A call for the European Union to protect at-risk journalists

Published on Sunday, 6 May 2018 21:01
Written by Stella Roque is chief communications officer for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) based in Sarajevo.

By Stella Roque

As we marked World Press Freedom Day, it is worth recalling that Europe has recently been rocked by the shocking murders of two investigative journalists. In Malta, a car bomb killed Daphne Caruana Galizia. In Slovakia, assassins’ bullets took the lives of 27-year-old Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.

Both journalists had been pursuing stories that lay at the nexus of political corruption and organized crime.

Both cases, thus far, remain unsolved. Both of the countries in which they were killed are members of the European Union.

So the murders point to a wider problem: The hard-won press freedoms in a continent that had shed its totalitarian past are much more fragile than we’ve come to believe. And the open violence is just the most blatant example.

In Hungary, three independent outlets have been shut down since Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recent reelection. Government-friendly oligarchs are harassing or buying out independent publications. The pro-government media has smeared local members of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) as “Soros mercenaries.” (George Soros is, may we add, an important philanthropic supporter of free and independent media.)

In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman recently brandished a mock assault rifle inscribed with the words “at journalists” at a news conference. He has also joked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the need to eliminate journalists.

These words aren’t just words. Extremists and even ordinary citizens take cues from their leaders. Hostile rhetoric aimed at critical journalists makes it appear legitimate to attack them.

What happens to journalists is the barometer by which we measure free speech, human rights, government accountability and democracy itself. If the European Union is to continue to lead the world in media freedom, it needs to do everything in its power to defend its independent reporters.

A recently adopted European Parliament resolution urging greater action is a step in the right direction. But it is not nearly enough.

We at the OCCRP believe that Kuciak - who was collaborating with us on an investigation - was exposed to his killers when he filed a freedom-of-information request that required him to provide his personal information and address.

Europe currently has no laws in place to protect the identities of those who file such requests. Journalists in the OCCRP network have often received threats from the targets of their investigations after making requests for information that should be publicly available in the first place.

The recent European Parliament resolution calls for the confidentiality of whistleblowers to be protected.

Similar legislation must be implemented to protect the identities of journalists and activists who are fulfilling their role as public watchdogs. We should call it Jan’s Law, in honor of Kuciak.

A second important measure would be to establish an advisory body to oversee investigations into the killings of journalists.

We are not advocating for a commission with specific legal powers. We are suggesting a body made up of experts with forensic skills - and enjoying a strong political mandate - that could advise local police, thereby helping well-intentioned law enforcement agencies do their job.The lack of political will often impedes such investigations. We believe that a body of the kind we propose would help to increase public transparency and awareness, thus boosting the likelihood of meaningful action.

Establishing such a body would raise the risks for criminals, making them think twice before taking a step that would bring public exposure. It would also draw attention to any officials, elected or otherwise, who are unwilling to defend a free press.

We could call the legislation establishing it Daphne’s Law, in honor of Caruana Galizia.

We journalists have been standing up to protect our own. After Kuciak’s murder, OCCRP network reporters moved immediately to complete his investigations, showing the assassins that killing the journalist will not kill the story.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Sunday, 6 May 2018 21:01. Updated: Sunday, 6 May 2018 21:03.