy and deplored a general deterioration in the safety of journalists in the country: “The escalation of hostility directed against journalists has been occurring and cultivating in society for some time. The Association has been warning for a long time that hostility on social networks and incitement against journalists and the media we are witnessing can turn into physical violence, which turned out on Saturday with the attack on RTV Slovenia.”

The Media Freedom Rapid Response partners join the Slovenian journalists’ organisations in calling on the authorities to send a clear signal that attacks on journalists, media workers and media outlets are unacceptable. The signatories call for a prompt investigation into this case and a firm response brought to those responsible.

Signed by:

  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • International Press Institute  (IPI)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
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Malta: Concerns over campaign of disinformation and spoof websites…

Malta: Concerns over campaign of disinformation and spoof websites targeting media

The partner organisations in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) are highly concerned about attempts to spread disinformation and discredit Maltese journalists and bloggers who write about the recently indicted murder suspect alleged to have orchestrated and funded the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017.

 

On 26 August, independent blogger Manuel Delia wrote that “someone somewhere is pretending to be me and sending emails that look like I’ve sent them and building spoof websites to look like they’re carrying things I wrote.” The smear campaign, which included fake emails from Delia saying he was suffering from a mental illness, came after the murder suspect falsely accusing Delia of pressuring a judge to keep him in prison. Delia was then targeted by harassment on social media that suggested he should be “taught a lesson”.

On 28 and 29 August, it was then reported that the websites of news outlets Times of Malta, Newsbook, Net News, Lovin Malta, TVM and StradaRjali as well as the non-governmental organisation Repubblika were spoofed. Many of the fake platforms were registered using the same domain registration service. The common thread between the fake articles is their apparent aim of discrediting journalists and bloggers writing about the alleged mastermind and casting doubt on the prosecution’s case against him.

While it is currently unclear who is behind the impersonation and fake websites, widely-read blogger Simon Mercieca has been feeding the frenzy, claiming (under the guise of asking critical questions) that Repubblika pays Delia 30,000 euros per year to be its Executive Officer and rents offices from Delia’s wife; both claims are untrue. It is not the first time that Mercieca has spread unverified or false information that aims to discredit reporters who cover criminal proceedings related to the main suspect in Caruana Galizia’s murder. For instance, earlier this month, Mercieca attempted to damage the reputation of Matthew Xuereb, Assistant Editor at the Times of Malta and President of the Institute of Maltese Journalists, by falsely claiming that Xuereb was behind a fake Facebook trolling profile.

Mercieca has also targeted the Caruana Galizia family, falsely claiming that they were in privileged possession of a non-PDF electronic version of the report of the Public Inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination in advance of its publication which, Mercieca claimed, “allows the family to make corrections and changes, possibly also to its advantage”. Earlier this year, Mercieca purported that it was “pertinent to ask” whether organisations supporting Daphne Caruana Galizia’s cause “are receiving funds or help to pressurize our judiciary” in a thinly-veiled anti-Semitic post.

The MFRR stands in solidarity with the targeted journalists, media workers and members of civil society. We call on all those involved to immediately end their campaign of disinformation. The Maltese State must swiftly investigate and prosecute any criminal acts committed in this context. Furthermore, we call on the Maltese authorities to take decisive action towards the implementation of the Public Inquiry’s recommendations concerning the protection of journalists, including those stemming from its identification of the State’s failure to protect reporters and media workers before attacks escalate to physical violence.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
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Montenegro, a justice free country

Montenegro, a justice free country

Interview with Milka Tadic Mijovic, one of Montenegro’s leading journalists and president of the Center for Investigative Journalism, who has always been at the forefront of the fight for a better country and for the defence of freedom of expression.

 

Milka Tadic Mijovic is a brave woman. For more than thirty years she has been at the forefront of the fight for a better Montenegro, for a country that is not only European and pro-Western in words and in which the rule of law and functional democracy are everyday life and not a chimera. Tadic Mijovic was one of the founders of the weekly Monitor and of the Association for the Yugoslav Democratic Initiative (UJDI) – during the bloody sunset of the former Yugoslavia – and among the anti-war activists. For ten years she fought against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic at the end of the 20th century, while for the last 15 years she has opposed the “captured state” of Milo Dukanovic.

In this interview, the president of the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIN) in Montenegro talks about the attacks on journalists, their position, and the problems Montenegro and the new government face in dismantling the dense network of relations tied to the thirty-year regime of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), particularly in the judiciary.

Why are journalists in Montenegro so often the target of verbal and even physical attacks? Among other things, you too were recently verbally assaulted…

Montenegro is among the last countries in Europe in the Reporters Without Borders freedom index. One of the reasons is the large number of attacks on journalists that have remained unsolved, from  Duško Jovanović to Olivera Lakić. My case was not that serious and dangerous. The fact remains that journalists and the media receive a lot of threats and pressures. The biggest problem is not the constant attacks, but none of these serious incidents going to trial. Widespread impunity is the reason there are so many attacks on journalists. No one is afraid to attack journalists because no one has been taken to court, not to mention sentenced. Even when the perpetrators of criminal acts against journalists are accidentally found, the instigators are not. The target of the attacks are always people and the media that investigate the links between organised crime and prominent politicians. The directors of the Montenegrin daily Dan and the Croatian weekly Nacional (Dusko Jovanovic and Ivo Pukanic) were killed. Olivera Lakic also wrote about them and they shot her. Montenegro is one of the most tragic examples of political collusion and cooperation and organised crime. This connection is so strong that it is often not possible to draw a clear boundary between these two realities.

So the problem is the judiciary not doing its job?

One of the key problems is the judiciary. Our country, as Milovan Dilas once said, is “a land without justice”. The judiciary in Montenegro was and still is under the control of politics and sometimes under the control of criminal structures. EU accession negotiations have become the longest in history precisely because the judiciary is a real cancer in our system. Even the principle of the rule of law cannot be established in Montenegro.

Is the appointment of a new National Council of the Investigating Judiciary a precondition for starting the creation of rule of law?

The previous regime lost power in the elections on August 30 last year, but not its strength. They have maintained the main levers of economic power and control of the institutions. The very fact that a year after the elections the new government and the majority did not have the strength to make substantial changes is sufficiently eloquent. This speaks volumes about how difficult it is to dismantle this system that has controlled everything in the country for 30 years. An independent chief prosecutor and prosecutor would be the first important step in creating the rule of law. We never had prosecutors who were not controlled by the political elites. It would be a really big step forward not only to improve the internal situation in Montenegro, but also a strong push towards EU membership. I think that those who have lost power will do everything not to lose control of the judiciary.

So can it be said that Dukanovic’s DPS, and the other parties that were part of government coalitions in previous decades, spoke using European language while ruling in an authoritarian way?

Yes, one might say. The way they ruled was absolutely authoritarian. We do not have a democracy that works. It is also true that all the foreign policy priorities of Montenegro coincide with the priorities of the EU and the USA. And it was this orientation that kept the DPS in power. The West has long supported the DPS government, which has used this support as one of the main levers to strengthen power. The rhetoric of the previous government was European, but the practice was authoritarian. It could be said that Montenegro had a system that coincided with those created in the former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan. A small group of people holding both political and economic power.

So someone has Aliyev, someone Nazarbaev and Montenegro Dukanovic…

If you look carefully, the biggest investors in Montenegro come from these countries. We have just completed an investment and investor survey in Montenegro. That research showed that they were mostly various Aliyevs, and Russian oligarchs. Anyway, a large majority of people from the East. The explanation is very simple: the way of doing business and managing a business is similar if not identical to the logic applied by the old regime in Montenegro. So, if you want to make a deal, you do not need to have knowledge, skills, a good project, ability to cope with obligations, to be competitive. No, the only important thing is to have a good connection with the highest authorities, i.e. the phone number of the right person to talk to. The door to a privileged position on the market, in business with the state, etc. is immediately opened.

Let’s go back to the position of journalists and the media in Montenegro. It sounds paradoxical, but despite the great pressure, the attacks, and even the killings, we still have professional and independent media in Montenegro and it is a fact that many in the Western Balkans cannot say the same. How do you explain this little paradox?

The fundamental thing is that in Montenegro the media regarded as pacifists in the 1990s managed to survive. Unlike for example B92 in Serbia, the Montenegrin media managed to survive and preserve an independent editorial policy. Thanks to this we have a couple of professional media outlets in Montenegro. However, it is colleagues engaged in investigative journalism who come under the greatest pressure. It also happens that journalists with strong political views are under attack. In other words, anyone who does their job professionally can be targeted.

Can journalists in Montenegro make a living from their work, that is, from the salaries they earn?

Very difficult. There is no free market and fair competition in Montenegro as in states that have a long or well-established democratic history. The advertising market is tightly controlled, and the members of the previous government still have the major advertisers in their hands and influence or try to blackmail the media. This is why independent media are constantly struggling to survive financially, especially in the previous period when only a few selected media could get advertisers and thus cash the money. The pandemic has further aggravated the position of journalists. Wages go down and the cost of living goes up. As a result, many journalists leave the profession and take up other jobs that can give them a better existence. The best journalists leave, but what encourages me is that young people with great motivation come up to investigate and work in this field. Journalism, generally speaking, is in crisis and the profession of journalist is no longer as prestigious or remunerative as it once was.

Finally, how do you see the increasingly heated rhetoric relating to the enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije in Cetinje? Does it have something to do with a series of events not favourable to the old regime: the new Council of the Prosecutor’s Office, the new management of the Radio-Television of Montenegro, the changes in the board of directors of Prva banka? Is President Dukanovic’s power crumbling?

There is some truth. But there is also great polarisation in society. And that is not good at all. The divisions are deepening. I have friends who have stopped talking to me because they think I have betrayed the nation. This is the atmosphere that brings water to the mill of those who have ruled Montenegro for 30 years. The consolidation of Montenegro and the implementation of the European agenda are not in the interest of the DPS. The only thing they can offer is vulgar nationalism. Serbian President Vucic, on the other hand, is blowing on the crisis trying to compensate for the loss of Kosovo with Montenegro and Republika Srpska. There are several big games going on that are not, at all, in the interest of the citizens of any country in the region, the problem is that we do not know how this is all going to turn out. I just hope the bad part of our recent history does not repeat itself.