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Coronavirus

The Present

The UK has reversed course on opening up from Covid 19 lockdown. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new restrictions and promised stricter enforcement from September 24 as cases rose, more people were admitted to hospital, and the reproduction rate of infection increased. And the UK’s finance minister Rishi Sunak has extended and revised financial support for workers and businesses that was due to end in October. Johnson indicated his new restrictions could last up to six months. His new measures came as he faced growing pressures inside his Conservative party over both restrictions and the arbitrary use of emergency powers without Parliamentary scrutiny – as well as disquiet about breaching international law over Brexit that also prompted high profile human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to resign as the UK's special envoy on media freedom. The Johnson's government balancing of conflicting pressures to reduce restrictions or make them even stronger seems to have reflected public opinion about what was needed. But the resurgence of the coronavirus epidemic is a blow to his hopes for an emergence from lockdown and a quick economic recovery – hopes that took shape stutteringly and slowly only a few weeks earlier. Most schools reopened and students returned in the first week of September – with a few reports of problems and despite much debate and concern about both safety and education. And there were also glimmers of a return to work. At the time they were welcome signs for the government as Johnson has pushed hard for both to support an economic recovery. His government has been beset by a series of mistakes and embarrassing policy u-turns over the past six months that have eroded trust, virtually erased his party’s lead in public opinion polling and even dropped his approval rating below Opposition leader Keir Starmer’s in some polls - although he may have kept it in key former opposition Labour areas he won in the December election. All of this has worried some of his own members of Parliament about retaining their voters’ support.
Perhaps the biggest break in public trust came in late May after the Guardian and Daily Mirror newspapers revealed that Johnson’s key adviser Dominic Cummings broke the government’s own lockdown rules – a revelation that prompted a clamour for his dismissal and calamitous poll numbers for the prime minister. But Cummings was so important to Johnson that he refused to drop him, mounted a robust defence, and managed to keep Cummings in his job – but not stifle the criticism.

Not so hidden agendas
Amidst the confusion and controversy brought by the coronavirus, Boris Johnson’s office has kept pushing its key agendas such as revamping the civil service – replacing a series of key civil servants including the top one – and pursuing a hard Brexit, including the appointment of controversial former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott as a trade adviser.
And so far the government has faced little scrutiny of who’s making money from it – a question not unique to the UK – as well as questionable practice in awarding multi-million pound contracts. But there remain a daunting list of questions and decisions for the rest of the year and undoubtedly further debate about its past decisions and competence.
At first, in early March, the government had wide support for many emergency measures and its lockdown policies but soon faced criticism of how well they were delivered - on hospital equipment, personal protective equipment for health care workers, nursing and care homes, and testing and prevention. And it continued to face questions about the timing and effect of post-lockdown measures, a questionable virus testing and tracing system that was still not working effectively five months after it started, and future protection of the public. Key scientists, health system administrators, medical groups, and education organizations have all raised criticisms of government actions. And belatedly so did the main opposition Labour party, after it elected its new leader Keir Starmer in early April. He has persisted in asking pointed questions in what‘s seen as an effective forensic style. Until his election, journalists carried much of the responsibility for scrutinising the UK government in the first three months of the year as opposition parties struggled to come to terms with the Conservative government’s surprise sweep of seats in December's election muting much opposition scrutiny, first of Brexit and then of the virus crisis, as they were overwhelmed by a combination of the election result, government manoeuvring, and the complexity of both major issues. Starmer won election as Labour leader at the same time as Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself recovered from a week in hospital including 3 days in intensive care with the Covid-19 virus, and the Queen made a rare unscheduled speech to the British public –only her 5th in 67 years - and issued another rare message at Easter. Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital after more than 10 days in home isolation because of suspected Covid-19 symptoms and was moved to intensive care a day later.  His officials insisted he was still in charge of the government with journalists largely wondering how the prime minister was ill enough to be in hospital but well enough to run the country.

The Future

There has of course been much thoughtful examination about the medium and long term impact of Covid-19 – among others, these series on BBC Radio 4: Fallout and The Briefing Room, Chatham House on democracy in Europe, an Asian perspective on the future of globalization, The Telegraph’s next 100 days in the UK. How will this pandemic change our societies, our economies, our relationships, and our attitudes? And of course it’s raising questions about the EU – particularly from Italy - along with the more general impact on international relationships and multinational organizations. AEJ UK secretary Charles Jenkins has this look at the EU – the good and the bad.


The Media
The coronavirus pandemic has marked a worrying new wave of serious threats and attacks on media freedom in Europe said the latest annual report of the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists. In a report titled “Hands Off Press Freedom: Attacks on Media in Europe must not become a New Normal” the fourteen member press freedom organisations including the AEJ documented how several Council of Europe member states have detained journalists for critical reporting, vastly expanded surveillance, and passed new laws to punish “fake news” even as they decide themselves what is allowable and what is false without the oversight of appropriate independent bodies. The report – available in full here – said these threats risk a tipping point in the fight to preserve a free media in Europe and aggravate an already gloomy outlook. The AEJ has played an active part with other media freedom organisations to highlight such attempts as detailed in this report from William Horsley, AEJ media freedom representative and UK chairman.

And in a statement marking World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić urged governments to avoid misusing the COVID-19 situation to silence or hinder journalists.
 

Misuse of emergency measures
As many governments introduced sweeping laws to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, the AEJ has joined other media freedom groups in two urgent calls to European leaders to protect media freedom. They have called for “determined actions” from the Council of Europe, the 47-nation treaty-based human rights organisation, to protect the free flow of information and journalists’ right to report amid fears of a potentially dangerous slide towards authoritarianism and police-state societies. In particular the open letter cites Hungary - where the prime minister has open-ended powers to rule by decree and journalists and others are subject to prison sentences for promoting alleged “false information” or impeding government orders – as well as Slovenia and the Czech Republic which have suspended usual press conferences open to questions from journalists.

“The present emergency situation represents a critical threat both to public health and to the civil and political rights of people across Europe,” said William Horsley, AEJ media freedom representative and AEJ UK chairman. “Now is the time for free and independent media and for all those who believe in basic democratic standards and open government, to combine forces and to uphold the free flow of information and the inalienable rights of everyone as guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights.” 
Please see the open letter here to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, and the current and next presidents of the Committee of Ministers, the organisation’s executive decision-making body.

It follows an urgent warning against misuse of emergency laws from the AEJ and partner organisations to the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and European Parliament. It emphasizes that the free flow of independent news is essential both to maintain accurate information to the public and to ensure public scrutiny and debate on emergency measures, and notes all such measures must be necessary, proportionate, temporary and strictly time-limited, and subject to regular scrutiny to ensure excessive powers do not undermine democratic balances, including the free press.

The urgent letter supports a joint statement from three global special rapporteurs on freedom of expression with the UN, OSCE and the OAS and is signed by:

AEJ
ARTICLE 19

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Index on Censorship

International Federation of Journalists

International Press Institute (IPI)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

 

The open letter is also available here on the International Press Institute website.

 

Coronavirus coverage

There is a global study showing a majority of the public around the world get their information about coronavirus from mainstream media – yet journalists are their least trusted source. Please see this report in the UK Press Gazette and here for more on coronavirus coverage in the UK.
The AEJ International site has interesting links to EU coverage of the coronavirus story on its home page.

 

How personal data could contribute to a cure

 

EU response to Covid 19 – every government for itself

 

Virus cartoons

 

Five decisions the EU should make

 

Brexit

Musings on “mad Brexit disease”
It’s a sad day for Europe but a chance to reform the EU writes AEJ President and Austrian journalist Otmar Lahodynsky. He describes the UK’s exit from the EU as “slamming shut a door which is unlikely to re-open for at least a decade” - but it does allow the EU to shape its future without constant opposition from London.
And David Haworth, long-time correspondent in Brussels and a founding member and former president of the British section of AEJ, has these reflections on “mad Brexit disease” and the long and winding road of the UK to Europe and back.

 

Done?

The United Kingdom has officially left the European Union - at midnight Central European Time on January 31. For a range of news coverage and what it means please see these links:

https://apnews.com/e48bf51838ced94e2d92adba189b4944

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-51333314

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/10858199/brexit-news-uk-live-eu-latest/

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2020/feb/01/brexit-britain-wakes-up-to-uncertain-future-after-uk-leaves-eu-live-news-and-updates

https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/brexit/what-happens-after-brexit-day-uk-transition-period-when-leaving-eu-date-explained-1373410

https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/brexit-day-uk-leaves-eu-gbr-intl/index.html

https://www.foxnews.com/category/world/world-regions/europe/brexit

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/brexit-uk-officially-leaves-european-union-200131211418625.html

https://www.gov.uk/transition

https://www.gov.uk/staying-uk-eu-citizen

 

Brexit and Quebec separatism
Nick Hopkinson, AEJ member and a former director of Wilton Park, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office policy forum, finds some striking parallels between the long campaign for independence in his native Quebec and Brexit in the UK. And in this article – first published in February 2020 in The New European - he argues the Quebec experience can provide some insights into how the Brexit process may unfold in the United Kingdom.

Gambling on the future

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson won his bet on the future of Britain in a snap election on December 12. Voters woke up on Friday the 13th to a thumping Conservative majority, the resignations of both main opposition party leaders – Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal Democrats’ Jo Swinson, and a resurgent Scottish National Party seeking the independence of Scotland. Johnson’s Conservatives won the biggest Conservative majority – 80 seats - since Margaret Thatcher in 1987 despite taking less than 44% of the national vote and a mandate to deliver its simple election message of “Get Brexit Done”. But their promise to leave the EU on January 31 followed by EU trade negotiations with a deadline in December is only one of a raft of questions facing the government – some fairly obvious from the election campaign but others with deeper and longer-term significance as outlined here by Trisha de Borchgrave, artist and daughter of prominent long-time U.S. journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave. This includes the possible fragmentation of the United Kingdom as Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon seeks a new referendum on independence and leads the SNP as the third largest party in the UK Parliament with 48 seats - all but eight of Scotland’s 56 seats. On the other hand, rumblings about increasing support for a united Ireland leaving the UK may be on hold as Northern Ireland’s voters seem to be supporting middle-ground politicians. Meanwhile the Labour party faces a wrenching period of soul searching and infighting over both their leadership and political direction and the Liberal Democrats look for their fifth leader in less than 10 years.
Please also see here for:
Election result numbers

How Johnson’s Conservatives won:
https://www.ft.com/content/ab3692b0-2317-11ea-92da-f0c92e957a96

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/how-boris-johnson-became-britain-s-most-powerful-prime-minister-since-tony-blair-1.4120281

European Parliament lookahead
Just days before British voters gave Boris Johnson's Conservatives a green light to exit the European Union, delegates to the AEJ’s 2019 Congress in Paris were treated to an assessment of the impact of the new European Parliament from its Secretary-General, Klaus Welle. At Jean Monnet House outside Paris – a complex devoted to the life and work of one of the fathers of the EU – Mr. Welle analysed the May 2019 European Parliament elections held at the height of talks with the UK about Brexit and after open resistance to EU policies on migration and the rule of law in the four Visegrad states of central Europe. He said the election results were mixed: fragmentation of the vote into more separate party groupings meant that at least three party groupings will be required to pass legislation. But he also claimed the new parliament has increased democratic legitimacy because the elections reversed a long-term downward trend in voter turnout. For more on this presentation please see this report from Charles Jenkins, AEJ UK member and former Western Europe editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit.
And AEJ UK member and former RTE journalist Brian O’Connell has this report on the prospective agendas of the newly-elected political groupings, with Brexit colouring debate but by no means dominating it.

 

See here for more Brexit news

 


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Lunchtime meetings

Covid-19 Impact
The AEJ’s regular scheduled lunchtime meetings have had to be paused and have been replaced by online meetings for the last few months.
Regent’s University – our regular host - has suspended all events and gatherings at their campus including those with the AEJ.
Updates for online events and Regent’s University will be available by email and on this site.

AEJ UK meetings usually start at 12:30 and are open to journalists, academics and Europe specialists and guests. Pre-registration is necessary by email to cas.jenkins@gmail.com. A fee of £25 is charged to cover the cost of refreshments - £10 for under-25s and free admission may be extended to students on a discretionary basis.
Reports on meetings are usually available on this website and our Facebook page.

For a list of our recent lunchtime guests see Events.

 
AEJ UK meetings were kindly hosted at Europe House, the London home of the EU Commission and European Parliament, for many years. Please see their UK website for EU events and information.


Recent AEJ UK guests

Governments failing on climate crisis…
says eminent UK climate scientist, Prof. Sir Robert Watson. Joining the AEJ UK via Zoom from Washington on September 3, Professor Watson talked frankly and passionately about the “crisis” of human-induced climate change - he said governments are not reacting; young people are rightly concerned; greenhouse gases are increasing despite the Paris Agreement; all the hottest years on record have been in this century. And this means the threats to human life include drier weather in arid areas threatening water and food security, more floods in wet regions and rising sea levels threatening coastal communities. Sir Robert was chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1997 – 2002), is emeritus professor at the Tyndall Centre for climate research at the University of East Anglia, and is currently leading a major international assessment of the links between Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss, Land Degradation and Food and Water Security, and how they will affect human well being. Please see this full report from AEJ member and former BBC editor and manager Rick Thompson – and this audio record of the meeting.
 

A view from Europe
The AEJ UK held its second virtual meeting of the coronavirus lockdown on July 3 with Danuta Huebner MEP, a member of Poland's centre-right Civic Platform and the European People's Party in the European Parliament, who served previously as an EU Commissioner and Polish Minister for Europe. Professor Huebner drew on her experiences of high-level involvement with Polish and European politics over the past two decades to answer a host of topical questions - the uncertain outlook for democracy and the rule of law in her native Poland, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Europe, likely EU-UK relations post-Brexit, and the EU's relationship with China at a time of unstable leadership in the US.

Please see this report from former FT correspondent Peter Norman on the wide-ranging discussion with 28 UK and Irish AEJ members who joined the call.


America in trouble
Veteran American journalist and columnist Llewellyn King was the online guest from Washington for the AEJ-UK’s first online Zoom meeting on June 4. The wave of angry protests and riots that erupted across America following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are a “bellow of rage” against the Trump administration, he said, and the U.S. “has never been on such a precipitous slope since the Civil War.” The honorary AEJ member and host and producer of the weekly PBS program “White House Chronicle” was joined by 20 AEJ online participants. For more on his analysis please read Peter Norman’s account of the AEJ’s “Letter from America with Llewellyn King” event and on King’s own website.

China and Asia
China will bounce back from the coronavirus disruption, probably without any major long-term geopolitical impact. But, says Asia and China scholar Jeff Kingston, the consequences for President Xi Jinping might be less clear. Kingston - writer, columnist and Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Tokyo – briefed an AEJ UK meeting on March 9 2020 on China’s relationships in Asia. Please see this report on the meeting from former FT correspondent Peter Norman and this audio recording.

UK cyber security

How is the UK dealing with threats to cyber security and defending against them? As Brexit looms and debate continues about potential cyber threats such as the involvement of China’s Huawei in 5G telecommunications and Russian or other state interference in democratic processes in the UK and elsewhere, Nicola Hudson, Director of Policy and Communications at the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), explained the role of her young agency. She told the AEJ on February 20 2020 the NCSC, formed only 3 years ago, functions in two very different worlds:
– as an operational division of GCHQ, the UK's signals intelligence agency
- and at a public level seeking ways of raising awareness of fast growing cyber threats and devising innovative ways of developing the population's cyber security skills for the future.
For more on her presentation please see this report from former FT correspondent Peter Norman and this audio recording.

London central to UK future relations with EU?
Rory Stewart, former Conservative MP, cabinet minister, and contender for Conservative party leader, says London could have a "very, very central" part to play in Britain's future relations with the European Union. Stewart was an independent candidate for London mayor in elections scheduled for May 7 2020 but withdrew after they were postponed for a year. He told an AEJ UK meeting on January 29 that London’s connections and contributions are crucial to the success of the rest of the UK and it could act as a bridge between Britain and the EU over the next 10 to 15 years in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology while still learning from policies in other European cities. For more on his argument and following discussion please see this report from former FT correspondent Peter Norman and this audio recording of the meeting.

See here for more AEJ UK guest speakers


AEJ Media Freedom Project

The AEJ works to protect freedom of expression and independent journalism by bringing issues to the attention of governments and advising inter-governmental organisations on behalf of our members. The AEJ's Media Freedom Representative and Vice President is William Horsley, a former BBC foreign correspondent and the current chairman of the UK section.
Since the 
AEJ Media Freedom Survey in 2007 (Goodbye to Freedom?), the AEJ has published Europe-wide surveys and reports that reveal the erosion of press freedom through physical assaults, wrongful imprisonment, oppressive laws, and unacceptable political and commercial pressures.
The AEJ is an observer at the 
Council of Europe. Since 2 April 2015, it has been one of the eight partners in the Council's online platform for early warning of and rapid response to attacks on the media. For more information, see Media Freedom.
The AEJ actively supports the ongoing efforts of UNESCO, the UN Agency with a mandate to safeguard media freedom, to implement the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The AEJ Media Freedom Representative authored the OSCE's Safety of Journalists Guidebook setting out the obligations of participating states to protect the security of journalists, including those using the Internet.
Our campaigns and activities can also be tracked on the
Media Freedom and News pages of the international AEJ website, www.aej.org


AEJ and the Council of Europe

The AEJ takes part in the policy work of the Council of Europe (CoE) on key issues of media freedom as a participant in the steering committee on Media and Information Society and the Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists. It works on behalf of its members across Europe to hold the CoE and its 47 member states to their commitments on media freedom and freedom of expression.

To read further, please go to Media Freedom.


Media visits to the European Parliament

The EP's London Office has a small budget to offset some of the travel and hotel costs incurred by journalists when visiting the European Parliament. Only a limited number can be helped in this way, so you must first be invited by the UK Office before seeking reimbursement (see EP website).

 


Briefings

A selection of AEJ-related writings and activities

AEJ member Rick Thompson’s new book Park Life has just been published – a diary in praise of urban parks, detailing a year of the wildlife in his local park by the Avon and tangential thoughts about legends, folklore, science, climate change, and the health benefits of regular contact with nature. Park Life is available from many booksellers including The Book Depository, Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles and all leading online booksellers.

AEJ member Charles Jenkins, former Western Europe editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit, blogs on Europe at https://eupriorities.ideasoneurope.eu/

Firdevs Robinson’s writing is now accessible on FirdevsTalkTurkey.com

William Horsley blogs on the Centre for Freedom of the Media website.

Long-time AEJ member – and journalist, author and politician – Jonathan Fryer is the Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman for London. Please see his blog here.
 

 

News

Freedom of expression under growing threat in Turkey

The AEJ has joined 10 other international media freedom, journalism and human rights groups to warn of a growing crisis for freedom of expression in Turkey. The group coalition says the situation is getting worse amid growing state capture of media, the lack of independence of regulatory institutions, and a new social media law designed to clamp down on the remaining spaces for free comment. The coalition highlighted the continued jailing and prosecution of journalists as well as ongoing concerns over the safety of journalists and judicial independence. The warning came after a four-day mission to Turkey for hybrid online/offline meetings in Istanbul and Ankara with journalists, civil society, members of parliament, the judiciary and other authorities to assess the newest threats to independent journalism, which this year have included detentions and criminal investigations of journalists who reported on the country’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was led by the International Press Institute(IPI) and included representatives from ARTICLE 19, the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBC Transeuropa), PEN International, Reporters without Borders (RSF) and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO).

Please find the whole statement here.

 

Growing dangers to media freedom in Bulgaria

The AEJ Bulgaria is highly critical of growing dangers to media freedom in Bulgaria in its annual media freedom survey. It highlights dangerous trends arising from external pressures on free and independent media from political and business forces, national and local government, and advertisers. And it says stagnation is a fitting description for the current state of the media environment in Bulgaria in 2020 - a snapshot from the replies of the respondents is almost identical to that in 2015. Nearly one out of two Bulgarian journalists described the situation in the media industry as “poor” or “very poor”, with a mere 3% of respondents describing it as “excellent”. Please see the full report Journalism Without Masks, 2020 Annual Survey Of Media in Bulgaria here on the AEJ Bulgaria website.

 

How journalists handle political pressure and threats
A new book co-authored by AEJ UK chairman William Horsley explores the extraordinary experiences, persecution and courageous work of 20 frontline journalists across Europe. With co-author Marilyn Clark, associate professor of psychology at the University of Malta, the writers hope to provide a new rationale and impetus for protecting journalists more effectively from physical and legal attacks, exclusion and online harassment, and the impact of climates of impunity when journalists are attacked or murdered. The book “A Mission to Inform: Journalists at risk speak out” was launched on October 14 coinciding with the third anniversary of the death of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. It includes the last interview she gave, available here – only 10 days before she was killed while reporting on corruption issues. On the anniversary of her death on October 16 2017, the AEJ added its voice to 19 other organisations supporting journalists, international free expression, anti-corruption, and civic participation in demanding an end to impunity from prosecution for the attack.
The new book is based on “in-depth interviews with 20 journalists from 18 different countries selected for their experience and skill in reporting in the public interest and exposing injustice and abuses. Each … shared their insights into the realities of doing cutting-edge journalism to bring the truth to light; they spoke about their first-hand experience of threats, hostility and intimidation, surveillance and cyberattacks, and about self-censorship, resilience and coping strategies, as well as about what they portray as routine failures by state authorities to give journalists the protection they need to fulfil their public watchdog role.” It is published by the Council of Europe and the foreword by the COE’s Director General of Human Rights and Rule of Law notes that journalists across member states face various forms of pressure and intimidation meant to silence and hinder their ‘mission to inform’ - “worrying given that democratic societies can only function if media actors can report on matters of public interest without interference and without fear”.  The COE notes that the book is a follow up to a study in 2017 involving nearly 1000 questionnaires answered by journalists which revealed grave statistics concerning the risks they faced. “A Mission to Inform: Journalists at risk speak out” is aimed at analysing how journalists responded to pressures exerted on them and what solutions they found to overcome fear and continue being able to fulfil their public watchdog mission.

Nagorno-Karabakh fighting threatens journalists

The AEJ Armenia reports multiple attacks on journalists in the last five days of renewed military conflict between Armenia and neighbouring Azerbaijan. And the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has emphasized the need for objective reporting on the fighting which threatens human rights. Liana Sayadyan of AEJ Armenia and deputy editor of Yerevan based Hetq Online says drone and shelling attacks have targeted journalists as shown in the following reports:
-
September 28 a drone pursued Armenian journalists
- October 1 four media workers were injured in shelling - an Armenian journalist and cameraman and two Le Monde journalists.
- An Agence France-Press car was shelled. 
Hetq Online,
published by the Association of Investigative Journalists NGO, has continuing coverage of the dispute. Fighting flared on Sunday after months of rising tension over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but governed by ethnic Armenians who claim a separate state. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have rejected calls for a ceasefire and there are concerns it risks a wider war in the Caucacus.

 

Belarus – the future
The AEJ has called for a strong, concerted international response against violent suppression of free media in Belarus. On September 3 AEJ media freedom representative William Horsley and AEJ president Otmar Lahodynsky condemned the Belarusian authorities’ violent suppression of free media, targeted attacks against journalists, and the denial of accreditations and deportations of large numbers of journalists. The AEJ said those and other arbitrary actions have been taken to prevent journalists from reporting on legitimate protests against alleged election fraud and other government abuses. AEJ president Otmar Lahodynsky also has this look at EU relations with Belarus.
Meanwhile Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko arranged a surprise swearing in for a new term as president, sparking further protest demonstrations. He also got a major loan offer from Russian president Vladimir Putin a day after protesters took to the streets to oppose it and faced criticism at the UN human rights council.

Mass demonstrations have continued in Belarus to protest against elections on August 9 widely considered as rigged and Lukashenko’s subsequent crackdown.
The media – both outside and inside Belarus – have played a key role in the struggle for the immediate future of the land between Russia and the EU – as detailed here below.
Geopolitically, the EU, neighbouring Baltic states, President Alexander Lukashenko, and the Belarus opposition have all moved since mid-August to position themselves for influence.

·         The EU on August 19 agreed on sanctions against Lukashenko’s government and backed widespread internal protests against elections widely considered as rigged 10 days earlier.

·         Baltic states have actually imposed their own sanctions.

·         Lukashenko moved tanks to his western borders with the EU’s Baltic states and ordered his interior ministry to stop the protests.

·         Opposition figurehead Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – in refuge in neighbouring Lithuania – announced a council to coordinate the transfer of power.

Beneath the political moves and rhetoric there were some signs and much analysis about possible mediated solutions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Lukashenko should be part of talks for a political settlement and Lukashenko himself had said earlier he could hold new elections and consider changes to the constitution. There was of course much foreign reporting and analysis – here for example in the UK’s Financial Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, London’s The Guardian, and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. And analysis of Putin’s options from the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, the Washington Post-owned Foreign Policy, and even from inside Russia in the Moscow-based English language Moscow Times.

It is Russia that holds the key cards and it’s playing those close to the chest. First it warned EU countries not to interfere and earlier agreed to Lukashenko’s request for help. Vladimir Putin’s reactions have mostly seemed low key as his government has some difficult choices. He already faces internal problems from opposition politicians and protests in his own far east. There has of course been the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s biggest critic, released by Russia and flown urgently from Russia to Germany for treatment. Germany said he was poisoned by a Novichok chemical agent – the same poison used on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in the UK – and Russia needs to answer questions. Belarus President Lukashenko said he has intercepted German phone calls proving the Navalny poisoning claim is fake. In the meantime Russia was reinforcing close ties with Belarus and potentially seeking economic benefits it has pursued for some time. The United States is apparently on the sidelines, leaving neighbouring Baltic states, the EU, and the Belarus opposition calling for action but constrained in their ability to take it. Inside Belarus protests have continued regularly as Lukashenko has tried to reassert his power, apparently retaining the support of police and security forces and at least some state enterprises and workers, reimposing a crackdown on protesters, questioning and imprisoning members of the Coordination Council set up by opposition activists in an attempt to negotiate a transition of power, and pressuring local and foreign reporters.

 

Belarus – the media

The AEJ said on one day alone - August 27 - 47 local and foreign journalists were reportedly detained for several hours and forcibly taken away in police buses to a Ministry of the Interior building, preventing them from covering peaceful protests that took place that day in the centre of Minsk. On August 31 the Belarussian Association of Journalists reported nine new cases of the detention of journalists, raising the total number of cases of violent attacks and detentions of journalists since 9 August to 141. About 20 journalists working for foreign news outlets including the BBC, Reuters, AP and AFP, ARD, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, have had their accreditation cancelled and been deported. After two journalists working for the BBC’s Russian Service were barred and deported the BBC condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms this stifling of independent journalism’. The AEJ condemned the use by Belarus authorities of violent force, beatings and other assaults against dozens of journalists, both in public or in places of police detention, and numerous reported cases of brutal sexual assault, torture and beatings against protesters who were arrested and detained.

But perhaps television screens across Belarus best made the point on the morning of Monday August 17 –an empty news studio greeted viewers on the country’s main channel Belarus One. 300 of the state tv channel’s 2000 workers went on strike against besieged Lukashenko. They were not the first journalists to protest as others inside Belarus had previously taken a stand. And some independent media such as www.tut.by reported on the growing street protests and Lukashenko’s crackdown. In the first days particularly, how Belarusians got their information despite an internet blackout and no obvious leader is a fascinating story of today’s digital media detailed here by Wired magazine. At the same time, interestingly, the Russian state news agency Tass stayed relatively neutral in its coverage and Russian media in general reported the story widely. In the west there were growing calls for action because of human rights and media freedom violations. The EU’s move towards sanctions came after calls from Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) and EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen. RSF said it was “appalled by the unprecedented scale of the crackdown” on journalists and called on the EU to condemn the repression and sanction those responsible. Amnesty International similarly protested against the arrests and Latvian-based Meduza which reports on Russia and the former Soviet Union detailed many of them.

AEJ journalist wins Pulitzer Prize
Bulgarian journalist Boryana Dzambazova, a member of the AEJ Bulgaria management board, has won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a New York Times investigation into actions of the Russian secret services. Please see here for more.

AEJ actions on media freedom
The AEJ has played an active part with other media freedom organisations throughout 2020 to highlight attempts by some European states to use the covid pandemic as a pretext to suppress independent media voices. And in a number of cases forced governments to reverse their actions or take account of public criticism of attempts to constrain media freedom. A report on these actions is available here from William Horsley, AEJ media freedom representative and UK chairman.

 

Continuing struggles for media freedom worldwide
The struggle to maintain and preserve media freedom continues around the world.
In Hungary the AEJ is among 16 groups which have urged the EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to take action in response to complaints that the Hungarian government has violated EU state aid rules on abuse of state advertising and aid to public broadcaster to undermine media pluralism. Earlier it raised an alarm against the destruction of Hungary’s independent Index news portal. It has expressed support for Szabolcs Dull who was dismissed as editor in chief and for all the Index journalists who resigned, accusing the government of political interference. The sudden sacking came after allies of prime minister Viktor Orban took a controlling interest in the ownership of the online Index news website, Hungary’s leading source of independent news and political comment.

In Bulgaria the AEJ has condemned unprovoked violence against a reporter for Radio Free Europe by security guards and delegates at a national conference of the ruling party.
 And in The Philippines, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and other NGOs have opened a petition calling for the Philippine government to drop all charges and cases against Maria Ressa, the award-winning journalist and editor of Rappler, and to end pressure on independent media in the Philippines. Maria Ressa was awarded the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize for her courageous work and journalistic leadership. President Duterte has declared that journalists are “not exempt from assassination” and his government has sought to close down leading independent media and imprison respected journalists, including Ressa, who with her colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr was convicted on “cyber libel” charges.

 

Fake news updates
Two key characters in the ongoing fake news saga of the last few years are now facing forms of justice. In the UK, Alexander Nix the former head of Cambridge Analytica has been banned from running any limited liability company for seven years. And in the USA, right-wing promoter and former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon has been charged with fraud.

The Cambridge Analytica story first looked like a plotline straight out of the U.S. TV series Homeland – allegations of an illegal data grab used to manipulate national votes in both the U.S. presidential election and the UK referendum on leaving the European Union. But it was life once again imitating art – sparked by an investigative report published in mid-March 2018 by The Observer newspaper and shared with the UK’s Channel 4 television and the New York Times. For more please see here.

 

Justice for Daphne?

It’s been 1000 days since the assassination of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. And justice has yet to be served as more disturbing revelations of state corruption and impunity have underscored the weaknesses in Malta’s rule of law, and the entrenched impunity for both the murder of Caruana Galizia and the high-level abuses of power she investigated. Marking this shocking landmark the AEJ joined 12 other media freedom organisations on July 12 in again calling for justice. For more please see
https://www.aej.org/page.asp?p_id=737.
Malta has a new prime minister and the country’s police chief has resigned in the ongoing scandal but there remain many questions. Aljazeera has this report and AEJ UK member and former BBC journalist Firdevs Robinson has this look at breaks in the story. On Nov. 20 2019 one of the country’s richest men, gambling and property entrepreneur Yorgen Fenech, was arrested and in court two weeks later accused of being the brains behind the killing. He’s denied the charges and blamed allies of the prime minister. Two of them resigned and in the face of major street protests Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said he would resign. His government spent two years stonewalling any genuine investigation and far longer rejecting accusations of widespread money laundering, political corruption and cronyism.

Media Freedom in the Commonwealth?
It’s never been so bad, ” says the publisher of Africa Today. Nigerian journalist Kayode Soyinka thus summed up the wide consensus that emerged from a media freedom panel discussion during the Taking Stock of the Commonwealth day-long global webinar on 24 June. The event was organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies as a “virtual tour of the Commonwealth and its challenges” and took place on the exact date when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) had been due to open in Rwanda. The biennial summit was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. For more please see this report from AEJ UK chairman and international media freedom representative William Horsley.

Attacks on media risk a New Normal
The 2020 annual media freedom report warns that attacks on press freedom in Europe risk creating a new normal as the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a growing pattern of intimidation to silence journalists on the continent. These attacks underscore the report’s urgent wake-up call for Council of Europe member states to act quickly and resolutely to end the assault against press freedom, so that journalists and other media actors can report without fear. The 14 international media freedom groups and journalists’ organisations –the AEJ, Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, EBU, EFJ/IFJ, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Free Press Unlimited, Index on Censorship, INSI, IPI, PEN International, Reporters Without Borders, Rory Peck Trust – warn of a growing pattern of intimidation to silence journalists on the continent through attacks, intimidation, media ‘capture’ and sweeping emergency laws that are open to abuse and severely restrict the media’s ability to hold state power to account.

Urgent call to stop violent attacks against journalists covering migrants’ arrival in Greece
The AEJ has joined an appeal to safeguard journalists reporting on migrants trying to seek safety in Greece.

 

European Parliament struggles to reach budget agreement
Is the ghost of Margaret Thatcher’s “We want our money back!” holding back agreement on the EU’s financial future? Members of the European Parliament struggled over the EU’s budget for 2021 to 2027. And in a faint echo of the UK’s long-running debate over Europe, some are focussed on how to weigh each member state’s net contributions against their benefits while others want to concentrate on furthering the all-important priorities of the EU in its domestic and external strategy for the next seven years. These issues were highlighted in an AEJ seminar in Brussels on February 18 and 19 as this report by AEJ UK’s Secretary Charles Jenkins explains.

 

Concerns about UK government media management
The AEJ has joined widespread criticism of the new UK government’s attempts to control and manage media access, tactics that echo Donald Trump. And it’s called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to end at once its restrictive and partisan media policies.
“The UK government has laid itself open to the charge of hypocrisy,” said William Horsley, the AEJ’s Media Freedom Representative and AEJ UK chair, “by seeking to evade the robust media scrutiny of its actions by independent media that is essential in an open society, while it also claims to be acting as a champion of media freedom to the rest of the world.”
More than 60,000 people have signed an online petition urging the government to stop blocking media scrutiny.

On Feb. 3 - the first working day after the UK officially left the EU – all British political journalists at an official briefing arranged at the Downing Street residence of the prime minister walked out to protest the government’s decision to separate and exclude critical media on an arbitrary basis. The prime minister’s staff had invited selected political journalists to a “technical briefing” on Boris Johnson’s plans for a trade deal with the EU. When other members of the Westminster “lobby” – full-time political journalists based in the Houses of Parliament –showed up as well, the group was told only those invited could go in and the rest should leave. All the journalists present including those specifically invited then walked out. The prime minister’s aides claimed favoured journalists are routinely being granted special access to some press briefings a part of an “inner lobby” while others, essentially those considered opponents of the government, are excluded. That even included Press Association, the UK’s national news agency.
“We reserve the right to brief whoever we like, whenever we like”, said Lee Cain, the prime minister’s communications director.

The political editor of Fleet Street tabloid Daily Mirror,  Pippa Crerar, called the exclusion “sinister and sad”.

Answering questions in the House of Commons the prime minister claimed he loved journalism – he was once sacked from a reporting job at The Times for making up a quote.
Please see here for more on this.

AEJ conference and call for media freedom
The international Association of European Journalists opened its annual conference on Friday Dec. 6 in Paris. Europe is no longer a completely safe place for journalists or media freedom and panel discussions highlighted the acute threats and the vital role of the media in the democratic process with conclusions and recommendations from the meeting to be communicated to the relevant authorities in UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the European Union. For one example of the issues being faced please see this presentation on failing media freedoms in Poland from Krzysztof Bobinski of the AEJ Poland. The conference also led a call to respect press freedom and journalistic independence from all the national sections of the AEJ, Reporters Without Borders, the European Federation of Journalists, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, and the South East Europe Media Organisation.
Please see this AEJ  newsletter for more on the conference.

AEJ co-signs Open Letter for upgraded efforts to protect media freedom
The AEJ has co-signed a letter to the new Council of Europe Secretary-General for upgraded measures to stop criminalizing and demonising journalists, counter the toxic atmosphere of hostility to the media, and stamp out impunity. For more please see here.

AEJ joins call for new European Commission President to prioritize press freedom
The AEJ joined the Committee to Protect Journalists and others to ask the new President of the European Commission to make key media issues a policy priority for the EU. The AEJ is among 20 media and press freedom organisations urging Ursula von der Leyen to take action on media freedom, journalists’ safety and access to public information. For more please see this on the AEJ International website.

See here for more news

 

About the AEJ
The AEJ is an independent network of journalists, writers and specialists active across Europe, a 
Europe wide network of national sections with the goal of advancing knowledge and debate on European affairs and upholding media freedom. In the UK we host regular meetings for journalists providing a forum for open-minded exchanges with public figures of all backgrounds to promote informed debate on European and international affairs. Our lunchtime meetings are open to bona fide journalists and visiting members of other AEJ sections; an entry fee must be paid to cover the costs of food and drink and pre-registration is essential. Journalists, writers and specialists in European affairs may also apply to join the Association of European Journalists – please see here for more about the benefits of membership or contact the AEJ UK Secretary.
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