A new report by leading academics upon the request of the EU LIBE Committee has found worrying trends in censorship from governments for allegedly “fake news”, an increase in the use of SLAPPs, online harassment, and impunity for killing and attacking journalists
Ongoing monitoring found that long-standing threats to journalists are persisting. Threats of violence, impunity for crimes against them, and the use of vexatious litigation is continuing and even increasing. Online gender-related crimes, SLAPPs, and the restriction of access to information in the context of COVID-19 measures have started to emerge over the last 12 months, according to findings.
Smear campaigns used in an effort to discredit politically critical journalists were becoming common, as were threats to pluralism and media freedom. The use of SLAPPs- lawsuits filed in foreign jurisdictions with the intention of causing financial ruin and intimidation, were used in countries like Malta. A heavy reliance by politicians on defamation laws was also noted and often used to stifle critical reporting.
Another problem identified was the way that legislation and judicial procedures were being exploited with the aim of silencing independent and critical voices in public debate. Issues were also found with the abuse of national security laws and anti-hate speech laws which were used to curb freedom of expression.
The COVID-19 pandemic was found to have had a negative impact on journalism and media freedom. Measures adopted by states have led to multiple interferences and violations of the right to freedom of expression.
“The Covid-19 crisis has brought a wave of measures threatening access to information and media freedom. This underscores the need for a robust protection for journalists, the media and other actors to enable them to carry out their public watchdog tasks and to produce quality, independent and critical journalism. Such protection necessarily involves sustainable funding at national and European levels, especially in light of the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis on already precarious sectors of journalism, media and culture,” the report noted.
Authors of the study have recommended a number of measures including the effective implementation of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation CM/Rec(2016)4 on the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists and other media actors. They should also review national laws, policies, and practice and revise them as necessary to ensure they are compatible with standards set by European human rights laws.
Legislation should also be developed to combat the use of SLAPPs and to give better protection to whistleblowers.