From: Alice Elizabeth Taylor
Assault of Journalists at Protest One of the Biggest Threats to Media Freedom in Europe

Political interference in the media, and the assault of journalists in protests have been identified as two of the five biggest threats to media freedom in Europe.

A report compiled by Mapping Media Freedom and based on over 3000 reports made in Europe since 2014, has observed that these, along with social media harassment, the state capture of public television, and the abuse of national security laws are posing the biggest threat across the 43 countries surveyed.

The information used to compile the report, including information from Albania, shows the way in which journalists are targeted by political leaders, businesses, and the public as a result of doing their work. The results of the report are designed to survey the landscape for media freedom and to aid lawmakers, and “those that wish to help an independent, pluralistic media landscape to flourish.”

The Media Mapping Freedom project documented a number of incidents at protests where journalists were among “the first to be corralled, targeted, and injured”. Their presence at such events is described as an “essential part of their professional duties” and they should not be exposed to “multidimensional threats” when partaking. The “lack of understanding” of police forces in terms of the role of the media, was described as a contributing factor.

Journalists in Albania are regularly targeted and injured when covering protests. At the last opposition protest on April 16, one journalist was rendered unconscious by tear gas whilst others suffered respiratory issues and had to stop broadcasting. A photojournalist was hit on the head with a policeman’s baton. Over the last few months, many more have been pushed, verbally harassed, stopped from filming, or threatened with arrest by employees of the state.

Another key threat identified in the report is the capture of public television by government control, as well as political interference in media platforms. A common practice involved politicians requesting editors or journalists to pull certain stories, or to hire and fire certain journalists based on their political loyalties. It was also noted that politicians sought to control the media by not allowing certain journalists to attend press conferences.

In Albania, both Prime Minister Edi Rama and Mayor of Tirana Erion Veliaj do not call public press conferences. They prevent independent media from questioning them in public and ignore requests for information or comment. In addition to this, Rama has his own television station ERTV where he broadcasts government news, carefully curated by his communications team.

An IDRA study supported by the United States Embassy, published this week, found that politicians and the government pose the biggest threat to freedom of expression in the country, according to the journalists surveyed. Respondents spoke of political interference with their work, and their editors, and the practice of censoring or pulling stories that could be politically damaging.

Furthermore, political demonisation of journalists was also a big problem according to the report.

“The willingness to smear journalists or the outlets they report for, rather than debate the facts, in order to warp the public’s right to information is the true threat to media freedom in the EU, its candidate countries and potential candidate countries.”

Leading political figures across the continent have been found to smear journalists and media outlets critical of them, dismissing reports as “fake news” or accusing them of having ulterior motives, such as political or national links.

In Albania, this is a tactic that is used regularly. Countless journalists have been smeared by government linked portals, and the Prime Minister regularly calls critical reports “fake news”. Many journalists receive verbal or physical threats against them as a result of such comments, and I even had my residence permit renewal stopped whilst I was six months pregnant.

Another key finding is the prevalence of social media and online harassment that targets mainly women. Tweets of sexual harassment, death threats, and other hostilities are noted, and the report states that such instances are increasing. The remarks of politicians are blamed for the majority of such cases, as they often lead to instances of harassment against those that have been singled out.

Trolls are found to be a common offender in these cases. The Albanian government is alleged to have a number of employees whose sole purpose is to patrol social media, posting comments of support for the government and silencing critics. Exit found countless fake profiles using fake names and images, posting pro-government support on articles that were critical of Rama, Veliaj, or various policies.

Media freedom is the fourth pillar of democracy and the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Gutteres commented recently that:

“No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information. It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”