BLOG published on 13 Sep 2021

New EU policy can make a difference to the safety of journalists

This week the European Commission will publish a recommendation for EU Member States to ensure the safety of journalists across the European Union. As we wait to see the detail of the recommendation, it is essential that it carries sufficient weight to improve what Member States do to address what is a major threat to democracy.

Quality journalism is under pressure like never before. Economic strains, political interference, and the volume and speed of fake news have become a daily challenge for many journalists. 

Despite those pressures, journalists stepped up when we need them most. During the global pandemic, trust in the news grew by 6 percentage points according to the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report.

And it was to public service media, that people turned for reliable, trustworthy news and information. As the crisis took hold, the reach of EBU Members’ evening news bulletins went up by 2.5 times on peak days.

Our desire for trustworthy news increases yet those that bring it to us are under attack – online and offline. 

The consequences can be devastating. Last year, 50 journalists were killed worldwide doing their jobs. Most were knowingly targeted and deliberately murdered. Recently Peter R. De Vries was shot dead in Amsterdam. A few weeks prior, Giorgos Karaivaz was murdered in Athens. EBU Members have also felt the effects first-hand. NOS in the Netherlands have been forced to remove all the branding from their satellite trucks after encountering numerous threats and intimidation. The security costs of SVT – Swedish television - have increased fourfold in the last five years – much of which is for personal protection. Staff from broadcasters in countries ranging from Italy to France, Spain and Germany have been attacked for their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Just over a week ago in Ljubljana anti-vaccination protectors broke into the newsroom of RTV Slovenija.

Attacks against journalists and media professionals too often go unpunished. The European Commission's recommendation must address the impunity of these crimes, Prompt and effective investigations and prosecutions must be carried out to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. 

The explosion in online consumption has led to its own problems: online trolling, abuse and aggression. It’s particularly acute for women: a staggering 73% of female journalists have experienced online hostility according to a study conducted by UNESCO. 

The 2016 Council of Europe Recommendation on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists takes a comprehensive and thorough approach to journalists’ safety and integrity. The EBU expects to see this comprehensive approach carried through in the Commission’s Recommendation.

Action proposed by the European Commission should go hand in hand with strong EU rules for online platforms in the Digital Services Act. Digital platforms need to take more responsibility for removing illegal content – whether threats, intimidation or other harassment. They should also make it easier for people to flag and report illegal activities and content by developing tools to do so. Their procedures for handling and resolving complaints must be transparent, easy-to-use and effective. And while AI or other technologies could be useful to identify and get rid of illegal content, these are not tasks that should be left to machines alone: there must be appropriate human oversight.  

To get a reliable view on the extent of online violence against journalists, digital platforms should run prescribed data-collection - and to help address gender-based violence this data should be gender-disaggregated. 

Any rules for digital platforms are only effective if they’re properly enforced. Regulators for the media must have the authority to sanction non-compliance – meaningful fines at a minimum. Online platforms should also be obliged to submit regular reports to the competent authorities that show how they’ve applied the required actions. 

The Commission recommendation is a vital part of a broad movement to improve the environment for journalists – online and offline. The EBU is keen to help advance the upcoming Media Freedom Act and to help shape EU policies such as the European Democracy Action Plan and the Digital Services Act. The latter, while addressing illegal content, should also ensure that platforms do not meddle with content from media that is already regulated. As Commissioner Breton recently said what is illegal offline must be illegal online and what is legal offline must also be legal online.  Platforms must not have editorial control for such legal media content.

The EBU is also involved in the Council of Europe's platform for the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists. We support the activities of UN, UNESCO, OSCE, and NGOs defending freedom of expression. Later this month, I am pleased to join the Public Broadcasters International conference where public service media from across the world will make a call for action against violence towards journalists.

Every day, colleagues are having to put their safety and wellbeing on the line to ensure people have access to the reliable news and trusted information that forms the bedrock of our democracies here in Europe. We can only look forward to the European Commission recommendation making their jobs less risky.