The main building of the Czech Television (Ceska televize; CT), a public television broadcaster

Czech Republic: Independence of public broadcasters must be insulated…

Czech Republic: Independence of public broadcasters must be insulated against future attacks

Partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) have published a statement urging the Czech Government to come good on its promises to strengthen the independence of public broadcasters and to seize the opportunity to put press freedom at the centre of its EU presidency programme.

Press freedom in the Czech Republic has undergone a welcome boost since the government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala came to power. The undersigned media freedom and journalists organisations today urge the new administration to use this momentum to push forward with amendments which will strengthen the institutional independence of Česká televize (Czech Television) and Český rozhlas (Czech Radio).

Under the previous government, Czech Television came under sustained pressure and saw politically-motivated attempts to unseat its director general. Since coming to power, the new administration has been developing draft amendments to the Act on Czech Television and Czech Radio with the aim of creating additional institutional safeguards. These plans have been developed with the welcome input of journalists’ groups and media associations, above all NFNZ, CZ IPI and Rekonstrukce statu.

While initial progress in developing the bill was swift, the process has since stalled as the Ministry of Culture navigates the complicated legal challenges of passing such a reform. The latest round of appointments to the broadcasters’ oversight bodies have also slowed progress. As the Czech Republic prepares to take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in July 2022, we urge the government to refocus its attention and double its efforts to pass these amendments in the coming months.

The draft amendments contain six important elements. This first involves changing the law so that both chambers of parliament, rather than just the Chamber of Deputies, are involved in appointments to the broadcasters’ governing bodies. Currently, a government can use its parliamentary majority to decide the composition of the boards, allowing it to place political allies within management structures. A more staggered system would reduce the ability of an election winner to overly politicise the bodies and will result in more pluralistic councils.

Secondly, the draft amendments include plans to establish, for the first time, clear criteria for those who can be appointed to the governing councils. This will help ensure professionalism and integrity are the principal factors in the selection process, rather than political affiliation. Under the previous government, appointments to the TV council were clearly aimed at politicising the oversight bodies and eroding the broadcaster’s independence. The changes would mean only those with relevant experience and knowledge would meet the threshold for appointment.

A third element would tighten the rules for who can nominate candidates. Currently, any social organisation or association can put forward nominees, even those linked with political parties or with little knowledge of the media ecosystem. This has led to the appointment of unsuitable and unprofessional candidates, some of whom have recently displayed an openly hostile approach towards the ČT management. Under the proposed amendment, only established institutions with 10 years of experience in the fields such as media, culture or human rights would be permitted to nominate candidates.

A fourth element involves greater judicial oversight over dismissals of councillors. Currently, there is no legal recourse to challenge the firing of councillors by parliament. Under the proposed changes, the Supreme Administrative Court would be given powers to review the decisions by parliament, reducing the avenues for pressure by government on councillors. Finally, the legislation includes provisions for sustainable funding for the public broadcaster, with automatic increases in the licence fee in line with inflation, creating a strong economic foundation for the future.

If passed, our organisations believe these reforms would represent a major step forward in insulating the broadcaster from political interference and future-proofing it against attempts to gain control over its oversight bodies. While the transition from the current council to a new body brings short-term challenges – and must be carried out in line with democratic principles and the Czech Constitution – in the long term this new design will create a far stronger buffer between political power and public service media, improve accountability, and further increase trust in public broadcasting. Failure to pass these reforms in full would leave gaps in the broadcaster’s defences which can be abused by future governments.

Constructing these safeguards is urgent considering the state of public service broadcasting in the wider region. Governments in Hungary and Poland have distorted public service media into state audio-visual propaganda organs, while in Slovenia there have been fresh concerns over political appointments to the management of Radiotelevizija Slovenija. Contrastingly, the Czech public broadcaster has long been a bastion of independent journalism in Eastern and Central Europe. Creating even stronger ramparts for the broadcaster’s independence would provide a much-needed model for neighbouring countries to follow in years to come.

Ahead of the EU presidency, the Czech Republic has an opportunity to put press freedom at the centre of its programme. Passing this flagship legislation would provide a timely example in Europe of the resilience of media freedom. It would also add to the welcome list of improvements our organisations have observed since the new government took office, including the normalisation of communication with media, the re-admittance of independent journalists to government press conferences, guarantees to end the abuse of government advertising and rapid improvements for journalists’ access to public information. We look forward to seeing the further preparation of this law in the coming months and our organisations stand ready to support the development of this bill.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • Endowment Fund for Independent Journalism (NFNZ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Public Media Alliance (PMA)

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.

MFRR 3 consortium logos

Albania: Private data breaches and intimidation of journalists must…

Albania: Private data breaches and intimidation of journalists must be investigated

The partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), together with Safe Journalists Network and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), have written to Mr. Besnik Dervishi, Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection of Albania, calling for a swift and thorough investigation into a recent private data breach and intimidation of at least two journalists in Albania.

09/05/2022

 

Sent electronically

 

Dear Mr. Besnik Dervishi, Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection,

 

The undersigned media freedom and journalists’ organisations are writing to express our serious concern over the recent private data breaches and intimidation of at least two journalists in Albania linked to their reporting on the high-profile vetting process of the now dismissed Head of Tirana Prosecution Office, Elizabeta Imeraj.

 

Our organisations urge your office to conduct a swift and thorough investigation into the breach of personal data – which was then used to frighten and pressure one of the journalists – and for those involved to answer questions about their role in what appears to be coordinated intimidation of the press.

 

In late March and early April 2022, Albanian journalist Isa Myzyraj of Ora News faced intimidation from multiple individuals who demanded he stop commenting and reporting on the appeals process for the vetting of Imeraj, which was being carried out as part of a judicial reform project in Albania aimed at rooting out corrupt judges and prosecutors.

 

The pressure started after Myzyraj posted on social media that some of the online media with non-transparent ownership that had been publishing smear pieces attacking members of the International Monitoring Operation (IMO) – a constitutionally mandated body made up foreign judges and prosecutors which was supervising the vetting process – had links to Imeraj.

 

One of Myzyraj’s family members was approached by an individual with a deal for the journalist to stop covering the prosecutor. This was followed by a threatening phone call by another individual who said there would be consequences for him and his family if he continued. As the vetting continued, Myzyraj was then sent a message by another individual which contained a screenshot of the certificate of his family from the Civil Registry – a document only available to registered notaries in Albania. The messages contained threats against the journalist and were clearly aimed at intimidating him.

 

In late April, Edmond Hoxhaj, a journalist at the BIRN Network Albania and Reporter.al who had also been covering the vetting process, discovered a similar suspicious breach of his personal data on the e-Albania portal. Hoxhaj could see that a notary named Agron Bajri, who is the former husband of Elizabeta Imeraj, had generated their family certificate on April 14, 2022, without their authorisation. Unlike Myzyraj, Hoxhaj did not receive threats about his reporting linked to the certificate.

 

In the case of Mr. Hoxhaj, there appears to be clear evidence that the notary, Mr. Bajri, accessed their data without the family’s permission. As Commissioner for the Right to Access to Information and Personal Data Protection, we urge you to firmly establish the facts about this case. The MFRR partners will also write to Agron Bajri with a request to clarify his role in accessing the family certificates of both Mr. Myzyraj and Mr. Hoxhaj without their authorisation. We also welcome the investigation opened by the Tirana Prosecutor’s Office.

 

At the wider level, our organisations suspect these two cases are linked and are part of the same campaign of harassment against members of the IMO. Pressure and intimidation of journalists reporting on the vetting process of a prosecutor – a clear matter of public interest – are unacceptable and were clearly aimed at frustrating transparency and reporting the much-needed implementation of justice reform. These cases also point to a wider issue of threats to the safety of journalists who investigate the nexus between state authorities and corruption.

 

Effective investigations and definitive answers on these two cases are needed. Our organisations will continue to follow your investigation closely in the coming weeks and look forward to seeing thorough findings. We will also continue to closely monitor the wider challenges facing media freedom and threats to independent, watchdog journalism in Albania, which plummeted in 2022 to 103rd rank – the last in the Balkans – in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • Safe Journalists Network

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.

MFRR 3 consortium logos

Estonia: Criminal fines for journalists over public interest reporting…

Estonia: Criminal fines for journalists over public interest reporting send dangerous signal

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners are concerned about the imposition of fines on two journalists and a news outlet in Estonia after they published information about pre-trial criminal proceedings without seeking permission or informing the prosecutor’s office.

The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners are concerned about the imposition of fines on two journalists and a news outlet in Estonia after they published information about pre-trial criminal proceedings without seeking permission or informing the prosecutor’s office.

 

On 25 March 2022, journalists Tarmo Vahter and Sulev Vedler published an article in the weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress which named former management at Swedbank Estonia who had come under suspicion of money laundering activities between 2014 and 2016. On 14 April, following a complaint by the prosecutor’s office, the Harju County Court fined both journalists and the outlet’s publisher EUR 1,000 each for publishing the article without the permission of the prosecutor’s office. 

 

The decision is based on a section in the Code of Criminal Procedure that prohibits the publication of materials from the criminal case file without the permission of the prosecutor’s office. In its ruling, the Court stated there was no public interest in disclosing the information and that the only motive had been to satiate curiosity. The decision relies on the reasoning in a 2004 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that concerned the publication of paparazzo pictures of Caroline Princess of Hanover to restrict free speech and sanction the journalists and outlet. 

 

However, in this case at hand, the public interest is unquestionable: the article was related to the suspected fraud at a major financial institution that had possible implications for public funds. Moreover, Swedbank itself had announced to the Tallinn Stock Exchange that the prosecutor’s office suspected it of possible money laundering, one day before the publication of the impugned article in Eesti Ekspress. Several former bankers confirmed the suspicions and some even commented on the news themselves. Overall, the MFRR considers that the article was written in line with journalistic deontology and professional standards.

 

In the view of the MFRR partners, the implication of the ruling, i.e. that the prosecutor’s office’s permission must be sought before publishing articles or that they must be informed so they can choose which topics are of public interest and which are not, and the imposition of criminal fines, constitute an undue interference with the right to free speech and undermine press freedom.

 

The journalists and media outlet appealed the decision on 29 April. The MFRR partners will continue to follow the proceedings closely. We call on the Circuit Court to thoroughly revisit the County Court’s reasoning and reach a decision that respects the right to freedom of expression and to report news in the public interest.

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.

Albanian ‘Ministry of Propaganda’: Where we are today?

Albanian ‘Ministry of Propaganda’: Where we are today?

New government Media and Information Agency (MIA) up and running. Lines of communication between the Albanian government and the media have long been tenuous. Whoever is in power picks and chooses the media they interact with and feeds them with information to report, whereas those who are out of favour or ask difficult questions often find themselves sidelined.

By IPI Contributor Alice Taylor

Whether journalists ask spokespersons for comment or file formal requests, information is hard to come by. Some portals report a response rate in the single digits, while those who do get a response often find key information withheld.

A 2021 report found that the Albanian Ministry of Health was the worst performing institution in the region in terms of answering freedom of information (FoI) requests. The institution also had the highest number of complaints filed with the Data Commissioner.

This is despite the fact that Albania has one of the world’s top 10 best FoI laws. The implementation of this law continues to face challenges and difficulties as public institutions remain silent, don’t answer requests, and classify increasing amounts of information.

In April, the Data Commissioner tabled changes to the law that would give him more power to demand information be made public. This came after a record 992 complaints against state institutions during 2021 for failing to provide requested information to media, civil society, and the public. With an increase in complaints of 39% on the year before, the commissioner found in favour of 700 of the complaints.

These facts and figures are just the tip of the iceberg but give an idea of the need for change in Albanian society. But a set of recent measures introduced by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government have left the media community concerned.

Introduction to the Information and Media Agency

Following his reelection for a third mandate in April 2021, the first decision of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s new government was to create the Media and Information Agency (MIA), dubbed the ‘Ministry of Propaganda’ by critics.

The MIA functions as a public legal entity, under the prime minister, based in Tirana and funded from “the state budget, donations, and other legal sources”. According to the government, its mission is to ensure transparency regarding policies, activities, projects, events and other matters including acts of the Council of Ministers and any state institution.

Its sole responsibility is to inform and communicate with the public and the media and prepare government positions on issues of public interests. In addition, it creates press releases and media content to supplement the reams of pre-edited footage produced by Rama’s personal TV channel, which is currently sent to every newsroom. The MIA also monitors media and “means of mass communications” to assess opinions on the government.

The general director of the new agency is Endri Fuga, Rama’s long-time communications chief, who is accountable and answerable only to him. Fuga holds a position equal to that of Minister of State, a position at the same level of an elected MP but without accountability before parliament or the public. Each ministry and government department currently has its spokesperson, appointed by the minister. Requests for comment and information are addressed to that spokesperson, who then responds.

The new system is supposed to work similarly, except the MIA manages everything behind the scenes. All responses are coordinated centrally, and press materials are created and sent out from one location. Communication with the media or members of the public can only take place with the explicit authority of Fuga, who also has the power to hire and fire spokespersons.

‘German model’

The Albanian government has consistently claimed that the MIA was built “exactly” on the German model, following two visits to the country. Exit asked EURACTIV.de – a partner media in Germany – to explain how the German model works. They explained that Germany has a government agency that is the first stop for journalists to put forward media inquiries: the Federal Press Office. This entity organises three press conferences a week and journalists are invited to answer specific questions here and in federal press conferences.

In Germany, the responsibility for appointing spokespersons is down to each institution, whereas in Albania, it lies with Fuga. Furthermore, Albanian fact-checking site Faktoje.al reported that the agencies were not similar. “As far as I know, there is no such agency [the same structure as MIA] in Germany, I have never heard of it,” said Corrective.org, German fact-checking organisation. The website of the Federal Press Office also explains that the institution does not supervise the media in any way, something the Albanian MIA does.

For Koloreto Cukali, the head of the Albanian Media Council, it is clear that the similarities are negligible. “First, ‘based’ is the wrong term to adjudicate it. They got the idea from there and adopted it according to their ‘wish’. Second, our society, media and government are different and work substantially different from German,” he told Exit.

Albanian media lawyer Dorian Matlija was also quick to debunk the government’s claim. “It has a similar name but not similar functions. In Germany, the main objective is to coordinate between ministries…It is not obligatory for ministers, and no one is overlooking ministers. It is totally different,” he told Exit.

The situation has raised concerns amongst the country’s media community, particularly when combined with other legislative and institutional measures. In 2018, the government put forward an anti-defamation package to bring online media under state supervision, with media facing high fines for vague violations.

While the package has undergone several facelifts in the following years, the latest public draft is not in line with Venice Commission recommendations or EU standards. There have been multiple calls to drop the package, but it sits on the agenda of parliament, where it can be passed at any moment with a simple ruling party majority.

In addition, the Albanian Audiovisual Media Authority, which would take on the role of judge and jury as per the above package, is now headed by Armela Krasniqi, another long-time comms aid of Rama and the Socialist Party. She was voted into the role against the calls of the European Commission by parliament, which at the time did not feature an opposition.

When you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, it is not hard to come to the conclusion of total state capture of public interest information.

“If you combine intimidated media and no guarantee for free speech, with lack of access to information, confused journalists, and a centralised agency, you see the big picture. Everything is related to how the government wants to control the message from the government to the media and media to the public,” Matlija explains. “The government wants to create its own landscape and narrative.”

Where we are now

While the decision to set up the MIA agency was taken in September, it has been functional since January 2022. Described by Fuga as “a modest agency in terms of budget and assets”, it is currently funded entirely from the state budget.

The agency currently has a total of 69 employees spread across six directorates; the Directorate of Citizen Information, the Directorate of Media Information, the Directorate of Information of Institutions, the Directorate of Coordination of Ministries and Agencies, the Directorate of Production and Events and Directorate of Finances.

According to Deputy Secretary of the Council of Ministers Elira Kokona, the agency’s budget is in total EUR 1.93 million, including salaries, insurance contributions, capital expenditures and operating services.

Journalists needing information are not convinced that it is worth the money. The editor-in-chief of Faktoje, Viola Keta, said: “There has been a decrease in transparency since January 2022. In my opinion, there is a misuse of the law on the right to information.” She added that answers were not received within the legal deadline in more cases than before, meaning journalists had to take the matter to the Data Commissioner.

In a parliamentary hearing, Fuga said that the only thing that has changed is that “there is better coordination on issues that affect several ministries together”.

Keta said that since the MIA started, refusals to provide information appear more coordinated and are using the same response, namely, an article of the transparency law which provides no answer to the question.

Criticism

The Albanian government has been adamant that the purpose of the agency is to promote better transparency and communication with the media. Exit asked Cukali if he felt this was genuine.

“In Albania, the government is opaque and non-transparent; it has made a habit to keep successfully secret every decision and operation. Getting the information that is due by law is already a ‘hell’ for independent media or journalists. This institution will add another layer of opacity to the information flow,” he said.

Cukali explained that there are concerns of troll factories operated by the government, backed up with in-depth investigations, that could be pushed through the new agency. “There is fear that these troll factories will be included in the new “Ministry” and paid by the taxpayers,” he said.

But are these fears justified? Cukali and Matlija both agree that we will just have to wait and see, although hopes are not high.

What the government says

Exit reached out to Fuga to ask for figures on requests made and granted since January, what methods are used for media monitoring, if monitoring includes social media, and for a response to allegations from media that transparency has actually decreased since MIA was established.

Having previously taken issue with reports in multiple media, including Exit, that criticised his public claims in parliament the MIA was based on the German model, his response focussed predominantly on that.

Fuga replied by dismissing the claims made by some media, adding “the answer is no, we respond to everyone and our job is not to keep numbers, but to respond. As I am doing to you now, even though your question is baseless.”

Even when it comes to the functioning of the agency, it seems that transparency will remain hard to come by, let alone when it comes to getting answers on important documents or government actions.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

IPI as part of MFRR
Greek journalist Thanasis Koukakis

Greece: Letter to government after spyware surveillance of journalist…

Greece: Letter to government after spyware surveillance of journalist Thanasis Koukakis

The partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response are concerned about surveillance measures hitting journalists in Greece.

Dear Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Prime Minister of Greece

Panagiotis Pikramenos, Deputy Prime Minister,

Takis Theodorikakos, Minister of Civilian Protection,

Konstantinos Tsiaras, Minister of Justice,

Dimitris Galamatis, Secretary General Communication and Information,

Panagiotis Kontoleon, Commander of the Greek National Intelligence Service

cc.

Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice

Sophie in ‘t Veld, MEP, Rapporteur of Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware

Jeroen Lenaers, Chair of Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware

 ———————————————————–

The undersigned European and international press freedom and journalists’ organisations are writing to express our serious concern over the recent surveillance of Greek financial journalist Thanasis Koukakis using a powerful new spyware tool, Predator.

Our organisations are equally alarmed by state documents which reveal that one year prior to the spyware surveillance, the same journalist’s private communications were intercepted by the Greek National Intelligence Service (EYP), a body which is overseen by the office of the Prime Minister.

In light of these revelations, we urge Greek authorities to first provide further information about the source of the spyware attack and second to immediately explain the state surveillance of a journalist, and to indicate clearly whether these two incidents are linked.

On April 11 it was first revealed that Koukakis, an investigative journalist for CNN Greece who writes for multiple international publications including Financial Times and CNBC, had his mobile phone infected between July and September 2021 by Predator, an advanced spyware tool developed by a North Macedonian company called Cytrox.

In the wake of the initial revelations, on April 12 government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou suggested the Predator hack had been carried out by an “individual” or private actor and denied that the Greek government had any role in monitoring Koukakis using the spyware tool.

Days later, however, it was revealed that the EYP had itself been carrying out surveillance on Koukakis in June, July and August 2020 for what it said were “national security reasons”. Documents show that when the journalist asked the independent Authority for Ensuring the Confidentiality of Communications (ADAE) to confirm whether his phone had been tapped, the EYP stopped the surveillance the same day.

When Koukakis sought to confirm his suspicions about being wiretapped, he did not receive a response from ADAE for a year. During this time, in March 2021 the Greek government passed an amendment which blocked the ADAE, with retroactive effect, from informing citizens if they had been surveilled if it had been carried out under national security grounds, meaning the journalist was blocked from knowing whether or not his phone had been bugged.

These two cases of surveillance are troubling on many levels. Our organisations urge the Greek government to first provide greater clarity and answers about how, and by whom, Predator was abused to target Koukakis. Intellexa, which owns Cytrox, maintains that it sells its services to law enforcement agencies – not private individuals. Moreover, like other advanced spyware products, Predator is extremely expensive to acquire, making it unaffordable to many private actors. The Greek authorities should take all steps to determine if a private actor or individual was responsible, ensuring a full and independent investigation with a view to bringing the alleged perpetrators to justice.

However, our organisations note that the confirmed state surveillance of Koukakis just one year before the Predator attack undermines the claim that state intelligence agencies had no role in the recent surveillance. It is deeply concerning that an agency under the control of the office of the Prime Minister spied on a journalist investigating corruption in the business and financial world.

The grounds for the surveillance in 2020, which were approved by an EYP prosecutor, appear to be completely groundless and point to potentially unlawful monitoring by the agency. We therefore welcome the preliminary investigation launched by the head of the Athens Prosecutor’s Office, which must establish why the decision to surveil Koukakis was approved and whether it violated telecommunications privacy legislation.

At a wider level, the timing of the retroactive legislative change in 2021 regarding the EYP also poses questions about whether the government changed the law in order to block Koukakis’ surveillance from becoming public. We note with concern that this is not the first time that potential evidence has surfaced that the EYP has intercepted the private communications of journalists and their sources. These cases have had a chilling effect on public interest journalism in Greece and pose serious questions about the mandate of the EYP, its closeness to the PM’s office, and the rule of law in Greece.

Moving forward, we believe it is important that Greece take immediate steps to better regulate spyware technology so that it cannot be abused in the future. As we have seen over the past year, governments around the world, including those in the EU, have used this kind of spyware to snoop on journalists, posing serious threats to source confidentiality and journalists’ safety. We therefore urge the government to clearly confirm or deny whether its own law enforcement or intelligence agencies have acquired Predator or other privately developed spyware products, now or in the past, including the Pegasus spyware sold by Israeli company NSO Group.

Greater transparency about the trade of these technologies inside the EU is also vital for understanding the scale of the surveillance-for-hire industry inside the bloc and for providing accountability when abuses occur. In light of these allegations in relation to Intellexa, a Greek company, the national authorities must also ensure full compliance with the EU’s new Recast Dual Use Regulation, which seeks to prevent human rights harm resulting from digital surveillance by establishing controls on exports of surveillance technology by EU companies, including by providing transparency around export licenses and full human rights assessments to target countries for export.

As questions about the surveillance mount both in Greece and in Brussels, our organisations believe it is important to add greater clarity to this case. We look forward to your response.

Signed by:

  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • 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.

Emilia Șercan | Culisele operațiunii „Kompromat” - Interviu cu Emilia Șercan | YouTube/HotNews Romania

Romania: Open Letter calling for swift and independent investigation…

Romania: Open letter calling for swift and independent investigation concerning publication of stolen pictures of Emilia Șercan and leak from criminal investigation

Ten European and international press freedom and freedom of expression organisations, members of the MFRR and their partners, have reacted to the harassment of Emilia Șercan, expressing serious concerns about the case and its implications for media freedom in Romania. Today, the ten organisations sent an open letter to the Romanian authorities calling for swift and independent investigations. The letter recalls that the threats and harassment of Șercan are set against a background of recent aggression and undue pressure against journalists and media workers in Romania coming from politicians, prosecutors, police, and military officers. 

Open letter, sent electronically

14 April 2022

 

Dear Prime Minister of Romania Nicolae Ciucă,

Dear Minister of Internal Affairs of Romania Lucian Bode,

Dear General Inspector of the Romanian Police, Quaestor of police Benone-Marian Matei,

Dear General Prosecutor of Romania Gabriela Scutea,

We, the undersigned organisations in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) and partners, are disturbed by the harassment of journalist Emilia Șercan through the publication of her private pictures and the alleged leak from the criminal investigation into the matter. We call for swift and independent investigations of both issues and previous threats against Șercan. 

On 16 February, Șercan found a dehumanising message from an unknown person among her spam on Facebook Messenger, which alerted her that five personal pictures taken about 20 years ago had been published on 34 porn websites. The next day, Șercan filed a police complaint about cybercrime (concerning the theft of the pictures) and violation of privacy (concerning their upload on the porn websites). In the process, she also provided a screenshot of the Facebook message. 

On 18 February, Șercan discovered that a Moldovan website had published an article containing the five stolen pictures, as well as the Facebook Messenger screenshot made by Șercan, and submitted only to the Romanian police, plus a short comment on Șercan’s professional conduct. Șercan ascertained that the article was published approximately 40 minutes after she left the Criminal Investigation Service. A link to the article was subsequently posted by 74 websites, primarily Romanian and some from the Republic of Moldova. 

Șercan filed another criminal complaint regarding the possible leak from the criminal investigation and violation of privacy with the Internal Affairs Department of the Romanian Police. On 21 February, chief of the Romanian Police Mr Matei presented Șercan with an analysis of the media spread of the pictures, which would have cleared the police and supervising prosecutor of suspicion. Șercan characterised the police’s analysis as implausible and “fabricated”. On 8 March, Șercan discovered that the Internal Affairs Department had sent her complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the 4th District Court of Bucharest, which is potentially a source of the leak. Subsequently, the file was transferred to the Prosecutor’s Office attached to the Bucharest Court of Appeal.

We have serious concerns about the harassment of Șercan and the implications for media freedom in Romania more broadly, especially given the context: on 18 January 2022, Șercan revealed in an article that Prime Minister Ciucă plagiarised his doctoral dissertation. The following day, she received a threat to her personal safety on her professional email address, followed by another threat on 2 February via Facebook Messenger. Both threats are under investigation by the Criminal Investigation Service of the Bucharest Police. 

Moreover, the threats and harassment of Șercan are set against a background of recent aggression and undue pressure against journalists and media workers in Romania coming from politicians, prosecutors, police, and military officers. These include, among others, the threat against the wife of G4Media editor-in-chief Pantazi by an employee of the Ministry of National Defence, in March 2022; a reporter and her crew working for Italian public broadcaster RAI who were kept for hours in a Bucharest police station after an anti-vaccine Romanian Senator kept them locked up inside her office during an interview, in December 2021; attacks on two women journalists at a congress of the National Liberal Party congress by party members in September 2021; and, judicial pressure on Libertatea and Newsweek Romania following a criminal complaint and several SLAPPs filed by a Mayor of a Bucharest district, in May 2021. 

The European Commission has made it clear that Member States “should investigate and prosecute all criminal acts committed against journalists, whether online or offline, in an impartial, independent, effective, transparent and timely manner”, as underlined in its recent Recommendation on ensuring the protection, safety and empowerment of journalists and other media professionals in the European Union, “to ensure that fundamental rights are protected and justice is swiftly delivered in particular cases and prevent the emergence of a ‘culture’ of impunity regarding attacks against journalists” (Rec. 4). 

On 8 March, the MFRR partners, together with ActiveWatch, wrote to the Romanian authorities, urging them to ensure that the complaints filed by Șercan in relation to the stolen photos, the leak from the criminal investigation and the earlier threats are swiftly and diligently investigated.  Unfortunately, to date, a substantive response to these asks has not been provided.

Accordingly, we renew today our call for quick and independent investigations. Any criminal acts these investigations reveal must be duly prosecuted, so those responsible are held to account. Particularly as concerns the complaint about the leak from the criminal investigation, sufficient safeguards that effectively guarantee the investigation and prosecution’s independence must be in place.

Sincerely,

Signed by:

  • ActiveWatch
  • ARTICLE 19
  • Center for Independent Journalism Romania
  • Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ)
  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

This open letter 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.

Zece organizații europene și internaționale care militează pentru libertatea presei și pentru libertatea de exprimare, membri ai MFRR și partenerii acestora, au reacționat la hărțuirea Emiliei Șercan, exprimând îngrijorări serioase cu privire la acest caz și la implicațiile pe care acesta le aduce pentru libertatea presei în România. Astăzi, cele zece organizații au trimis o scrisoare deschisă către autoritățile române, prin care cer investigații prompte și independente. Scrisoarea amintește faptul că amenințările și hărțuirea la adresa lui Șercan au loc pe un fond de agresiune recentă și presiune nejustificată împotriva jurnaliștilor și a lucrătorilor media din România, venite din partea politicienilor, procurorilor, poliției și a ofițerilor militari.

Scrisoare deschisă, trimisă electronic

14 aprilie 2022

Re: Publicarea fotografiilor personale ale Emiliei Șercan, sustrase ilegal, și scurgerea de informații din ancheta penală trebuie investigate cu promptitudine și independent 

Prim-ministrului României Nicolae Ciucă, 

Ministrului Afacerilor Interne Lucian Bode, 

Inspectorului General al Poliției Române, Chestorul de poliție Benone-Marian Matei, 

Procurorului General al României Gabriela Scutea, 

Noi, organizațiile semnatare ale Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) și partenerii noștri, găsim tulburătoare hărțuirea jurnalistei Emilia Șercan prin publicarea fotografiilor personale sustrase ilegal și prin presupusa scurgere de informații din ancheta penală ce investiga fapta respectivă. Cerem anchetarea promptă și independentă a ambelor situații, precum și a amenințărilor precedente adresate lui Șercan. 

Pe 16 februarie, Șercan a primit un mesaj dezumanizant de la o persoană necunoscută, ce ajunsese în Spam pe Facebook Messenger, mesaj care a alertat-o cu privire la faptul că cinci fotografii personale făcute acum 20 de ani au fost publicate pe 34 de website-uri cu conținut pornografic. Următoarea zi, Șercan a făcut o plângere penală referitoare la infracțiunile comise prin sisteme informatice (cu privire la furtul fotografiilor personale) și la violarea vieții private (cu privire la încărcarea lor pe website-urile cu conținut pornografic). Tot atunci, a pus la dispoziție organelor de cercetare și o captură de ecran cu mesajul primit pe Facebook. 

Pe 18 februarie, Șercan a descoperit faptul că un website din Republica Moldova publicase un articol ce conținea cele cinci fotografii furate, precum și captura de ecran ce suprindea mesajul primit pe Facebook Messenger, pusă la dispoziție doar Poliției Române, alături de un scurt comentariu asupra conduitei sale profesionale. Șercan a constatat faptul că articolul fusese publicat la aproximativ 40 de minute după ce părăsise sediul Serviciului de Investigații Criminale. Link-ul către articolul respectiv fusese postat ulterior de 74 de website-uri, în mare parte din România, și unele din Republica Moldova. 

Șercan a făcut o nouă plângere penală, referitoare la posibila scurgere de informații din ancheta penală și la violarea vieții private, la Direcția Control Intern a Inspectoratului General al Poliției Române. Pe 21 februarie, șeful Poliției Române, dl. Matei, i-a prezentat Emiliei Șercan o analiză a modului în care fotografiile s-au răspândit în media, analiza ce ar fi arătat că poliția și subcomisarul atribuit cazului erau în afara oricăror suspiciuni. Șercan a catalogat analiza poliției drept neplauzibilă și „fabricată”. Pe 8 martie, Șercan a descoperit faptul că Direcția Control Intern trimisese plângerea sa către Parchetul de pe lângă Judecătoria Sectorului 4 București, care este o potențială sursă a scurgerii de informații. Ulterior, dosarul a fost transferat la Parchetul de pe lângă Curtea de Apel București. 

Avem serioase motive de îngrijorare cu privire la hărțuirea lui Șercan, în mod special, și, în sens general, la implicațiile asupra libertății presei în România, cu atât mai mult cu cât aceste fapte au loc în următorul context: la 18 ianuarie 2022, Șercan dezvăluise într-un articol faptul că Prim-ministrul României a plagiat în teza de doctorat. A doua zi, a primit amenințări cu privire la siguranța sa personală pe adresa de e-mail profesională, urmate de altele – pe 2 februarie, primite pe Facebook Messenger. Ambele incidente sunt investigate de Serviciul de Investigații Criminale din cadrul Poliției București. 

Mai mult, amenințările și hărțuirea la adresa lui Șercan au loc pe un fond de agresiune recentă și presiune nejustificată împotriva jurnaliștilor și a lucrătorilor media din România, venite din partea politicienilor, procurorilor, poliției și a ofițerilor militari. Aceste incidente includ, printre altele, amenințarea împotriva soției redactorului-șef G4Media Pantazi de către un angajat al Ministerului Apărării Naționale, în martie 2022; un reporter și echipa sa, care lucrează pentru postul public de televiziune italian RAI, ținuți timp de mai multe ore într-o secție de poliție din București, după ce un senator român anti-vaccin i-a închis în biroul ei în timpul unui interviu, în decembrie 2021; atacuri asupra a două jurnaliste la un congres al Partidului Național Liberal, de către membri de partid, în septembrie 2021; și, presiunea judiciară asupra Libertatea și Newsweek România în urma unei plângeri penale și a mai multor acțiuni în instanță și plângeri depuse de un primar al unui sector din București, în mai 2021.

Comisia Europeană face foarte clar faptul că statele membre „ar trebui să investigheze și să urmărească penal toate actele criminale comise împotriva jurnaliştilor, fie ele efectuate online, sau offline, într-o manieră imparțială, independentă, eficientă, transparentă și în timpul corespunzător”, după cum este subliniat și în recenta Recomandare privind asigurarea protecției, siguranței și susținerii jurnaliștilor și a altor profesioniști media din Uniunea Europeană, „pentru a se asigura că drepturile fundamentale sunt protejate și justiția este făcută prompt în cazuri particulare și pentru a preveni apariția unei „culturi” a impunității în ceea ce privește atacuri împotriva jurnaliştilor” (Rec. 4).

Pe 8 martie, partenerii MFRR, împreună cu ActiveWatch, au scris autorităților române, îndemnându-le să se asigure că plângerile depuse de Șercan în legătură cu fotografiile furate, scurgerea de informații din ancheta penală și amenințările anterioare sunt investigate cu promptitudine și diligență. Din păcate, până în prezent, nu am primit un răspuns substanțial la aceste cereri. 

În consecință, reluăm astăzi apelul nostru pentru investigații rapide și independente. Acele fapte penale care reies în urma investigațiilor trebuie urmărite în mod corespunzător, astfel încât cei responsabili să fie trași la răspundere. În mod particular în ceea ce privește plângerea cu privire la scurgerea de informații dintr-o anchetă penală, trebuie să existe suficiente garanții care să asigure eficient independența anchetei și a demersului urmăririi penale.

Cu stimă,

Semnat:

  • ActiveWatch
  • ARTICLE 19
  • Center for Independent Journalism Romania
  • Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ)
  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

This open letter 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.

MFRR fact finding mission to the Netherlands February 2022

Netherlands: Towards a safer haven: Advancing safety of journalists…

Netherlands: Towards a safer haven: Advancing safety of journalists amidst rising threats in the Netherlands

Following interviews with more than twenty local stakeholders, the MFRR concludes that policy and practice around the safety of journalists in the Netherlands in many ways constitutes a best practice example, thanks to its pioneering PersVeilig mechanism. Nevertheless, there remains a need to strengthen several areas to better protect journalists and media workers against the increasingly hostile climate pursuant to intensified societal polarisation and threats emanating from organised crime.

The report details the findings and recommendations of the MFRR’s online fact-finding mission that took place in February 2022, led by Free Press Unlimited (FPU) together with the European Centre of Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and the International Press Institute (IPI), with the participation of the other MFRR partners plus the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, and in collaboration with the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Journalisten (NVJ).

The Netherlands generally remains a safe haven for journalists and media workers. The pioneering PersVeilig mechanism is a key actor in ensuring and advancing journalists’ safety and is a noteworthy example of constructive cooperation and dialogue between the journalistic community and state authorities. Both symbolically and practically, PersVeilig makes it clear that attacks and harassment of reporters are not tolerated and are addressed collectively.

While the assessment of PersVeilig is overwhelmingly positive, both among the MFRR’s partner organisations and its interlocutors during the fact-finding mission, room for improvement remains in a number of areas. These include implementing agreed-upon protocols more consistently and ensuring the project’s capacity and continuity.

Despite the relatively favourable conditions for press freedom and a pioneering mechanism, the MFRR mission confirmed that aggression against journalists is on the rise amidst a hardening of public debate and increasing polarisation in society. Subsequently, and despite the high willingness to cooperate between the journalistic community and law enforcement, the need remains to ensure a better understanding of the role of the press during protests, as well as changes to operational procedures to protect this role.

Certain categories of journalists suffer specific threats, particularly freelance reporters and women journalists. In this regard, it became clear throughout the mission that the Dutch approach to the safety of journalists lacks a gender lens. Moreover, while the Dutch policy approach scores well when it comes to putting in place mechanisms to protect journalists and prosecute offenders, there is room for improvement as concerns prevention.

Furthermore, with regard to threats from organised crime, there is a need to study the creation of tailored protection packages and consider improvements to the protection of journalists who cover high-profile criminal trials.

In light of its findings and to ensure that the Netherlands maintains its leadership position when it comes to the safety of journalists, the MFRR issued more than twenty specific recommendations to the authorities of the Netherlands, law enforcement, the journalistic community, PersVeilig and social media platforms.

The fact-finding mission to the Netherlands 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.

Recommendations for government and EU to improve media freedom…

Recommendations for government and EU to improve media freedom in Hungary

After the re-election victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party, the International Press Institute (IPI) today sets out fifteen recommendations for the government to help improve the landscape for media freedom in Hungary.

IPI also sets out seven recommendations for the European Union to help stop the erosion of media pluralism and democratic freedoms in Hungary and help defend what remains of independent media within the country.

Recommendations to the Hungarian government

– Develop a long-term strategy for restoring independence and pluralism in the media market based on clear democratic procedures, while also taking immediate steps to stop illiberal practices in the media market.

– Create checks and balances which ensure a parliamentary majority is not a carte blanche for a government to reshape the media system according to its will; create a legal framework that fosters a pluralistic media and independent journalism.

– Reform the system for funding Hungary’s public service media to ensure it is transparent, measurable and based on a clear set of criteria for the performance of tasks and the delivery of its public interest mission.

– Depoliticize the management and oversight bodies of the public broadcaster and increase professional standards; create accountability mechanisms to ensure adherence to the Media Act and Code of Ethics of the Public Service Media and the provision of fair, impartial and balanced news including a plurality of voices and opinions.

– Restore proper democratic governance and oversight to the public broadcaster, ending the dual structure of Duna Media Service Provider and MTVA; establish stronger professional requirements for election to the boards; guarantee independence, accountability and transparency in line with international standards; rebuild trust in public service media.

– Depoliticise and restore organisational and editorial independence to the state news agency MTI; sever channels for direct political control over production of news content; assess the performance of the management staff in line with professional criteria and take appropriate actions if breaches are identified.

– Radically reform the system for state advertising to halt widespread abuses of public resources to distort the media market; end all politically motivated financing of media; create a new framework based on market logic and on transparent criteria.

– Guarantee fair competition in Hungary’s media markets to foster a vibrant and sustainable media ecosystem; appropriately apply the Competition Act to limit existing media concentration, including to KESMA; adopt measures to support market entry and the sustainability of the sector.

– Guarantee the independence and transparency of the NMHH and the Media Council; create safeguards to ensure limits on the concentration of power; immediately cease regulatory practices designed to marginalize independent media or force them from the market; depoliticize tendering processes and ensure decisions are transparent and taken according to clearly defined criteria.

– Immediately end the selective approach against journalists regarding interview requests, requests for comment, public information and data; reverse restrictive measures affecting journalists’ movement within the Hungarian Parliament.

– Re-establish regular press conferences and briefings to which all media are invited; including those by the prime minister; end discriminatory approach towards journalistic accreditation for government events; restore normal working relationship between journalists and public authorities at national and regional level.

– Reform the system for FOI in Hungary, ensuring timely response from all public bodies and ministries and removing unnecessary obstacles; guarantee adherence to all rulings by the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information; re-join Open Government Partnership.

– Launch a thorough and credible parliamentary inquiry into the alleged abuses of Pegasus spyware by Hungarian intelligence and law enforcement agencies against journalists and establish strong, clear and transparent safeguards to limit future violations. Fully comply with the EU Parliament’s investigation into abuses of Pegasus in the EU.

– Introduce anti-SLAPP legislation in line with EU recommendations to protect journalists and media organisations from vexatious defamation lawsuits launched by powerful individuals or institutions; publicly condemn all smears and vocal attacks by politicians against journalists.

– Coordinate closely with international media freedom groups, civil society and European Union to improve press freedom and implement international standards; seek to join the Media Freedom Coalition to reinforce Hungary’s commitments to safeguarding press freedom.


Recommendations to the European Union

– Make full use of competencies under competition and state aid law to address the deliberate distortions of competition in the media market in Hungary; including addressing the two existing complaints to the Commission for unlawful or incompatible state aid in the area of public service broadcasting and state advertising as well as prioritizing the handling of future complaints.

– Continue EU infringement proceedings against Hungary over arbitrary and discriminatory tendering decision by the Media Council over the license renewal for Klubrádió; monitor the independence of Hungary’s media regulatory bodies according to the requirements of article 30(2) of the Audio-visual Media Services Directive.

– Pass strong Media Freedom Act which empowers EU institutions to address systematic abuses of legislative, economic and regulatory powers to erode media pluralism and freedom in the EU internal market; create a legal framework which helps safeguard the pluralism and foster independent journalism.

– Apply the Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation to Hungary and suspend funds in response to grave attacks on the democratic values, including the freedom of the press, as well as systematic management of EU funds to intentionally distort media markets

– Pass strong EU anti-SLAPP directive to help protect journalists and media outlets against vexatious litigation aimed at silencing their work; ensure swift implementation by member states including Hungary

– Continue and expand financial support to independent journalism in Hungary, especially investigative journalism. Such support should be tailored to the needs of journalists and should include core support.

– Further strengthen the toolbox of the EU to pushback against media capture within the EU market and halt the spread of illiberal attacks on press freedom across the bloc.


 

Ahead of the election, IPI visited Budapest and published a report examining the landscape for media freedom in Hungary. Click here to download the full report.

Today, IPI and its global network of leading journalists, editors and media executives called for renewed efforts to defend press freedom following the election victory of Prime Minister Orbán and underscored its solidarity with independent media in Hungary.

This statement by IPI is 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.

IPI as part of MFRR
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds a press conference at the PM's office in the Castle of Buda in Budapest, Hungary, 06 April 2022, EPA-EFE/Zoltan Fischer

Hungary: Independent journalism needed more than ever after Orbán…

Hungary: Independent journalism needed more than ever after Orbán victory

The International Press Institute (IPI) and its global network of leading journalists, editors and media executives today expressed steadfast support and solidarity with independent journalists and media outlets in Hungary, who continue to produce important public interest journalism in an increasingly resistive media landscape.

IPI also called for renewed efforts from the European Union, European institutions and the wider international community to help defend press freedom following the election victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Since Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party sealed an unprecedented fourth term in office in the parliamentary election on April 3, IPI has spoken with editors in the country who have voiced concerns over the future of independent and public interest journalism in Hungary.

“Over the past 12 years, the Fidesz regime in Hungary has dismantled media freedom brick-by-brick, abusing state resources to marginalize watchdog journalism and build a massive pro-government propaganda machine. It has effectively insulated large parts of the public from independent news and information – without which there is no real democracy”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “This system of media capture and control was built openly on the EU’s watch, a failure that has allowed Fidesz’s modern version of authoritarianism to flourish and inspire would-be autocrats across the region.

“As war rages in Ukraine, the EU’s support for Kyiv’s young democracy throws the urgency of addressing democratic deficits within the bloc’s own borders into sharp relief. At the risk of a wider erosion of fundamental values across the continent, the EU must use all tools at its disposal to restore media freedom and pluralism in Hungary. The Commission’s recent announcement of unprecedented rule of law proceedings against Budapest is a welcome step – but only a first one.

“At the same time, it is essential to support the survival and financial sustainability of the remaining independent media in Hungary, which continue to do their job – now needed more than ever – despite an atmosphere of pervasive discrimination and harassment and the spectre of disillusionment. The IPI global network stands in unwavering solidarity with our members and the wider community of independent journalists in Hungary.”

Shrinking space for independent journalism

As detailed in a recent report published by IPI ahead of the election, under more than a decade of Fidesz rule, media freedom and pluralism have been systematically eroded through a combination of politically-motivated regulatory decisions and takeovers of once-independent media by Fidesz’s business allies.

As more and more titles and stations were acquired by government supports, the space for independent journalism has continued to shrink. The only market sector where independent outlets can rival pro-government players is online news, where multiple independent media have high daily readership. However, the government’s market-distorting practices and systematic discrimination limit their reach and impact as well as their financial sustainability.

Under successive Fidesz administrations, independent media have seen their business models upended as advertising funding from state companies and institutions was withdrawn. Journalists working for these titles experience systematic discrimination in terms of access to information, are regularly denied access to minister’s press conferences, and face major barriers in receiving answers to questions or information and data from public bodies.

Investigative reporting on matters of public interest is largely drowned out by Fidesz’s pro-government media empire. To further isolate these media, the government continues to divide the journalistic community down political and ideological lines, portraying journalists as purely “political actors”. Revelations about the use of Pegasus spyware by government intelligence or law enforcement services on journalists has meanwhile increased a sense of insecurity and the perception of critical journalists as “enemies of the state”.

To achieve this unprecedented level of political control over the country’s media ecosystem, Fidesz has pursued the most advanced model of media capture ever developed within the European Union. This process has involved the coordinated exploitation of legal, regulatory and economic power to gain control over public media, concentrate private media in the hands of allies, and distort the market to the detriment of independent journalism.

IPI is planning to visit Budapest in the coming weeks to meet with independent journalists and editors and discuss efforts to strengthen networks between independent media outlets.

 

IPI has developed fifteen recommendations for the new administration to implement to help improve the landscape for media freedom in Hungary. IPI also has seven proposals for the EU to help defend independent media in the country. Click here to view the recommendations.

This statement by IPI is 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.

IPI as part of MFRR
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Image via Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis

Greek authorities are pretending independent journalists don’t exist

Greek authorities are pretending independent journalists don’t exist

Lack of transparency from government poses challenges for journalistic reporting. Among the many challenges faced by independent journalists in Greece, the failure — or, at times, refusal — of authorities to provide information is arguably one of the most disquieting.

By The Manifold

Despite some progress in the last decade or so with respect to the online publication of state contracts and various administrative documents, many decision processes that should be transparent are obfuscated by lack of access to the relevant paper trail, or by the administration’s failure to offer a reasoning for them.

To cite but a few examples, in the context of stories we have been researching in recent months, our investigative team has addressed requests for information to various authorities, including: the Ministry of Energy, regarding measures to address Greece’s rising energy prices and specifically the results of the Minister’s meetings with private energy producers, as well as apparent moves to delay permits for renewable energy storage technologies; the Ministry of Health, regarding wording in recent legislation that appeared to promote a pseudo-scientific approach to prenatal care; the Office of the Prime Minister, regarding an announcement by the PM, in March 2021, that a special assistant ombudsman would be appointed to oversee police violence complaints; the Ministry of Citizen Protection, regarding legislation to modernize police training that was announced a year ago, but has not as yet been introduced; the police, regarding the progress of specific disciplinary proceedings against officers accused of unlawful violence; and the Greek Ombudsman, regarding their role as overseer of the police disciplinary process.

Out of these authorities, only the Greek Ombudsman answered our questions fully. The police took four months to process our request. After repeated reminders and phone calls to the spokesperson, we received a partial reply with no explanation as to why the rest of our questions went unanswered. Despite, again, sending repeated reminders and talking to responsible press officers, neither the ministries nor the prime minister’s office ever replied.

Lack of communication

Solomon, an independent online outlet that focuses mainly on migration management issues, has faced similar problems. “Every time we address the Ministry of Migration and Asylum with questions or ask for some data”, says Solomon’s director Iliana Papangeli, “they assure us they are ‘working on it’, but weeks later we have still not received any answer.”

At one point, Papangeli recalls, “after several unanswered requests, we wrote to them (that) we would finally publish a piece about their lack of accountability, and asked for a comment on this at least. We received an angry response claiming they had never received any questions from us, so we simply sent them the screenshots of all email exchanges. But this was the only time they replied within an hour or so.”

Reporters United, a network of reporters who publish investigative stories on Greek topics, but also do a lot of cross-border, collaborative work, has likewise been up against the Greek authorities’ refusal to engage with independent journalists. In a characteristic case, while researching a collaborative story with Investigate Europe on how the Greek government blocked an EU directive to promote gender equality in the labour market, they addressed questions to the government and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which went unanswered for months. Only after publication did the government issue a statement denying the report.

According to Thodoris Chondrogiannos, a reporter with Reporters United, the government discriminates between media that support it and media that could expose “wrongdoing”, to which it denies information. “Ignoring them”, he says, “is intended to delegitimize their investigative journalism, by signaling that ‘they are not serious enough to talk to’.”

However, once a story becomes widely known, says Chondrogiannos, “the government is often forced to speak out publicly, in order to refute the report for which they refused to answer before publication, in an effort to satisfy their political audience and avoid looking weak.”

Transparency issues

Journalists with non-Greek media are hardly better off when seeking information in Greece. Ingeborg Eliassen, a journalist with Investigate Europe who covered migration for many years, says that she often found it difficult to “establish any meaningful communication with the state authorities in this field”, though she has at times been helped by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“There may have been an English-language website”, says Eliassen, “but no contact info for a press office. If there was a press office and a contact number, it did not necessarily answer calls. If it did, I would be told to send an e-mail, which was rarely answered. If answered, after repeated reminders, it was mainly to say they were not the right ministry to address. On one occasion, the switchboard gave me a phone number, but hung up when I asked whom it would lead to. No one picked up on the given number. On another occasion, a person I reached that worked on the issue, said he was not allowed to talk with journalists. He had no suggestion of whom I should speak with instead.”

Eliassen has found these experiences discouraging from a public interest and press freedom point of view. “I also find them remarkable”, she says, “from the point of view of perception: they make Greek authorities seem indifferent and unprofessional, regardless of whether that is true or not. In several of the stories I have worked on, I have had to do without perspectives from the Greek government that would have enriched the understanding of the issues.”

To be sure, Greece has the trappings of transparency that one is entitled to expect in a democracy. In fact, the obligation of the government, and public authorities more generally, to disclose public interest information is enshrined in the constitution and various laws. In practice, however, decision makers are often less than forthcoming with all but the most innocuous information.

Vouliwatch, a parliamentary watchdog that also provides journalistic coverage of the legislative process, has at one time or another been refused access to data on political parties’ misappropriation of parliamentary funding, on presents received by parliament members from private individuals, and most famously on the criteria behind the disbursement of public funds to the media for Covid-19 “stay-at-home” campaigns. Vouliwatch has had to go as far as taking legal action in order to obtain documents that should have been speedily made available.

“Decision-making transparency and access to information constitute two fundamental elements of a healthy, democratic system of governance”, says Stefanos Loukopoulos, director of Vouliwatch. “Unfortunately neither of them seem to be viewed as a priority by Greek governments, who systematically and stubbornly fail to meet their obligations set by existing legislation and the Greek Constitution. This essentially renders the exercise of public oversight by journalists and civil society organizations a quasi-Herculean task, which more often than not discourages the pursuit of otherwise important investigations at the expense of transparency and political accountability.”

Transparency laws and constitutional protections are indispensable. What is also necessary, however, is for state authorities to forge a culture of accountability that includes engaging with independent journalists instead of pretending they don’t exist.

 

The Manifold is an investigative outfit with members in Athens, Nicosia and London. They run The Manifold Files.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

IPI as part of MFRR