BiH: Authorities must urgently break the deadlock facing public…

BiH: Authorities must urgently break the deadlock facing public broadcasters and solve the financial problems

Following the temporary interruption of the TV and radio programs of the RTV Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 8 May 2024, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners denounce the irresponsible political management that created the crisis and led to direct violation of citizens’ right to freedom of information.

The long-standing financial dispute between the national public broadcaster (BHRT) and the federal public channel of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FTV), two of the three public service media in the country, led to an unprecedented media blackout ordered by the BHRT management board. As a result, most of the programmes were replaced by a test signal at 6 am on 8 May. The signal to FTV was reactivated a day later following the order of the Municipal Court in Sarajevo, which threatened BHRT with a fine.

 

On 15 May, the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina issued an order to investigate the responsibility of the Steering Committee members of the Public Radio and Television System of BiH (BHRT, RTV FBIH, RTRS) whose twelve members are appointed by the entity parliaments and the Parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 

“Most of the problems faced today by BHRT and RTV FBiH arise precisely from the fact that the Law on Public Broadcasting System, adopted in 2005 and amended several times in the past period, has never been fully implemented in practice, nor is it respected,” said the BH Journalists Association, which denounced a huge lack of political will to solve the situation.

 

That system was additionally violated in 2017 by the unilateral decision of the RTRS, the radio television of the Republika Srpska, one of the two entities, not to respect the current law on the distribution of RTV fees, and the continuation of the dispute between two broadcasters in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

 

“We hope that the investigation by the BiH Prosecutor’s Office will be an additional signal to the Steering Committee members of the three public broadcasters to urgently return to the key legal provisions on the method of collecting and distributing the RTV fee”, added the journalists’ association.

 

A MFRR mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina conducted in October 2023 warned that the very existence of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s public service media was at stake if the perennial crisis was not urgently resolved. The situation deteriorated further in December 2023, when the only source of income of BHRT had not been collected after a contract dispute with BHRT management. Bosnia and Herzegovina was on the verge of becoming the only European country without a public broadcaster, potentially leaving 800 employees with no job. 

 

While in March 2024 the European Council agreed to open accession negotiations, Bosnia and Herzegovina has yet to improve its environment for the media to continue on its path towards the European Union, as the European Commission pointed out a “backsliding” in media freedom in its report published in November 2023. In particular, the BH Journalists Association has long denounced the dire working conditions for the journalists working in the two public services, their poor labour rights, low salaries and dilapidated state of their equipment. 

 

The MFRR partners urge the competent authorities to find a sustainable solution in order to provide the public broadcasters with sufficient funding to operate normally, as well as the implementation of a legal framework that protects their independence and guarantees their public service mission. A sustainable financing of public services is a prerequisite for the country’s accession to the European Union, in line with the newly adopted European Media Freedom Act. The undersigned organisations also expect the investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office to shed light on the financial management of recent years and to find those responsible for the systematic obstruction of the Law on public radio and television system for almost two decades.

Signed by:

  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Ukraine 6 month anniversary

Ukraine: MFRR partners highlight ongoing press freedom issues

Ukraine: MFRR partners highlight ongoing press freedom issues

MFRR partners today highlight ongoing press freedom concerns in Ukraine, over two years following the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. While Ukraine was at first quick to unite in the face of armed aggression, setting aside internal conflicts and arguments, the climate of trust between officials and independent media seems to have seriously deteriorated, two years on

Repeated surveillance of journalists

In comparison to neighboring Russia and Belarus, Ukraine has long been a haven for independent media, offering local journalists the opportunity to criticize power without fear of retribution. However, a shadow was cast on this image, when in recent months a worrying phenomenon of government surveillance of journalists re-emerged.

 

According to media reports, this surveillance has recently been carried out mostly by the Security Service of Ukraine, known locally as SBU. In January, journalists at investigative outlet Bihus.Info were intimidated by the publication of video and audio recordings showing some of the outlet’s camera operators consuming cannabis, amphetamine and other illegal drugs.

 

Later revelations by the outlet seemed to point to the incident being part of a wider surveillance operation targeting Bihus.Info, in the course of which SBU operatives would have hacked access to video cameras, as well as sent officials to follow journalists at the outlet.

 

In a separate incident, a group of unknown individuals attempted to intimidate investigative journalist Yuri Nikolov by banging on the door of his apartment and demanding his drafting into the army. It was unclear who had sent the individuals to Nikolov’s apartment and how they had obtained the reporter’s address.

 

In April, the SBU again appeared to be responsible for the surveillance of a journalist. This time, Yevheny Shulhat from Slidstvo.Info was targeted. Just a few days before the reporter published an investigation into alleged corruption by a high-level SBU official, military officers tracked him down at a supermarket near his home and attempted to draft him.

 

The incidents were not left unanswered by the authorities. In both the case of Shulhat and of Bihus.Info, the SBU officials allegedly responsible for organizing the journalists’ surveillance were swiftly removed from their positions, while competent authorities opened investigations.

 

However, efforts cannot stop here: systemic safeguards must be established to prevent SBU and other officials from targeting journalists or other critics in retaliation for their work, all while protecting journalists who report on possible misconduct or crimes by SBU and other officials. If this is not done, Ukraine risks following a pattern of state-sponsored intimidation and harassment of investigative journalists.

 

United news policy

In Ukraine, six of the country’s main television channels continue to conduct common, 24/7 news broadcasts, as part of an initiative called the “united news telethon”. Each channel is responsible for producing content for a given time slot, with all remaining channels broadcasting the content of the station occupying the slot.

 

While this initiative was initially hailed as an effort by Ukrainian media to produce common news broadcasts in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the format of these broadcasts has remained largely unchanged over the past two years, contributing to making them increasingly irrelevant, uninformative and unpopular, according to opinion polls conducted in Ukraine.

 

The fact that several of Ukraine’s main television channels continue to conduct common news broadcasts, 24 hours a day, seriously lowers the quantity and quality of information received by Ukrainian viewers. As a result, data has shown that the telethon’s viewership has notably fallen over the past year, and that Ukrainians have turned to anonymous Telegram channels to read what is perceived as “real” news.

 

The sources used by anonymous Telegram channels are often impossible to determine, as are their sponsors. This move away from the media creates a serious danger to Ukraine’s informational security, as the political agenda of anonymous channels normally remains unknown. In addition, Telegram has comparatively loose policies on hate speech and other problematic and manipulative content.

 

For this reason, we call upon Ukrainian authorities to seriously reconsider the format of the “united news telethon” and consider closing this project altogether, as an inefficient target of resources detrimental to Ukraine’s informational security and media diversity in the country

 

Frontline accreditation

As in any war, it is essential to both ensure that Ukrainian journalists can deliver accurate and timely information to the public and to create conditions that minimize risks to their safety. In this context, MFRR is concerned with the current system of frontline accreditation for journalists, and in particular the “traffic light” system under which regional army commands have the power to decide on which areas form part of which zones, establishing “red”, “yellow” and “green” zones with varying degrees of permitted access.

 

While a recent reform did away with the most stringent restrictions, we believe that this positive change can only be a first step in making regulations more adapted to the reality of the work of war correspondents.

 

The current “traffic light” system is inappropriate for several reasons. Firstly, it is not possible to update access zones swiftly enough in response to changing conditions on the ground. As a result, journalists risk being let into areas not safe enough or are prevented from entering areas where the safety situation has improved but are still under a “red” designation.

 

Additionally, anonymous reports by Ukrainian journalists show that military commanders on the ground regularly disregard official red zones, or impose additional restrictions on the work of journalists not required by national regulations. This is mainly related to restrictions on filming, as well as on interviewing soldiers, with many of these cases being overly restrictive.

 

While we again acknowledge and are grateful for the Ukrainian authorities’ commitment to protecting journalist safety, we believe in a need for a discussion about a return to more flexible arrangements for journalists’ access to the frontline, for instance by instead formulating general recommendations to local-level commanders on the conditions under which journalists should be allowed access to combat zones.

 

While great care must be applied when formulating these new regulations, we believe this more flexible system would in the end create safer and equal conditions for journalists, while also ensuring that journalists can continue to provide accurate and timely news to the Ukrainian public.

 

MFRR partners continue to stand with Ukraine, and Ukrainian journalists in particular, in their resistance to Russia’s war of aggression. Recommendations made to Ukrainian authorities are made based on the premise that they will help Ukraine in building a democratic society respectful of media freedom, which ultimately will contribute to Ukrainian victory.

Signed by:

International Press Institute (IPI)
Article 19 Europe
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Georgian PM urged to withdraw Foreign Agent Law and…

Georgian PM urged to withdraw Foreign Agent Law and to guarantee journalist safety

Today the partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) urge Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze to immediately withdraw the bill on Transparency of Foreign Influence and to address the concerning rise in attacks against journalists and media workers in recent weeks.

Irakli Kobakhidze

Prime Minister of Georgia

7 Ingorokva Street 

State Chancellery 

Tbilisi, Georgia 

 

Dear Prime Minister Kobakhidze, 

 

We, the undersigned international press freedom, journalists and human rights organisations, are writing to express our deep alarm about the reintroduction of the bill on Transparency of Foreign Influence and the sudden rise in violence and other restrictions against Georgia’s journalists reporting on the public protests against the Bill.

 

We reiterate our call for the immediate withdrawal of the Bill which threatens the viability of many independent media and we call on the authorities to guarantee the safety of all journalists after at least 20 media workers were physically assaulted, verbally harassed, or detained while covering demonstrations.  

 

The Transparency of Foreign Influence bill, which was recently passed in its second reading at the Parliament, provides the authorities with a powerful tool to discredit, pressure, and eventually silence independent voices, thereby threatening press freedom and freedom of expression. 

 

The law would not only force independent media and NGOs to be labelled as “organisations pursuing the interests of foreign powers,” it would also empower the Ministry of Justice to conduct “thorough investigations” of these organizations solely on the basis of a written application alleging ties to a “foreign power.” 

 

The Ministry of Justice would have the power to request personal information enabling it to interfere in the activities of independent media outlets and NGOs, disrupt their operations, and undermine their watchdog role.

 

Georgia’s current legal framework provides safeguards that uphold freedom of the press, including Article 17 of the Constitution of Georgia, which guarantees the inadmissibility of censorship, freedom of the media, and pluralism of the media. Additionally, Article 3 of the Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression guarantees journalists’ right to protect the confidentiality of sources of information, and to make editorial decisions in accordance with their own conscience. 

 

These important legal protections will be undermined by the new Bill by enabling direct government interference and pressure to be applied to newsrooms. 

 

Lastly, journalists should be able to carry out their work freely. The decision to bar journalists from online outlets from the Parliament, which was made at the very start of parliamentary debates on the Bill, is a clear restriction of the freedom of the media and should be immediately overturned. Furthermore, journalists are unable to carry out their work safely due to police violence and intimidation on the streets of Tbilisi which should immediately end. According to Article 154 of the Criminal Code of Georgia, unlawful interference with a journalist’s professional activities is strictly punishable especially when committed using threats of violence or abusing an official position.

 

Based on our data, at least 20 media workers have been physically assaulted, verbally harassed, or detained while covering demonstrations, and we call on you to ensure the incidents are fully investigated and the perpetrators are held accountable.

Signed:

International Press Institute (IPI) 

Index on Censorship

International Media Support (IMS)

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU) 

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

Association of European Journalists (AEJ Belgium)

Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project

Association of European Journalists (AJE France)

IFEX

Committee to Protect Journalists

Public Media Alliance (PMA)

Society of Journalists (Warsaw)

Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF)

Community Media Forum Europe (CMFE)

Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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MFRR to conduct a mission to Italy amid worsening…

MFRR to conduct a mission to Italy amid worsening state of media freedom in the country

The growing pressure on press freedom in Italy has prompted the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) consortium to organise an urgent mission to Rome on May 16 and 17. The unprecedented political interference in the public service media, the increasing cases of vexatious lawsuits against journalists, and the possible sale of the AGI news agency will be the focus of the two-day visit. Meetings will be held with institutional stakeholders, journalists, trade unions and civil society.

 

Available in Italian here.

In light of the recent legislative developments on media freedom at the EU level, in particular the adoption of the anti-SLAPP Directive and the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), this mission aims at analysing the dramatic backlash on media freedom standards, drawing the attention of Italian and European policymakers to the violations against the EU legislative framework. 

 

Following up on the findings of the 2022 MFRR fact-finding mission to Italy, during the two-day visit to Rome on 16 and 17 May, the MFRR delegation will focus on three priority topics: the increasing political pressure on the public broadcaster RAI, the conflict of interest around the selling of the public news agency AGI (Agenzia Giornalistica Italia), and the ongoing reform of criminal defamation laws, in the framework of the increasing number of vexatious lawsuits that journalists face in Italy, often initiated by members of the government. 

 

The mission will be led by the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), and will be joined by Article 19 Europe, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), and the International Press Institute (IPI).

 

The MFRR delegation has requested meetings with the Ministry of Justice, the Justice Commission at the Senate of the Republic, the Parliamentary Commission for the general direction and supervision of radio and television services, and to the Authority for the Telecommunications AGCOM. The delegation will also meet with Members of the Parliament who have taken part in parliamentary discussions concerning press freedom in Italy. 

 

The delegation will meet the representatives of local mission partners – Amnesty International Italia, Articolo 21, Consiglio Nazionale Ordine dei Giornalisti (CNOG), Federazione Nazionale Stampa Italiana (FNSI), Unione Sindacale Giornalisti Rai (USiGRai), as well as journalists and other relevant stakeholders to engage in a dialogue on the current condition of the Italian media. 

 

The delegation will hold a press conference on May 17 at 11:00 at the premises of Consiglio Nazionale Ordine dei Giornalisti (sala Ocera, via Sommacampagna, 19, Rome) to present initial observations and recommendations from the mission. A detailed mission report will be published in the forthcoming weeks.

 

The MFRR consortium reiterates its long-standing commitment to improving press freedom in the country, in the wake of the recent developments and political pressure affecting press and media freedom in Italy.

Signed by:

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

Libertà di stampa in Italia: il consorzio europeo MFRR in missione a Roma

La crescente pressione sulla libertà di stampa in Italia ha spinto il consorzio Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) a organizzare una missione urgente a Roma il 16 e 17 maggio. L’interferenza politica senza precedenti nei media del servizio pubblico, i crescenti casi di cause vessatorie contro i giornalisti e la possibile vendita dell’agenzia di stampa AGI saranno al centro della visita di due giorni. Sono previsti incontri con interlocutori istituzionali, giornalisti, sindacati e società civile

 

Alla luce dei recenti sviluppi legislativi sulla libertà di stampa e dei media a livello europeo, in particolare l’adozione della direttiva anti-SLAPP e della Legge Europea sulla Libertà dei Media (EMFA), questa missione si propone di analizzare il serio peggioramento degli standard per la libertà dei media nel paese, richiamando l’attenzione dei politici italiani ed europei sulle violazioni del quadro legislativo europeo. 

 

Dando seguito alla precedente visita in Italia del 2022, durante i due giorni a Roma, il 16 e 17 maggio, la delegazione MFRR si concentrerà su tre temi prioritari: la crescente pressione politica sull’emittente pubblica RAI, la vendita dell’agenzia di stampa pubblica AGI e la riforma delle leggi penali sulla diffamazione, alla luce del crescente numero di cause vessatorie che i giornalisti devono affrontare in Italia. 

 

La missione sarà guidata dalla Federazione dei Giornalisti europei (EFJ) e da Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), cui si uniranno Article 19 Europe, lo European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) e l’International Press Institute (IPI).

 

La delegazione MFRR ha richiesto incontri con rappresentanti del Ministero della Giustizia, della Commissione Giustizia del Senato della Repubblica, della Commissione parlamentare per l’indirizzo generale e la vigilanza dei servizi radiotelevisivi e dell’Autorità per le Telecomunicazioni AGCOM. La delegazione incontrerà anche i parlamentari che hanno partecipato alle discussioni sulla libertà di stampa in Italia. 

 

La delegazione europea incontrerà inoltre i rappresentanti di cinque partner locali – Amnesty International Italia, Articolo 21, Consiglio Nazionale Ordine dei Giornalisti (CNOG), Federazione Nazionale Stampa Italiana (FNSI), Unione Sindacale Giornalisti Rai (USiGRai), nonché giornalisti e altri soggetti interessati per avviare un dialogo sulla condizione attuale dei media italiani.

 

Venerdì 17 maggio, La delegazione terrà una conferenza stampa il 17 maggio alle ore 11:00 presso la sede del Consiglio dell’Ordine dei Giornalisti a Roma (sala Ocera, via Sommacampagna 19) per presentare le prime osservazioni e raccomandazioni della missione. Un rapporto dettagliato della missione sarà pubblicato nelle settimane a venire.

 

Il consorzio MFRR ribadisce il suo impegno di lunga data per migliorare la libertà di stampa nel Paese, sulla scia dei recenti sviluppi e delle pressioni politiche che hanno colpito la libertà di stampa e dei media in Italia.

 

Firmato:

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

International Press Institute (IPI)

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

ARTICLE 19 Europe

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Serbia: MFRR partners demand Belgrade court set Belarusian journalist…

Serbia: MFRR partners demand Belgrade court set Belarusian journalist free

Andrey Gniot at risk of deportation under politically motivated charges

The undersigned partner organizations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) demand the immediate release of Andrey Gniot, a Belarusian journalist and pro-democracy activist who is being held in custody by Serbian authorities on politically motivated charges formulated by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Since October, Serbian courts have been deliberating upon a request to deport Gniot to Belarus.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), an independent trade union in exile, Gniot was arrested immediately upon his arrival to Serbia on October 30. He was detained based on an international arrest warrant issued by Interpol upon request by authorities in Belarus on alleged tax evasion charges. After a first appeal, the High Court of Belgrade is currently deliberating on whether the conditions for Gniot’s extradition to Belarus have been met. 

 

The journalist first left his home country in 2021 after receiving “signals” that authorities were aware of his activism, which he had not made public out of fear of reprisal, according to reports by independent Belarusian media. After first moving to Thailand, the journalist flew for work to Serbia, a country which remains a major hub for exiled Belarusians and Russians, as it is one of the few in Europe which they can enter without a visa. He was unaware that an international arrest warrant had been issued against him.

 

Activism and journalistic activity in Belarus

Gniot is mainly known for his activities as a director of music and TV commercials, as well as a journalist and political activist. He is one of the founders of SOS BY, an independent union of Belarusian sportspeople, which reportedly contributed to the canceling of the 2021 Hockey World Cup in Belarus. The decision was made months before the event and was motivated in part by ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated by authorities in the wake of the 2020-21 mass protest movement against Lukashenko. SOS BY was later designated as an “extremist formation” by the Belarusian KGB, which made it possible to sentence its members to lengthy prison terms.  In addition, Gniot’s decision to leave Belarus was due in part to his contributions for Prague-based broadcaster RFE/RL, as he was concerned about the risk of arbitrary detention in retaliation for his journalistic work.

 

While Gniot is formally accused of tax evasion, he claims that he was never notified of these charges throughout the years during which he would have violated Belarusian tax laws. Tax evasion, as well as other charges, were also earlier used to incriminate Maryna Zolatava and Lyudmila Chekina, respectively the editor-in-chief and director general of Tut.by. The website used to be Belarus’ most popular independent online outlet before its forced closure by authorities in 2021.

 

In addition, Gniot’s lawyers reported that authorities in Minsk accused him based on a law adopted in 2019, while the charges are related to Gniot’s activities between 2012 and 2018.

 

Risk of political persecution in Belarus

Belarus remains Europe’s biggest jailer of journalists, with 36 media workers currently behind bars according to BAJ. The country of nine million also has the highest rate of imprisoned journalists per capita in the world.

 

Independent media are in practice fully banned at the national level, and independent journalists have been forced to go into exile, as staying in Belarus exposed them to inevitable repression due to current and past activities.

 

Since 2020, authorities have labelled thousands of media outlets, website pages, social media accounts and other online content as various forms of “extremism”: as a result, journalists and readers alike face fines and prison terms for any interactions, current or past, with independent outlets designated as such. Security forces are known for regular detentions of Belarusian journalists and independent media consumers for past activities, with the first group receiving prison or other sentences restricting their liberty, while the second are typically forced to record videos “confessing” their “extremism” before serving short-term prison terms (typically up to 15 days).

 

Given the likelihood of politically motivated repression in Belarus, we urge the High Court of Belgrade, which is currently handling Gniot’s case, to pronounce a decision in favour of his immediate release, as well as for competent authorities in Serbia to not appeal such a decision. 

 

Serbian authorities should take into account the unimaginable scale of repression of independent media in Belarus, and the fact that Belarusian authorities have weaponized tax evasion charges to take revenge on a journalist for his past successful activism against human rights abuses. Gniot’s deportation to Belarus would expose him to arbitrary detention and imprisonment, as well as inhumane treatment and torture while in custody.

 

Andrey must be set free and allowed to continue his professional activities in the country of his choice.

Signed by:

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

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

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Press freedom in Italy: those in power are not…

Press freedom in Italy: those in power are not to be criticised

In 2021, then opposition leader Giorgia Meloni sued Roberto Saviano for defamation. Last October, the Rome Criminal Court issued a sentence against the Italian writer. A ruling that alarmed Italian and European civil society. We had a conversation about it with Antonio Nobile, Saviano’s lawyer.

 

By Sielke Kelner

Originally published by OBCT. Also available in ITA

The defamation lawsuit filed by Giorgia Meloni against Italian writer Roberto Saviano has ended with a first-degree criminal conviction issued by Rome Criminal Court. The judge convicted Saviano of criminal defamation, acknowledging, however, mitigating circumstances: the moral motivation that, according to the Court, led Roberto Saviano to formulate his criticism. While the prosecutor had asked for the writer to pay a fine of 10,000 euros, the criminal court reduced this to 1,000 euros. The verdict was met with dismay by Italian and European civil society. The involvement of a high-level public figure, specifically the Prime Minister acting as plaintiff, along with the public interest nature of the dispute concerning the rescues of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea by NGOs, has raised significant concerns regarding Italian freedom of expression. According to MFRR and CASE, Meloni’s lawsuit is a SLAPP. They also argue that the verdict sets a dangerous precedent that could facilitate further attempts to silence public watchdogs criticizing political leaders. We discussed this with Antonio Nobile, Saviano’s lawyer. Nobile is a criminal defense lawyer registered at the Naples Bar Association, he also acts as an expert in criminal procedural law at the University of Southern Lazio.

 

From the perspective of a criminal defense lawyer, what are the consequences of this verdict on press freedom and freedom of expression in Italy?

First and foremost, the immediate effects are on Saviano, who has a defamation conviction on his criminal record, which is damaging for a political intellectual. Additionally, from the beginning, this trial has had a strong symbolic element. This legal action and the decision to pursue it even when Meloni became Prime Minister [when the lawsuit was filed she was the leader of the political opposition] have a symbolic value because the individuals involved are very well-known. Saviano is a very well-known Italian intellectual, in Italy and abroad. If someone wanted to dispatch a clear message, then Saviano was the ideal target. The consequences for the rule of law are immediately measurable starting from a technical consideration: the whole jurisprudence produced by the ECtHR which has recognized investigative and political journalists as public watchdogs.

 

Have we experienced a deterioration of Italian freedom of press and expression in recent years? 

The state of affairs is worrying because this trial represents a worsening drift. I have been defending Saviano for almost 15 years now, and over the years Saviano has faced numerous lawsuits. The only two criminal lawsuits which have not been dismissed during preliminary investigations, were those in which the plaintiffs were Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini. If we want to consider free expression, even in relation to a sharp and strong criticism, as a sort test of the health of democracy, then indeed, this conviction is bad news. The way in which the entire process has been managed is bad news.

 

During the hearing last October, the prosecutor argued that calling a politician a bastard does not fall under the exercise of harsh political criticism, it rather constitutes an attack on the person. Why does the insult formulated by Saviano not represent an attack on reputation?

It is not an attack on reputation because when talking about defamation in connection to the right to criticize, it is important to assess the context of the criticism. The prosecutor’s conclusions would have made sense if, during an interview, Saviano had gratuitously and casually called Meloni a bastard. Moreover, those conclusions of the Prosecutor’s Office are based on falsification. Saviano never used the singular. Its plural, “bastards”, gave much more the sense of political criticism. However, the expression was tuned to the singular by both the private and the public prosecutors because there was a need to portray a political criticism— directed towards multiple subjects across the political spectrum who had expressed the same negative approach regarding NGOs’ sea rescues of migrants—as a personal attack, which was the only way to rule out any legitimacy to the criticism formulated by Saviano. Exonerating circumstances related to the right to criticize, moreover, were partly recognized in the verdict. In fact, while Saviano was convicted, the judge acknowledged a mitigating circumstance associated with the high moral and social value of his criticism. Nonetheless, in this trial, the prosecution was very worried about the plaintiff.

 

How do you explain the decision of the Roman court?

What struck me from the very beginning is that the day before, another verdict was issued in the appeal against Mimmo Lucano [former mayor of Riace, in Calabria, who had promoted a progressive model for the integration of migration in his town]. Another judicial case that has drawn a lot of attention. Mimmo Lucano, like Saviano, was identified as an extraordinary propaganda opportunity by the same politicians who chose Saviano as their ideal target. Because in defamation cases, alongside with defendants, their ideas are objects of the trial. If I were to give a legal explanation, I would imagine that in the best-case scenario, the court considered the ECtHR judgment analyzing the case of an Austrian politician who was called an idiot by a journalist criticizing him because this Austrian politician had said that even Nazi soldiers had contributed to building peace. The Court makes a very interesting reasoning by saying: this criticism is justified because the politician, while making that abhorrent statement, has in mind a propaganda purpose. In that ruling, the Court mentions the concept of consciously provoked outrage, which according to me is a very convincing definition of the concept of propaganda. What does this mean? The politician, to put it informally, makes a big statement because he knows that he will provoke outrage, for opposite reasons, both among his supporters and the other political party. When this happens, criticism, argues the ECtHR, can be proportionate. Hence, even very harsh criticism is allowed. The verdict convicting Saviano does not address this issue and also confuses some of the constituent elements of the crime of defamation. While reading it, I had the strong feeling that the judge herself was not convinced of the decision to convict, but I think external factors weighed in heavily.

 

What is the context in which the verdict was issued?

A few days before the verdict, Italian politics were dominated by the debate surrounding a Sicilian judge who had refused to apply the so-called Cutro decree [the governmental decree issued after a shipwreck off the beach of Cutro, in Calabria in which almost 100 people lost their lives]. According to the rule of law, judges are called to interpret the law in order to apply it. They are asked to take into account laws’ compatibility with the constitutional framework. Arguing, as Meloni did, that judges must apply the laws tout court and refrain from any interpretation is outrageous. The idea that a judge must apply a law always and in any case, even when the law is unconstitutional, goes against the principles considered essential by our fundamental Charter. It is an extremely dangerous idea that indicates an authoritarian and illiberal vision of democracy on the part of the Government.

 

What does it mean to have a high level public official suing you? 

In Saviano’s case, a head of government who acts as plaintiff in a trial poses enormous consequences for the separation of powers, affecting the independence of the judiciary. If I, as a judge, know that the lawyer I have in front of me will become a deputy minister of justice within a year, or I know that the lawyer I have in front of me will become a member of the Superior Council of the Judiciary within a year, and that therefore my career could pass through the desk of that lawyer, you understand well that independence is compromised. The situations described are not random examples: they concern respectively what happened in the trials brought against Saviano by Meloni and Salvini. Throughout the whole process, we experienced an anomaly, where the powerful individual seemed to be Saviano. And the person to be protected, Meloni, even when she became Prime Minister. This suggests that politicians believe they are entitled to a sort of retaliation against the journalistic community. Today we have reached the point where, and this is what the Meloni government has legitimized, lawsuits are filed no matter what. Or at least the threat of lawsuit, because between the threat of a lawsuit and the formalization of a lawsuit, there is the ocean in between. Threats of lawsuits are made public without any attempt by the plaintiffs to refute the criticism that was formulated against them. An investigation provides evidence of a certain situation involving a minister, a deputy minister, or a party member, and the response is: I will sue you. There is hardly any justification. Because what it is conveyed is that power is not to be criticized. And if it is criticized, you are criticizing it for an interest, so you must be punished.

 

Moving on to the activities of the Italian legislature, in 2020 and 2021, the Constitutional Court had invited Parliament to initiate a broad debate on the issue of defamation through the press, both in civil and criminal matters. During the past year, 5 different bills were presented. Last fall, only one was selected to be pursued in the parliamentary process, the Balboni bill.

I say this against my professional interest, but my idea is that defamation should be decriminalized: defamation should not be a crime. Provided that there is a legal framework in place for those who feel that have suffered damages to their reputation. They are entitled to take action in civil court and obtain damage compensations. A provision which should be balanced by the possibility of declaring the recklessness of the action. A possibility that already exists in our legal system in civil matters, but which should be implemented by establishing criteria of proportionality between the damage claimed by the plaintiff and the severity of the penalty in the event of proven recklessness in the dispute. If we truly want to implement and fully fulfil the spirit of Article 21 of the Italian Constitution, the idea that someone can be criminally prosecuted for expressing their ideas is, in my view, no longer acceptable. As long as defamation remains a crime, we risk interpretations that are each time different and linked to contingencies.

This interview was conducted by OBCT as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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World Press Freedom Day

WPFD 2024: Media freedom groups sound the alarm over…

WPFD 2024: Media freedom groups sound the alarm over press freedom in Europe

On World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) 2024, the partner organisations of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) stand in solidarity with media workers everywhere and draw attention to the deteriorating press freedom situation in Europe. Since WPFD 2023, the MFRR partners have documented more than 1,000 media freedom violations affecting over 1,500 journalists or media entities in European Union Member States and candidate countries. 

As the year progressed, the MFRR witnessed physical attacks, harassment online and offline, the continued use of vexatious lawsuits to stifle critical reporting, further pressure on sustainable revenue streams for independent media, government attempts to muzzle public media, and tragically the killing of yet another journalist in the line of their work; Arman Soldin in Ukraine. 

 

We have also seen ongoing impunity for crimes against journalists, including stalled progress in investigating the murder of Giorgos Karaivaz, the overturning of convictions for the killers of Slavko Ćuruvija, and the forced departures of the special prosecutors in the case of Ján Kuciak

 

Online attacks have risen once again and now make up 25% of all incidents recorded by MFRR partners on the Mapping Media Freedom platform. In addition to this, many countries are seeing the growth of coordinated smear campaigns and discrediting of journalists, particularly around election periods, often led by political groups seeking to silence journalists

 

Elsewhere, EU Member States including France, Germany, and Hungary have all played host to a range of digital attacks against media workers, as well as ongoing spyware and surveillance scandals and a surge in hacking and DDoS attacks, which have more than doubled in the last year.

 

As Europe moves further into a crucial election year, the need for independent, public interest journalism has never been more important and the pressure on journalists has never been more intense. Journalists must be able to operate and report free of pressure and intimidation, to scrutinise political campaigns and records in office, and to help provide the public with the information necessary to make informed democratic choices. Policy makers must ensure a free and pluralistic media landscape, without which the democratic process is fatally compromised.

 

Moreover, the election results can also have a profound impact on media freedom. The contrasting fortunes of journalism following elections in Poland and Slovakia set out the risks and opportunities at stake. In Poland, a reforming government has helped end the eight years of political stranglehold of the governing party over public media TVP. While in Slovakia, a new era of intimidation and pressure on private and public media has just begun.  

 

Significantly, Europe’s policy makers have made notable progress in developing instruments to address elements of the crisis. The recent adoption of the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), the European Anti-SLAPP Directive, and the Council of Europe Recommendation on countering the use of SLAPPs all provide Europe-wide legislative protection for media freedom. The Anti-SLAPP Directive provides significant safeguards for journalists faced with vexatious lawsuits while the EMFA seeks to stall the spread of media capture by protecting media pluralism, editorial independence, and the independence of public media.

 

To mark WPFD, the MFRR also calls on European governments and media stakeholders to get behind the Council of Europe’s “Journalists Matter” campaign and to build national responses to the safety crisis facing journalists. 

 

Since 2020, the MFRR has supported 228 cases of journalists at risk, ranging from replacing damaged equipment and covering medical expenses, to paying for psychosocial support and living or relocation costs. On World Press Freedom Day, we stand in solidarity with journalists and media workers everywhere and reaffirm our commitment to defending press freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

 

More information about MFRR support offerings for journalists can be found here

Signed by:

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

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Terrorism investigation into Catalan journalist raises concerns ahead of…

Terrorism investigation into Catalan journalist raises concerns ahead of elections

Journalists and media freedom organisations express concern over the investigation for terrorism of Catalan journalist Jesús Rodríguez Sellés, now residing in Switzerland. The investigation, lasting for four years after the alleged crime, coincides with negotiations over the amnesty law for pro-independence leaders. Fearing politicisation of the case, the Media Freedom Rapid Response partners call for a review of the investigations’ circumstances, allowing Rodríguez Sellés to continue his journalism freely.

The partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response today expressed concerns over the terrorism investigation by the Spanish authorities of journalist Jesús Rodríguez Sellés. The journalist left Spain for Switzerland citing a lack of guarantees for practicing his profession and the threat of arbitrary arrest in Spain.

 

Rodríguez Sellés is an award-winning Catalan journalist working for La Directa. In November 2023, after four years of judicial investigation he was named an official suspect of terrorism offenses for allegedly assisting in the organisation of the Tsunami Democrátic protests in October 2019. The movement was a reaction to a decision by the Spanish National High Court jailing Catalan separatist leaders over their roles in the failed bid to split from Spain in 2017.

 

The protests saw violence erupting in Barcelona, where protesters were accused of attacking police officers and vandalism, while the police used batons, teargas and rubber bullets against the protesters, including journalists, leading to several injuries.

 

On April 9, 2024, the High Court ordered Rodríguez Sellés to provide his formal address, so that he could be summoned to testify when the judge requested it. Two days later, Rodríguez Sellés announced that he had left Spain for Switzerland in order to ‘preserve his freedom’ and to be able to continue his work as a journalist. He added that he was being persecuted for ‘doing his job’.

 

Rodríguez Sellés is closely associated with the Catalan independence movement. He is also a prominent and respected journalist who has, among other things, exposed police crimes, abuse of power and persecution of dissent.

 

Rodríguez Sellés took the police to court following his assault in 2016 by riot police, leading to the conviction of one officer to a two-year prison term. The officer’s appeal is pending before the Spanish Supreme Court. Rodríguez Sellés is also pursuing a complaint against two other officers for committing perjury during the initial trial.

 

The investigation into the 2019 demonstrations had been ongoing for four years with no visible progress. Spanish authorities finally announced formal suspects two days after the announcement of a publicly divisive amnesty plan for separatist leaders.

 

The charges against Rodríguez Sellés are not formally related to his journalism. However, we are concerned that, given his record of exposing police crimes that have embarrassed the state, and in view of the political context in which the investigation was launched as well as the extreme and disproportionate nature of the charges in question criminalising dissent under the guise of anti-terrorist legislation, this investigation may be politically motivated and may also be an effort to restrict his journalism.

 

We therefore call on the Spanish authorities to immediately pause the investigation and to conduct a thorough and credible review to ensure compliance with fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, and proportionality. MFRR partners will continue to follow this investigation closely.

Signed by:

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

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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World Press Freedom Day 2024: Europe’s press freedom battlegrounds

World Press Freedom Day 2024

Europe’s press freedom battlegrounds

02 May, 14:00 CET.

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and the International Press Institute (IPI) invite you to join our World Press Freedom Day 2024 webinar: Europe’s press freedom battlegrounds.

Leading editors from Poland, Germany, Slovakia, and Italy will highlight and debate key challenges they face as Europe gears up for a crucial election season.

We will look at rising threats, what is behind them, and the support independent media need to counter them. Plus, we’ll debate what the EU elections mean for media freedom.

Moderator

Scott Griffen

Deputy Director, International Press Institute

Speakers

Beata Balogová

Editor-in-chief of SME, a major independent daily and news site in Slovakia

Bartosz Wieliński

Deputy editor-in-chief, Gazeta Wyborcza, a major independent daily and news site in Poland

Stefano Vergine

Freelance investigative journalist and contributor, Domani, Italy

Ramona Strugariu

MEP and lead negotiator on the European Media Freedom Act for the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs

Steffen Grimberg

Senior Editor at KNA Mediendienst, the media section of Katholische Nachrichtenagentur

Bulgaria Minister urged to drop defamation lawsuit

Bulgaria Minister urged to drop defamation lawsuit

The Media Freedom Rapid Response consortium partners criticise the criminal defamation lawsuit filed by Interior Minister Kalin Stoyanov against investigative journalists Atanas Chobanov and Dimitar Stoyanov of the Bureau for Investigative Reporting and Data (BIRD). The undersigned organisations believe that the lawsuit is designed to silence legitimate investigative reporting and should be immediately withdrawn.

The legal action stems from the journalists’ reporting on a property deal which allegedly connected the current Minister of Interior to Martin Bozhanov, an individual known as ‘the Notary’, who was murdered earlier this year following extensive allegations of corruption against him. Kalin Stoyanov has denied the connection.

 

The Minister is seeking 65.000 Bulgarian lev (33.300 euros) in damages, claiming that the reporting crossed the boundaries of freedom of speech and harmed his dignity and authority.

 

Why legal action against BIRD threatens investigative journalism

The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ) “is convinced that the lawsuit bears the characteristics of a SLAPP”. This comes amid a worrying trend of using vexatious lawsuits, often known as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), to suppress investigative journalism in Bulgaria and elsewhere.

 

The undersigned organisations believe that Minister Stoyanov’s lawsuit is an attempt to restrict legitimate media scrutiny and the public’s right to information. It also threatens to obstruct efforts to combat corruption in Bulgaria and ensure transparency within government institutions.

 

The MFRR consortium emphasises that in a democracy, public officials must expect greater levels of scrutiny, a principle reinforced by judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

 

Moreover, Minister Stoyanov’s objection to the use of anonymous sources by BIRD in his claim disregards the essential need to safeguard informants’ anonymity, especially in cases involving risks to their safety. No pressure should be placed on the journalists to expose their sources, whose protection is also guaranteed by the case law of the ECtHR.

 

Calling for lawsuit’s withdrawal and legislative reform

The undersigned organisations demand the withdrawal of charges against BIRD journalists.

 

Additionally, we call on the government to accelerate legislative reform to protect journalists against all kinds of vexatious lawsuits. This should include providing for early dismissal of evidently vexatious lawsuits, the provision of costs and other compensation to the victims of SLAPPs. In particular, we urge the government to use the transposition of the European Union’s new Anti-SLAPP Directive as an opportunity to ensure the new protections apply to domestic cases as well as cross-border cases.

 

We express full solidarity with BIRD and reiterate our commitment to defending press freedom in Bulgaria. We will continue to raise awareness and uphold the integrity of journalism in the country.

Signed by:

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

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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