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

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

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

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

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

Signed by:

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

EU action needed to tackle spyware abuses after Pegasus revelations

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
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EU Rule of Law report: Little bark, no bite

EU Rule of Law report: Little bark, no bite

On 20 July, the European Commission published the 2021 Rule of Law Report. The document, which is the outcome of months of painstaking work, can be a valuable tool that empowers civil society, the EU institutions and Member State governments who care about the rule of law in the Union. The Report, comprised of a Communication that covers EU-wide developments and country chapters for each Member State, is designed “as a yearly cycle to promote the rule of law and to prevent problems from emerging or deepening and to address them … It seeks to strengthen the rule of law in full respect for national traditions and specificities, stimulating a constructive debate and encouraging all Member States to examine how challenges can be addressed and to learn from each other’s experiences.” 

In its current form, the Report represents a significant descriptive documentation effort. However, for it to live up to the high expectations and truly become a critical tool that can contribute to the promotion and safeguarding of EU values, we believe several fundamental changes are needed in future iterations of the report.

Firstly, we believe that more transparency from the Commission on the methodology and selection process of stakeholders invited to consultation meetings, as well as closer consultation and collaboration with civil society to design a more straightforward and more easily accessible process, would greatly benefit its credibility. We appreciate that the Commission has “further deepened our assessment, which benefited from even more outreach than last year,” as Commissioner Reynders said at the press conference presenting the Report. However, given the current lack of openness concerning the methodology, it is difficult to assess how inclusive the process really is and to what extent shortcomings in this regard are systematically addressed.

Secondly, looking at the Communication and country reports as a whole, it appears that the process of “looking at all Member States equally” has resulted in depoliticised analyses in anodyne language that present the situation in all Member States as roughly equal, allowing for measured praise and criticism of each. Subsequently, we believe that the Report as a whole does not reflect the reality of the depth of the rule of law crisis in Poland and Hungary or how starkly the intentional violation of core EU values in these Member States contrasts with the situation in the rest of the Union. It also undermines the Report’s ability to prevent problems from emerging, as is currently the case in certain other Member States including Slovenia, or to stimulate debate and mutual learning.

Lastly, to strengthen the process’ capacity to bring about substantial change, we continue to call for country-specific recommendations. These should be framed in the context of Member States’ obligations under EU law and international human rights law and standards, which would allow for tracking and evaluating progress and regression against an agreed, binding framework.

Signed by:

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