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Finland: EFJ condemned violence against journalists during convoy protest

Finland: EFJ condemned violence against journalists during convoy protest

During the first weekend of February, journalists, police officers, and MPs faced unprecedented threats and intimidation from participants taking part in the Convoy Finland protest in the capital of Helsinki. The EFJ joined its affiliate in Finland, the Finnish Union of Journalists (UJF) in condemning any forms of violence towards journalists and media workers.

While covering the event, at least five reporters and cameramen working for MTV3, Iltalehti, and Yle were threatened by some individuals in the mob in the capitol’s street. Yle’s reporter and cameraman at the scene said they were continuously verbally and physically threatened. One microphone was removed from the hands of the Iltalehti operator. Journalists were physically prevented from moving around as well as accused of “lying for the last two years”. These numerous attacks against several journalists may have been coordinated on Telegram.

The so-called “convoy” protest is a movement inspired from Canada aimed to shut down the capital with a gridlock of trucks and cars. The convoy organizers were far-right supporters and anti-vaccine protesters. They demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s government, a 50% cut in fuel prices, and the ban of all Covid restrictions.

President of the UFJ, Hanne Aho, said that physical attacks on journalists are very uncommon in Finland: “This is probably the first time that several media representatives are harassed at the same time. Two-thirds of Finnish journalists are, however, subjects of online harassment. So this time, in a way, this harassment turned physical.”

This statement by EFJ 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.

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Ignacio Sanchez Galan, CEO of energy company Iberdrola, announces the 17,6 million euro lawsuit against El Confidencial. Library

Spain: Energy company launches €17.6 million SLAPP lawsuit against…

Spain: Energy company launches €17.6 million SLAPP lawsuit against El Confidencial

International media freedom groups express concerns. The undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today condemn the vexatious SLAPP lawsuit against the newspaper El Confidencial by the Spanish electricity company Iberdrola, which is claiming €17.6 million for alleged “reputational damage”. The MFRR partners see the lawsuit as another example of the urgent need for the introduction of anti-SLAPP legislation at the EU and national levels and reform of the current legal provisions on protection of honour and reputation in line with international freedom of expression standards.

On 4 February 2022, multinational energy company Iberdrola filed a lawsuit at the Court of First Instance number 4 of Bilbao against Titania, the publisher of El Confidencial, for its coverage of the relations between the company and a convicted former police commissioner. El Confidencial is accused of having carried out “an authentic smear campaign and media harassment” against the company and its president. The company said the reporting was an “illegitimate interference in the right to honour”, which had “very serious reputational damage to the company”. The company quantifies the alleged damage caused at €17,600,000 and said it reserves the right to adjust this figure upwards if new defamatory information is published. Our organisations strongly condemn these extortionate demands and see the lawsuit as a retaliatory attempt to silence the newspaper and its reporting on an important matter of public interest.

Since October 2019, El Confidencial, which has 200 staff members and around 22 million unique monthly visitors, has published a series of audio clips and documents revealing Iberdrola’s payments to the retired police commissioner José Manuel Villarejo, who became the centre of a national scandal after it was revealed he had spied on and blackmailed dozens of prominent Spanish businesspeople, politicians, judges, activists, and unions for over 20 years. The recordings and published documentation by El Confidencial referred to covert operations financed by the electricity company, including espionage of political leaders, maneuvers against environmentalists, and surveillance of union leaders by the company itself.

After the publication of the articles by El Confidencial, several current and former directors from Iberdrola were marked as ‘under investigation’ by the National High Court, including its executive president, Ignacio Sánchez Galán, and the group’s subsidiary, Iberdrola Renovables.

According to Iberdrola, El Confidencial has published “too much news” about the Villarejo case and disapproves of the fact that some news items were closed exclusively to subscribers, which would multiply the reputational damage of this information, since it would “prevent most readers from going past the headline and accessing the nuances included in the text of the news”. ARTICLE 19 has documented the phenomenon of SLAPPs against journalists in Spain in a recent SLAPPs report and identified a number of recommendations for reform of the legal framework that are currently misused to threaten journalists.

MFRR partners see this legal action by a large private company as a serious SLAPP lawsuit aimed at intimidating and silencing an independent media outlet in Spain. We join national journalist organisations such as the Federation of Associations of Journalists of Spain (FAPE), the Association of Journalists of Economic Information (APIE), the Association of Investigative Journalists (API) and the Plataforma por la libertad de información (PLI) in expressing solidarity and support to the newspaper and its journalists. The MFRR partners also condemn the extortionate demand for damages, which could bankrupt the newspaper should it lose the case and in the meanwhile generates exhorbitant financial and psychological pressure to the staff.

We therefore see this lawsuit as a clear example of the urgent need for SLAPP regulations on EU and national levels, and for a reform of the current legislation on protection of honour and reputation in Spain. We call upon Iberdrola to swiftly withdraw this absurd lawsuit. We encourage judges to follow the rules of good faith under Article 247 of the Spanish Civil Procedure Law 1/2000 to ensure that journalists and media outlets do not face unnecessary civil proceedings as a result of ill-founded or meritless claims, brought with the sole aim of silencing or intimidating the exercise of freedom of expression.

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)

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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Hungary: Government bypasses court order on journalists’ hospital access

Hungary: Government bypasses court order on journalists’ hospital access

Hungary is the only EU member state not to give media access to hospitals during pandemic. The IPI global network today condemned a Hungarian government decree which – despite a court order – ensured journalists from independent media titles could continue be barred from reporting from inside hospitals. IPI called on the Fidesz government and its pandemic management body to approve future requests for journalists to access health facilities and stop hindering the media from doing their jobs and reporting on the realities of COVID-19.

Since the beginning of pandemic, representatives of the independent press have been barred from filming or reporting from within hospitals and their COVID-19 wards. In March 2021, this led to an unprecedented appeal from the the editors of 28 media outlets to the prime minister that the rules be changed to allow the media to record within health care facilities.

This appeal was rejected by the PM, who said that such a move could lead to the spread of  “fake news”. Since the start of the pandemic, the government-controlled public television and the state news agency have been the only media permitted to film inside hospitals. Independent newsrooms have requested access on dozens of occasions but all were rejected by the government’s Department of Human Resources (Emmi).

This led Telex and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) to launch legal action against the government on the basis that the order disproportionately affected media freedom. The Metropolitan Court initially sided with the government last year. Following an appeal, on January 27, 2022, the Supreme Court sided with Telex and ruled that Emmi could not bar media from reporting from within hospitals, as that power lay with individual hospital directors.

However, just two days later on January 29, the government passed a decree which bypassed the Supreme Court’s ruling. It instead determined that only the government centre in charge of managing the pandemic, the Operational Tribunal, could decide on press access and accreditation. The rule came into effect on February 5, 2022, leading to a fresh outcry about government interference from the country’s remaining independent media titles.

“This government decree is another shocking example of the Hungarian government’s efforts to block media’s access to public health information and hinder the ability of independent media to do their job” said IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “During the pandemic, media across Europe have been able to report from within hospitals and speak with front-line health workers. This has been vital for showing the human face of the health services and for building trust in state health measures, as well as allowing for frontline staff to raise concern when necessary and to foster healthy debate on health policy.

“In Hungary, however, despite numerous appeals, journalists have repeatedly been barred from visiting hospitals, limiting transparency and leaving reporting from within health facilities to state media, which sorely lack independence and impartiality. There is no other country in the European Union right now which still has such restrictive hospital reporting policies in place as Hungary.

“IPI continues to condemn the Hungarian government’s efforts to ban journalists from hospitals. That a government decree was used to bypass a ruling from the Curia is a stark example of the length which Fidesz will go to retain control over the COVID-19 messaging ahead of the upcoming elections. We stand with independent journalists in Hungary in their demand for access to information, which is a fundamental right. It’s shocking that this is still up for debate in an EU member state.”

The government decree means the Operational Tribunal will have full responsibilities for deciding on which journalists and TV crews can film or record interviews on the premises of health facilities. That body will have the power to overrule directors who feel it is acceptable to welcome media into their facilities they head.

During the pandemic, journalists working for what remains of the country’s independent media operate in an extremely challenging environment for accessing public information or questioning public officials. While media critical of the government are shunned for interview requests, the prime minister meanwhile gives expansive interviews to state-controlled media. After the media sent an open letter to the PM in March 2021, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs accused “left-wing portals” of spreading “fake news” to embarrass the country’s health care system.

At different points during the pandemic, doctors and other healthcare professionals have been forced to speak with media off record to raises concern about their institutions’ capacity to handle rising cases and an influx of patients. The government decree came amidst a general election campaign for the April 3 election.

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
Grzegorz Rzeczkowski, Poland Library

Poland: Dismissal of SLAPP-targeted journalist Grzegorz Rzeczkowski sets concerning…

Poland: Dismissal of SLAPP-targeted journalist Grzegorz Rzeczkowski sets concerning precedent

The undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) extend their support to journalist Grzegorz Rzeczkowski who faces four SLAPPs and was recently dismissed by Polityka, one of the major independent weekly magazines in Poland, without a transparent reason.

The MFRR is concerned by the abusive legal actions targeting the journalist for his investigations and that his dismissal may be due to the financial costs to the outlet which these SLAPP lawsuits are accruing. If this is the case, it could send a signal that journalists in Poland who are targeted with SLAPPs for their investigations into sensitive issues will be left to face such lawsuits without the support of their employers and have a chilling effect on press freedom in the country.

Grzegorz Rzeczkowski is a seasoned reporter who investigated the wiretapping scandal that led to major political changes in  Polish politics in 2014. As a result of his coverage on abuse of power issues, the journalist is facing four SLAPPs.

On 19 January Rzeczkowski announced on Twitter that his contract at Polityka had been abruptly terminated and he would be leaving the outlet in April. Rzeczkowski was notified by email about the contract termination and was given a vague explanation of the employer’s decision. Rzeczkowski worked at Polityka for 12 years  and has not received any prior warning that would have indicated the employer’s intentions. In an interview with Wirtualnemedia.pl, Jerzy Baczyński, the editor-in-chief of Polityka was reluctant to disclose the reasons that led up to the dismissal but noted that the decision wasn’t motivated by staff cuts. He went on to say, “we are convinced that a journalist with such experience and achievements will easily position himself in the market”.

Given the four ongoing legal proceedings against Rzeczkowski and Polityka, the journalist is now put in an extremely difficult financial situation. Up until his contract’s termination, all legal fees and costs were covered by the employer. Since Polityka let go of its reporter, it is uncertain whether the outlet will continue to support Rzeczkowski’s legal fees.

Rzeczkowski faces four SLAPPs, both civil and criminal defamation lawsuits. Three of them were filed following the journalist’s coverage on the so-called wiretapping scandal that led to the demise of the government formed by Civil Platform (PO) and paved the way for the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s victory in the presidential and then parliamentary elections in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Two cases against Rzeczkowski were initiated due to his articles discussing links between Marek Falenta, key figure in the “wiretapping scandal”, and the Russian mafia and secret service. In addition, Rzeczkowski, together with the editor-in-chief and the outlet itself are also sued by Anna Hofer, the State Prosecutor, who was promoted to this position when PiS came to power. In one of his articles, Rzeczkowski claimed that the state prosecutor didn’t investigate the involvement of the people with close ties to PiS in the wiretapping scandal and that she omitted to investigate the Russian influence on the election results. In 2019, the former head of the Military Counterintelligence Service brought a private criminal defamation case against the journalist, following his coverage on career advancement of people close to the former Minister of Defence, Antoni Macierewicz.

In a conversation with ARTICLE 19, Rzeczkowski underscored that the legal costs have already exceeded ten thousand Euros – an amount impossible to cover by himself. Rzeczkowski also mentioned that the SLAPPs against him have caused him great emotional distress and emphasised the importance of having his employer’s financial support and solidarity.

The MFRR expresses concern over the ongoing legal harassment against Rzeczkowski as well as his abrupt dismissal. Despite the lack of clarity to what extent the dismissal might have been motivated by the drawn-out and costly lawsuits, this sets a concerning precedent for the protection of journalists in Poland. SLAPPs are vexatious lawsuits that became an all-too-common tool aimed at silencing independent voices, dissuading them from hard-hitting reporting on critical issues and exhausting their financial resources. If journalists covering controversial yet crucial topics start feeling a legitimate threat and lack of proper support, they may eventually turn to self-censorship or even abandon their investigations. The undersigned organisations stand in solidarity with Grzegorz Rzeczkowski and call upon the media outlet and journalists’ associations in Poland to provide necessary support to the journalist throughout the legal proceedings.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • 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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Malta: Media battle for access to public information

Malta: Media battle for access to public information

Press freedom groups raise concern over unprecedented FOI obstructions. The undersigned international media freedom organisations today express growing concern over the challenges that media outlets in Malta face in accessing public information through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The unprecedented appeals by some 30 government ministries and entities against a decision by the Information and Data Protection Commissioner which ordered the disclosure of information on public expenditure requested by The Shift News are emblematic of these challenges.

The appeals stem from FOI requests that The Shift’s editor sent to various public bodies which sought documents about possible contracts and payments made by public entities to Malta Today co-owner Saviour Balzan and his commercial entities. The Shift stressed the information was in the public interest as it concerned the use of public money. However, those requests were denied by multiple entities, which argued the information requested did not exist in the form of standard documentation.

After the newspaper appealed, a review by the Data Commissioner rejected this argument and ordered the disclosure of the documents. One by one, around 30 different ministries and public authorities have since filed identical appeals, arguing the requests put an undue burden on state departments. These coordinated challenges underway at the Appeals Tribunal will result in costly and time-consuming court battles for the newspaper, which will be drained both financially and psychologically. Already the outlet has been forced to turn to a crowdfunding campaign to fund its legal case.

This case is about a simple principle that affects all media in Malta: the right to access publicly held information on how taxpayer money is used. This is a basic right that is essential for the functioning of democracy. The coordinated refusal by Maltese authorities to abide by the Data Commissioner’s finding that there is a clear public interest justification for the information disclosed is highly concerning. It carries serious implications for transparency and media freedom and sets a precedent that damages the ability of all media in Malta to do their work.

Moreover, the transparency of Saviour Balzan’s relations with the government is of wider importance to press freedom in Malta: he is one of the seven members of the Committee of Experts which will oversee the implementation of recommendations resulting from the public inquiry about the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. While the collection of documents by ministries may well be burdensome, this is not a sufficient reason to decline the release of public interest information. We therefore urge the relevant public bodies to respect the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Commissioner’s ruling, drop their appeals and provide the requested documentation in a timely fashion.

Worryingly, the Shift’s current experience is illustrative of a far wider problem regarding access to information in Malta. Public bodies regularly deny FOI requests from media on arbitrary grounds. Responses are often delayed until the last possible minute and often followed by requests for extensions. When FOI requests are accepted, information is often incomplete. Regular appeals to the Data Commissioner meanwhile lead to lengthy and taxpayer-funded court battles, further undermining timely reporting. Evidence also suggests that FOI requests from certain media outlets, or on certain topics, are handled in a discriminatory manner by certain administrative bodies. Inundated with appeals, Malta’s under-resourced Data Commissioner lacks the capacity to take up every case.

The result is that rather than fostering a culture of transparency, Malta’s current freedom of information legislation is regularly being abused to obstruct requests and obfuscate the disclosure of public information. Moving forward, it is increasingly clear that amendments to the existing 2008 law are needed. Revisions have already been called for by both the current Data Commissioner and the independent board of the Public Inquiry into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Similar concerns have also been raised by the Venice Commission and the Special Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Our organisations agree that reforms are needed to first make the judicial process for FOI appeals less cumbersome and secondly to remove the right of public authorities to appeal an order granting the commissioner the right to access a document as part of the commissioner’s decision on whether or not it should be released. Enacting such changes would make significant improvements to the system for freedom of information and help support watchdog journalism in Malta. Ultimately though, any changes in legislation will only be effective if supplemented by the development of a culture of transparency and accountability within government. Our organisations stand ready to assist in any way we can in developing these FOI amendments in the coming years.

Signed by:

  • ARTICLE 19
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

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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Turkey: 27 international media freedom and free expression groups…

Turkey: 27 international media freedom and free expression groups call for release of journalist Sedef Kabaş

27 undersigned human rights and journalists’ organizations including the MFRR consortium members, call for the immediate release of journalist Sedef Kabaş following her late-night arrest on January 22 and for an end to the judicial harassment of independent media.

On January 22, Kabaş was detained during a midnight police raid in Istanbul following critical comments she made about Turkish President Erdoğan on a program aired on January 14 on TV broadcaster TELE1. In the programme, Kabaş quoted a Circassian proverb on air as follows: “An ox does not become a king as it ascends to a palace, but the palace becomes a barn.” Kabaş added, “There is a very famous proverb that says that a crowned head becomes wiser. But we see it is not true.” This remark was interpreted as an insult directed at Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and prosecutors opened an investigation shortly after Kabaş made the remarks. Article 299 of the Turkish Criminal Code makes it a crime to insult the president, and those found guilty of doing so face a prison sentence of between one and four years.

Following the programme, a number of governmental officials condemned Kabaş’s remarks on social media. Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül said while Kabaş was being held for questioning that her words went “beyond the limit”, “stem from hatred”, and “shall find a response in front of justice”. Following Gül’s statement, Kabaş was arrested on a charge of “insulting the president”.

On January 26, Kabaş’s lawyer announced that their appeal against her arrest had been rejected by the criminal court. Kabaş’s lawyer also claimed that Minister Gül’s intervention had influenced the judiciary and thereby violated both the Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) with regards to Article 6 on the right to a fair trial.

Last October, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the offence of insulting the president under Turkish criminal law is incompatible with freedom of expression. The court also found no justification for the imposition of police custody or a criminal sanction in the case before the court, which involved an individual who posted critical content about Erdoğan on Facebook.

Prior to Kabaş’s arrest, Ebubekir Şahin, president of Turkey’s Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK), announced that RTÜK had initiated a probe into TELE1 regarding Kabaş’s remarks. On January 24, RTÜK issued a 5 percent revenue fine and a five-day programme broadcast ban against TELE1. After TELE1 journalist Uğur Dündar criticized RTÜK over the decision, the body issued another 3 percent revenue fine against the channel.

In addition, Alican Uludağ, a judicial reporter and Ankara chairperson of the Journalists Union of Turkey, received death threats on Twitter following his reports noting that the judge who ordered the arrest of Kabaş was the same judge who ordered the re-arrest of Osman Kavala in 2020.

Therefore we, the undersigned organizations, request:

  • The immediate release of Sedef Kabaş and of all other detained or arrested journalists
  • A full investigation into the death threats against Alican Uludağ, whose safety and protection must be guaranteed by the authorities
  • The withdrawal of RTÜK’s broadcast fines and bans against TELE1 and an end to the discriminatory issuing of punitive measures against independent broadcasters by RTÜK

Signed by:

  • Articolo 21
  • Association of European Journalists (AEJ)
  • Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI)
  • Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
  • Danish PEN
  • English PEN
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • Freedom House
  • German PEN
  • Index on Censorship
  • International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • PEN America
  • PEN Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • PEN International
  • PEN Iraq
  • PEN Melbourne
  • PEN Norway
  • PEN Québec
  • PEN Turkey
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • San Miguel PEN
  • South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
  • Swedish PEN
  • WAN-IFRA

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.

Photo by Roshan Nebhrajani/Medill News Service Library

Albania: news outlets faced cyber attacks following reports about…

Albania: news outlets faced cyber attacks following reports about Mayor of Tirana

The partners in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) are worried about developments in Albania this week. Cyber-attacks on news outlets believed to be in relation to their reporting on Tirana’s Mayor Erion Veliaj and the appointment of government loyalist Endri Fuga to lead the Media and Information Agency add to existing challenges for media freedom in the country.

DDoS cyber-attacks

In previous days starting on 24 January, several online media were targeted by distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) cyber-attacks, making it difficult to access their websites. RTV Ora, Lapsi.al, Doja.al, Syri.net, Maska.al, Gijotina.al, Faktor.al and SportEkspress were among the affected outlets. Although no concrete evidence has been presented yet, the outlets believe the attacks to be coordinated and connected to their reporting on an ongoing dispute involving Veliaj. He is accused of threatening board members of the Albanian Football Federation (FSHF) ahead of a vote for the head of the governing body. The targeted websites all published an audio recording related to the FSHF elections. On the tape, Veliaj is heard using slurs, coarse language and threats in an apparent attempt to influence the upcoming vote in favour of his preferred candidate. Veliaj has confirmed the authenticity of the recording but stated it should be considered in context. His spokesperson said it was just “boys’ talk”. Chairing the Federation is nominally a non-political position; however, most football teams in Albania are owned by local municipalities, whose mayors vote in the elections.

We call for a swift and effective investigation into these cyber-attacks. DDoS attacks constitute a significant threat to media freedom, as they prevent information from being disseminated resulting in direct censorship, and add financial pressures on the affected outlets.

Doubts about Media and Information Agency impartiality

In addition, we condemn the appointment of Fuga to head the newly established Media and Information Agency (MIA), which centralises control over the government’s public relations within a single entity. Yesterday, following a request for information by BIRN Albania, the government confirmed that Fuga was appointed as General Director of the new Agency by Order of the Prime Minister No. 96, dated 29 September 2021. Fuga was previously the spokesperson for Prime Minister Edi Rama. His appointment in the new role, which holds a status equal to that of a government minister and comes with wide-ranging powers, exacerbates existing doubts about the MIA’s independence and impartiality and fears that it may be instrumentalised to restrict journalists’ access to public information.

The decision to put the MIA into operation is a grave step backwards for government transparency in Albania. We reiterate our call for the establishment of greater safeguards to ensure the Agency functions fairly and transparently, even more so following the public confirmation of Fuga’s appointment as its General Director.

Signed by:

  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • 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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Turkey: IPI calls for release of Turkey journalist Sedef…

Turkey: MFRR partner IPI calls for release of journalist Sedef Kabaş

Kabaş arrested and charged with insulting the president after comments on television programme. The IPI global network and IPI’s Turkey National Committee call for the immediate release of Turkish journalist and author Sedef Kabaş, who was arrested over the weekend on charges of “insulting the president”.

On January 22, Kabaş was detained during a midnight police raid following critical comments she made about Turkish President Erdoğan on a program aired last week on TV broadcaster TELE1. The police raided Kabaş’s home at 2 am and took the journalist into custody for questioning.

Prosecutors had opened an investigation shortly after Kabaş made the remarks. In the programme, Kabaş quoted a Circassian proverb on air as follows: “A cow does not become a king as it ascends to a palace, but the palace becomes a barn.” Kabaş added, “There is a very famous proverb that says that a crowned head becomes wiser. But we see it is not true.”

Following the programme, a number of governmental officials, including Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül, reacted on their social media accounts condemning Kabaş’s remarks. Following Minister Gül’s statement saying that these words go “beyond the limit”, “stem from hatred”, and “shall find a response in front of justice”, Kabaş was arrested on a charge of “insulting the president”.

With Kabaş’s arrest, the number of journalists in prison in Turkey rose to 38, according to IPI figures.

Prior to Kabaş’s arrest, Ebubekir Şahin, president of Turkey’s Radio and Television High Council (RTÜK), said that the RTÜK had also initiated a probe into TELE1 regarding Kabaş’s remarks. During the Council meeting held on January 24, RTÜK issued a 5 percent revenue fine against TELE1 due to the statements and issued a five-day broadcasting ban on the programme. After TELE1 journalist Uğur Dündar criticized RTÜK over the decision, the body issued another 3 percent revenue fine against the channel.

“Harmless news or undisturbing comments can be made in any country in the world. But in developed democracies, freedom of the press and expression includes the right to receive shocking and disturbing news and comments as well, as has been repeatedly recognized by the European Court of Human Rights. In such democracies, it is expected that public officials must demonstrate a higher tolerance for criticism”, IPI Turkey National Committee Chair Emre Kızılkaya said.

Kızılkaya said that there can be no democracy when the press is silenced. “In its 72 years of operation, IPI has recorded countless press freedom violations in Turkey where politicians tried to silence journalists. But journalists have not stayed silent, nor they have given up. All those politicians who endangered democracy for their own sake and position left, but the passion for journalism among new generations has remained infinite. The important thing is solidarity among journalists and readers’ appreciation of quality journalism without falling into the trap of cheap politics.”

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen condemned the arrest of Kabaş.

“Journalists, and indeed all citizens, have the right to criticize their elected officials, even if that criticism is shocking or disturbing to some. That is how democracies work”, he said. “As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, Turkey is bound to respect these long-established principles. We call for the immediate release of Sedef Kabaş and the dropping of all charges against her, and we urge Turkey to abolish its law on insulting the president in line with international human rights standards.”

He added: “We are also disturbed by RTÜK’s decision to punish TELE1, which continues the council’s pattern of disproportionately targeting independent television broadcasters in Turkey. RTÜK, too, must respect the fundamental right of freedom of expression, and we call on RTÜK to rescind both the fine and the broadcast ban against TELE1.”

RTÜK also recently issued a 3 percent administrative revenue fine against Fox TV over news anchor Selçuk Tepeli’s comments critical of the government. According to RTÜK opposition member İlhan Taşçı, the total amount of administrative fines given in the January 24 meeting amounts to 6 million Turkish Liras (approx. 400,000 euros).

Last year in October, IPI led a joint press freedom mission to Turkey to meet officials and various institutions in Istanbul and Ankara. The mission delegation included representatives of a number of leading international press freedom and free expression organizations including IPI, Article 19, CPJ, ECPMF, HRW, OBCT, PEN International, RSF and SEEMO.

The mission delegation raised concerns about jailed journalists in Turkey; bans and fines by RTÜK and Press Advertising Agency (BİK) aimed at silencing critical media; and digital censorship.

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

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Greece: Concern over criminal charges against investigative reporters

Greece: Concern over criminal charges against investigative reporters

The undersigned international media freedom and freedom of expression organisations today register their concern over the serious criminal charges levelled against two investigative journalists in Greece linked to their reporting on a major corruption scandal. Our organisations are following these two legal cases with utmost scrutiny given the obvious concerns they raise with regard to press freedom. Authorities must issue guarantees that the process is demonstrably independent and free of any political interference.

On January 19, Kostas Vaxevanis, a veteran investigative journalist and publisher of the newspaper Documento, testified at the Special High Court on four criminal charges of conspiracy to abuse power through his newspaper’s reporting on the Novartis pharmaceutical scandal. Under the penal code, Vaxevanis faces five years of imprisonment if found guilty, with a maximum sentence of 20 years. His newspaper has condemned the criminal charges as a politically motivated attack aimed at silencing a media critic which unveiled the scandal.

Ioanna Papadakou, a former investigative journalist and television host, is set to appear before a court on January 25 on separate but similar charges of being part of a criminal organisation which conspired to fabricate news stories about the Novartis case and the so-called “Lagarde list”, including the alleged extortion of a businessman through critical coverage. Papadakou has rejected the case as “blatant violation of the rule of law”. A Greek MEP from the ruling party and the Board of Directors of the Panhellenic Federation of Journalists’ Union (POESY – PFJU) have both expressed concern about the prosecution of the journalists. Neither journalist has yet been formally indicted.

The summons of Vaxevanis and Papadakou to testify are part of a wider parliamentary investigation into allegations of political conspiracy and abuse of power involving Greek judge and politician Dimitris Papagelopoulos, a former deputy minister in the previous Syriza government. Papagelopoulos is accused of falsely incriminating political opponents through the Novartis pharmaceutical scandal. The probe, launched by the current New Democracy government, has in turn faced accusations of politicisation.

Our organisations are closely following this case. The criminal charges against Kostas Vaxevanis and Ioanna Papadakou are extremely serious and carry heavy prison sentences. The nature of the charges, their connection to investigative reporting on corruption, and the potential imprisonment of two journalists in an EU Member State, raise legitimate concerns regarding press freedom and demand utmost scrutiny. Until commenting further, we await more detailed information from the Special Investigator about the specificities of the charges against both journalists.

What is absolutely clear is that judicial authorities examining this matter must act with full regard for press freedom standards and the function of investigative journalism in democratic societies. Moreover, given the politicisation of the wider affair, it is essential that guarantees are in place to ensure that judicial authorities act with complete independence in this case. We will continue to closely monitor both cases and have submitted alerts to Mapping Media Freedom (MMF) and the Council of Europe’s platform for the safety and protection of journalists.

In the coming weeks, the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) is due to publish the findings of our recent online press freedom mission to Greece. Our organisations are already increasingly concerned about the challenging climate facing independent journalism in the country, including vexatious lawsuits against journalists. Greece is firmly in the spotlight in terms of threats to media freedom. We sincerely hope these cases will not become a matter of major international concern.

Signed by:

  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) 
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Index on Censorship
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
  • The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation

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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Montenegro: Impunity must end for shooting of journalist Olivera…

Montenegro: Impunity must end for shooting of journalist Olivera Lakić

The undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today renew our call for an end to impunity for the shooting of investigative journalist Olivera Lakić in 2018 and hope the recent arrest of suspects will lead to all those involved ultimately facing justice.

Our organisations also welcome the recent cross party approval of amendments to the criminal code which will strengthen protections for journalists but stress the need for further reforms to create a safe and open environment for independent journalism.

Lakić, an investigative journalist covering organised crime and corruption for the daily Vijesti, was shot in the leg outside her apartment in Podgorica on 8 May 2018. She was wounded but survived after being treated in hospital. The attack was first classified as attempted murder but later changed to grievous bodily harm.

Prosecutors said the motive for the attack was Lakić’s investigations into local crime gangs and their links with regional criminal organisations. Although numerous suspects were arrested in the wake of the attack, more than three and a half years later no one has been brought to trial for the broad daylight shooting and Lakić remains under police protection.

On 17 December 2021, Montenegro’s High Court ordered the 30-day detention of Branislav Karadzic and police officer Darko Lalovic, who are suspected by the Special State Prosecutor’s Office of following Lakić before the attack and passing on information about her movements to the “Kavac” drug gang. Concerningly, the officer worked in the same department of the police that is responsible for providing security for Lakić. If proven, involvement of the officer would be devastating for trust in the police force.

While the recent arrests are a welcome development, no formal indictments have been brought against them or any of those suspected of involvement in the shooting. Overall, progress in prosecuting those behind the attack remains painfully slow. Multiple members of the drug gang, including the alleged gunman, have been formally identified as suspects. However, the case remains in the investigation phase. Due to the sensitivity of the case, the High Prosecutors Office (HPO) and the Special Prosecutors Office (SPO) are declining to disclose secret information to the Commission for Monitoring the Competences of Threats and Violence Against Journalists, meaning little information is publicly available.

Our organisations see Olivera Lakić’s case as a litmus test for both the independence of the judicial system and the stated aims of the new government to improve the climate for media freedom by tackling cases of ingrained impunity for attacks on journalists. The 2004 killing of the director and editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Dan, Dusko Jovanovic, remains mired in impunity, casting a dark shadow over the country’s landscape for media freedom. As Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic rightly noted recently, no journalist in Montenegro can feel fully safe until that case is solved.

A legal system in which these kinds of serious physical attacks on media workers are punished with appropriate sanctions is crucial. It is uplifting therefore that on December 29 the Parliament of Montenegro unanimously voted to pass amendments to the criminal code which prescribe stronger criminal protection of journalists. We praise the dedicated efforts of Montenegrin journalists’ unions, NGOs and civil society organisations which developed the bill in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice. Under the new law, those convicted of causing grievous bodily harm to those engaged in the dissemination of public information – as in the case of Olivera Lakić – will face penalties of up to eight years in prison instead of the current five years, with stricter punishments for journalists’ killers.

The passing of this legislation marks a welcome step forward on media freedom for the government of Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić. To be fully effective, it must be accompanied by funding for capacity building for law enforcement authorities and strong implementation of the legislation by prosecutors. A complementary next step in the fight for justice for journalists would be hiring a foreign expert to investigate Dusko Jovanovic’s murder. Though such an appointment was approved by the former Commission for Investigation of Attacks on Journalists three years ago, no action has since been taken. We urge the current administration to reverse this situation and address other recommendations of the Commission.

While the recent legislative development is welcome, much remains to be done to improve the wider situation for media freedom and independent journalists in Montenegro. As well as the major cases of engrained impunity, the day-to-day safety of journalists and precarious working conditions remain an issue of concern. Verbal and physical attacks and threats against journalists and media workers remain common. The attacks on Vijesti Television journalist Sead Sadiković in March 2021, the death threats sent to Antena M editor-in-chief Darko Sukovic and columnist Dragan Bursać in May, and the intimidation of Milka Tadić Mijović in August all illustrate the type of threats journalists face for doing their jobs. Denunciation by officials of all attacks and intimidation of journalists remains vital.

Separately, but of equal importance, efforts to complete the reform of Radio Television of Montenegro (RTCG) from a state media to a public service media must be handled in a non-political manner and always with the goal of increasing its independence and professionalism. Management changes and the appointment in June 2021 of a new RTCG Council are recognised as having led to more pluralistic coverage. However, future proposals to adapt the public broadcaster’s funding model must be conducted in close consultation with journalists groups and relevant international media organizations. Legislation is required to ensure the independence of the media and the transparency of ownership. Meanwhile, the conviction and sentencing to one year in prison of investigative journalist Jovo Martinović remains a major issue of concern for our organisations.

Much remains to be done to dismantle the entrenched polarisation in Montenegro that poses continued challenges for the independence of public service broadcasters; the state’s response to crimes against journalists; and the fair allocation of state support to media via advertising. The new administration must oversee reforms which roll back the state capture of regulatory bodies and create an even playing field for the media to work free from interference and pressure. There are no quick fixes here and significant political will is required. Yet hope for progress remains amongst the country’s journalistic community. Our organisations stand ready to support the work of the Commission and the government of Montenegro in achieving these goals.

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)
  • Trade Union Media of Montenegro (TUMM)

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.