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

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.

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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.

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MFRR to host press conference on journalist safety in…

MFRR to host press conference on journalist safety in the Netherlands

As part of an international fact-finding mission to map the declining safety of journalists in the Netherlands, Free Press Unlimited, the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, and the International Press Institute are organising an international press conference on April 13th 3:30-4:30 PM CEST.

The report is published as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response. A panel discussion will be held with, among others, crime reporter Paul Vugts and Thomas Bruning, Secretary General of the Dutch Association of Journalists. This will be a hybrid event with the chance to ask questions both in-person and online.

The Netherlands is internationally known for having one of the highest levels of press freedom worldwide (ranking 6th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index); PersVeilig often being cited as a best-practice example. However, there are growing concerns regarding an uptake in aggression against journalists. With an increase in attacks on journalists in the Netherlands, the decision by major Dutch Public Broadcaster NOS to remove their broadcaster logos from its vans in order to protect employees, and following the murder of Peter R. de Vries in broad daylight, the topic of press freedom in the Netherlands is receiving more and more international attention.

To investigate this further, Free Press Unlimited took the lead in an international fact-finding mission. As part of the mission, Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) partners together with the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, conducted several interviews with, among others, some of the country’s most renowned investigative journalists, editors-in-chief, the Police Department, key academic figures, and influential policy-makers. The findings of these interviews have been compiled and mapped out as part of an international research study on the safety of journalists in the Netherlands. Ultimately, the research study maps out key findings of the discussions that were held, providing expert recommendations in line with the Council of Europe and the European Commission’s Recommendations on the Safety of Journalists. If you wish to join, please register using the button below. Registration is required for both physical and online participation.

This press conference 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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Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece

Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece

Today, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) publishes the report “Controlling the Message: Challenges for independent reporting in Greece”, which details the findings and recommendations of its online fact-finding mission to Greece. The mission, involving interviews with more than thirty local stakeholders, was implemented by the MFRR together with Reporters Without Borders in December 2021. The partner organisations conclude that challenges to the independence of the media and the safety of journalists are systemic in the country. While the problems are not unique, their intensity is highly problematic and sets it apart from most other EU Member States.

The result of this crisis is that news that is inconvenient or unflattering for the government, which includes reporting on serious human rights violations, does not get reported in many outlets. This creates a significant obstacle for the public’s access to information and, subsequently, their informed participation in the democratic process.

Understanding the political polarisation and fragmentation of the media landscape requires taking the long view. The current situation has been shaped by more than a decade of severe financial and political crisis which has harmed the way journalism is understood. At the same time, there has been a deterioration of press freedom since Nea Dimokratia’s electoral victory in 2019, who are “obsessed with controlling the message” and minimising critical and dissenting voices, as we heard again and again during the fact-finding mission.

The murder of crime reporter Giorgos Karaivaz represents a low point for media freedom in Greece and drew international attention to the significant problems with journalists’ safety. The investigation progress appears slow and lacks basic transparency, which has had a chilling effect and leads to mistrust about the authorities’ ability or willingness to protect the journalistic community.

Migration policy, human rights violations committed in its implementation including pushbacks, and the humanitarian crisis that the refugee stream has created are highly sensitive topics for the government. Reporting on the issue is increasingly difficult, as journalists face obstructions including arbitrary arrest and detention, restriction of access to migration hotspots, surveillance, and harassment.

Reporting on protest is another particularly problematic area of journalistic practice in Greece. Journalists face aggression and harassment from law enforcement and from protesters. Overall, there is a lack of political will to ensure that journalists can safely report from demonstrations, which translates to a lack of adequate protection at the operational level.

Legal threats are also a significant problem for media freedom in Greece, including criminal prosecutions as well as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). Such threats can lead to self-censorship.

In light of these findings, the MFRR has issued a series of recommendations to the Greek authorities and to the European community, including the institutions of the European Union and the other EU Member States.

The fact-finding mission to Greece 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 in Focus Episode 4 Library

MFRR in Focus News Webinar — Episode 4

MFRR in Focus news webinar November episode

Media Freedom Rapid Response’s MFRR in Focus News Webinar focuses on November 2, International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists this month.

In this month’s episode you may find the monthly and annual media freedom alerts, as reported on MappingMediaFreedom.org and presented by ECPMF’s Antje Schlaf.

Among the updates of the month are listed the cases of impunity and trials concerning journalist-murders in Europe, namely those of Peter R. de Vries in the Netherlands, Georgios Karaivaz in Greece and the ongoing calls for justice for the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta.

The guests of the webinar include Head of Europe and Central Asia team at Article 19, Sarah Clarke who talked about the Malta Mission and the battle for justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia; as well as OBCT’s Coordinator of the Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe Paola Rosa who talked about the increasing number of physical attacks and intimidation targeting journalists in Italy in recent weeks. IPI’s Jamie Wiseman as part of MFRR in Focus interviewed Georgios Karaivaz’s son Dimitris Karaivaz.

The panel discussion this month was led by EFJ’s Communications and Project Officer Camille Petit who also is doing monitoring as part of the MFRR, and she was joined by guest speakers David Bevan -a media specific risk consultant- and Stefan Bentele -a freelance journalist from Germany who specializes on extremism.

The webinar is presented by Gürkan Özturan, the MFRR Coordinator. The MFRR is organised by an alliance led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) including ARTICLE 19, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Institute for Applied Informatics at the University of Leipzig (InfAI), International Press Institute (IPI) and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT).

The MFRR offers tangible and frontline support to journalists and media workers in EU member states and candidate countries who are at risk from their work. The existence of this mechanism enables the MFRR to react to changing situations and offer all necessary protections against a range of threats. Opportunities offered by the MFRR includes support for legal defence and opinion, emergency support such as covering travel, psychological support and family costs, offering residencies in Germany and Italy, and delivering and supporting training sessions across the continent. This support is in place to ensure that journalists and media workers can continue their work and be protected from harm.

You may find more on MFRR support covering practical support, legal support, training sessions, residency programmes on MFRR.eu; and do not forget to follow us on Twitter.