Defending press freedom in tension and conflict

The 2022 annual report on media freedom by the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists notes the long shadow cast over journalism by the war in Ukraine and its “dramatic consequences on press freedom.”

It says journalists now have to navigate a news environment “strewn with misinformation from all sides” in a long running information war which “has fiercely intensified, with the dissemination of fake news and doctored videos, the creation of social posts masquerading as fact-checking websites, unconfirmed stories of feats of arms, the posting of brutal images of the war and the public exposure of prisoners of war, a potential violation of the Geneva Conventions.”

As reported widely on this AEJ UK website and of course elsewhere, the report details the series of actions by Vladimir Putin’s government to shut down independent media, criminalize any reporting inside Russia that does not use government approved language, and effectively force many foreign news operations, websites, social media platforms and even major telecommunications operators either to close or curtail their operations.
By March 2022 , more than 150 journalists chose to leave the country to escape from repression and
continue their work outside Russia.

The EU, member states, and the UK banned Russian controlled media in their jurisdictions in retaliation although journalists organisations voiced their unease at the EU decision, arguing that state-sponsored disinformation should be opposed not through censorship but through independent journalism and open debate to counter false narratives and propaganda.

In Ukraine, war correspondents, like other civilians, have been constrained by curfews, checkpoints, and military restrictions as well as running the risks of being suspected of espionage and dealing with blurred frontlines, shelling and direct attacks.
By early March, protective equipment (flak jackets, helmets) was in short supply and journalists’ support organisations ran emergency safety training courses online, aimed particularly at freelancers flocking to Ukraine to cover the war and at local journalists.

The war in Ukraine has overshadowed key ongoing issues of media freedom highlighted in the CoE Platform 2022 annual report.
It says “press freedom is the canary in the coal mine, a key indicator of a clear and worrying degree of democratic backsliding… On the European wall maps of media freedom, red lights are flashing.”
It notes in 2021, there were 282 alerts from 35 countries submitted to the Platform – up from 200 in 2020, an increase of 41%.
Six journalists died in 2021 in the exercise of their profession, four of whom were deliberately targeted.

And while some alerts “may reflect recurrent failings in so-called imperfect democracies” and others may be transitory due to Covid-19 pandemic measures, the report says in a growing number of countries these cases are not occasional blips.
They are the result, it says, of a concerted and deliberate strategy to impose an “illiberal” model, as authoritarian regimes draw from their electoral majority the“right” to subvert constitutional constraints on their power and to disenfranchise opposition or dissenting groups, “a frontal attack against the values and institutions which define advanced democracies”.

The report says “some states do not just harass the press to protect themselves from scrutiny and embarrassment: they fundamentally reject the role of journalism as a prerequisite to democracy” – not by totally closing down free speech but by “managing” it through:

  • media capture and incitement against “elitist media” or a “lying press”
  • smearing independent and critical journalists as“traitors” or enemies of the people
  • targeting journalists and media through national security prosecutions, vindictive tax audits, discrimination in the allocation of state funding or advertising, and sweeping hate speech and fake news laws which often have far-reaching chilling effects on free speech and journalism.

2022 CoE Platform annual report on media freedom
Statement from CoE secretary general
CoE Platform for journalists
CoE media freedom reports
AEJ UK reports on war in Ukraine