State of the Union: Commission calls on Member States to improve journalists’ safety across the EU

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European Commission
European Commission
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State of the Union: Commission calls on Member States to improve journalists’ safety across the EU

On 15 September 2021, on the occasion of her State of the Union Address, President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Information is a public good. We must protect those who create transparency – the journalists. That is why today we have put forward a recommendation to give journalists better protection.”

As announced by President Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union address, the Commission presents today its first-ever Recommendation to strengthen the safety of journalists and other media professionals.

Journalists have been facing an increasing number of attacks over the past years, including assassinations in the most tragic cases. The COVID-19 crisis has made their work even more difficult, with lower incomes, especially for freelancers, and limited access to venues.

To reverse this trend, the Commission lays down actions for Member States to improve the safety of journalists – offline and online. Among others, the Recommendation calls for the creation of independent national support services, including helplines, legal advice, psychological support and shelters for journalists and media professionals facing threats. It also calls for an increased protection of journalists during demonstrations, greater online safety and particular support to female journalists.  

Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, said: “No journalist should die or be harmed because of their job. We need to support and protect journalists; they are essential for democracy. The pandemic has showed more than ever the key role of journalists to inform us. And the urgent need for public authorities to do more to protect them. Today we ask Member States to take decisive action to make the EU a safer place for journalists.”

Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, added: “Media freedom and pluralism lie at the very core of our EU values and we must actively defend them. As the media industry continues to adapt and evolve, so do the threats faced by media professionals when exercising their profession. Online threats are a new reality. Today, we are presenting a Recommendation which is placing the core of our efforts where they are needed most: ensuring the safety of journalists, both online and offline.”

Recommendation on the safety of journalists

The Recommendation sets out recommendations, including ones focused on protests and demonstrations; online safety and digital empowerment; female journalists and journalists belonging to minority groups.

1. General recommendations

With an increasing number of attacks on journalists, more than 900 attacks in the EU in 2020, the Recommendation calls on Member States to vigorously investigate and prosecute all criminal acts, making full use of existing national and European legislation. Where relevant, Member States are encouraged to involve European authorities, such as Europol and Eurojust. Member States should foster better cooperation between law enforcement and media bodies to identify and address the threats faced by journalists more efficiently, and provide personal protection to journalists whose safety is at risk. It is also crucial that media have non-discriminatory access to information, including press conferences and documents held by public authorities. Furthermore, the Recommendations highlights the importance of training and of strengthening access to social protection for all media professionals.

2. Protests and demonstrations

Nearly one in three incidents occur during demonstrations, making demonstrations the most frequent place where journalists were attacked in 2020. Member States should provide regular training for law enforcement authorities to ensure that journalists and other media professionals are able to work safely and without restrictions during such events. Working together with representatives of journalists is essential to decide on the most appropriate measures, for example when it comes to the visual identification of media professionals. The nomination of liaison officers to inform journalists about potential risks, in advance of planned protests or demonstrations, is also among the recommended measures.

3. Online safety and digital empowerment

Digital and online safety has become a major concern for journalists due to online incitement to hatred, threats of physical violence, but also cybersecurity risks and illegal surveillance. Member States are encouraged to promote the cooperation between online platforms and organisations with expertise in tackling threats against journalists, for instance by encouraging their potential role as trusted flaggers. Relevant national cybersecurity bodies should, upon request, assist journalists who seek to determine whether their devices or online accounts have been compromised, in obtaining the services of cybersecurity forensic investigators. Member States should also promote a regular dialogue between such cybersecurity bodies, media and industry, in particular in view of fostering cyber-awareness and digital skills among journalists.

4. Women and minority groups journalists and those reporting on equality issues

Female journalists and journalists belonging to minority groups, as well as journalists reporting on equality issues are particularly vulnerable to threats and attacks. Female journalists face more threats than their male counterparts do and 73% declared having experienced online violence in the course of their work. The Recommendation urges Member States to support initiatives aimed at empowering women journalists and professionals belonging to minority groups and those reporting on equality issues. It encourages Member States to improve transparency and effective reporting on attacks and discrimination against these journalists and to provide them with information on how to seek assistance and support. Furthermore, the Recommendation highlights the need to foster equality and inclusion in newsrooms and the media industry as a whole, and to promote the continuous development of competences and skills in all professions relevant for the protection of journalists.

Next Steps

The Commission will hold discussions on the implementation of the Recommendation with Member States and stakeholders in relevant forums, in particular within the European News Media Forum. The Commission will also perform evaluations taking stock of the progress achieved and will continue to analyse the safety of journalists in all the Member States as part of the annual Rule of Law Report. Member States should report to the Commission on the measures taken to implement the Recommendation 18 months after its adoption.

EU funding to support Member States in implementing this Recommendation is available under several programmes and projects, including for the training of judges, police forces and journalists. The EU also co-funds a European rapid response mechanism led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom based in Leipzig, Germany. It offers 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 across the continent. Today, the Commission is also launching a new call for proposals on media freedom and investigative journalism, representing close to € 4 million in EU funding. This initiative will support two separate actions: the Europe-wide response mechanism for violations of press and media freedom, and the emergency support fund for investigative journalists and media organisations to ensure media freedom in the EU.

Background

The growing number of physical, legal and online threats to and attacks on journalists and other media professionals over the past years, which is reflected in the Commission’s 2020 and 2021 Rule of Law Reports, constitute a worrying trend. Physical attacks have been reported in particular in the context of public protests, and journalists in several Member States have been subject to aggression from protesters, but also in some cases police forces. Online threats are on the rise across the EU, with female journalists and journalists of minority background particularly at risk. This situation is particularly concerning when politicians or powerful public figures are initiating such attacks.

The Recommendation, first announced in the European Democracy Action Plan is part of a broader EU effort in support of media freedom and pluralism. It builds on the Council of Europe Recommendation on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors and takes into account the input gathered during the first edition of the European News Media Forum. In preparation for the Recommendation, a structured dialogue – based on the participation of Member States, journalists, associations representing journalists and international organisations – took place in March 2021.

Within the framework of the European Democracy Action Plan, several actions were announced under this Commission’s mandate in support of media freedom and pluralism. The Commission will continue its ongoing efforts to provide sustainable funding for projects with a focus on legal and practical assistance to journalists in the EU and beyond. The total EU funding for ongoing projects to support safety of journalists, media freedom and media pluralism amounts to € 21.5 million. The Commission is also working on an initiative covering measures to protect journalists and rights’ defenders against abusive litigation (strategic lawsuits against public participation – SLAPP).

Furthermore, the Commission will present a European Media Freedom Act in 2022, to safeguard the independence of media.

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