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Roundtable: Protecting the safety of journalists, media freedom and pluralism in the European Union

Opening address Birgit Van Hout

Regional Representative for Europe

10 December 2021

As we speak, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov are in Oslo to accept their Nobel Peace Prize 2021 for their courageous struggle for freedom of expression. By awarding the prestigious Prize to them, the Committee pays tribute to all journalists in a world in which press freedom faces increasing adversity.

Indeed, as much as all of us here agree on the importance of journalism, media freedom and pluralism for democracy, we also share a deep concern over the safety of journalists. Some face physical attacks and even calculated murders, as Matthew Caruana Galizia’s presence today tragically reminds us; some face hate speech and smear campaigns -- online and offline – others face legal harassment – a well-documented tactic of intimidation – or illegal surveillance. The challenges journalists face at the individual level are part and parcel of a broader context in which expression can be criminalised, access to information limited; media outlets captured; editorial independence curtailed; and, in some countries, the internet shut down, journalists arbitrary detained, tortured or forcibly disappeared

Market concentration further endangers the diversity and pluralism of reporting. And all of this is compounded by economic difficulties afflicting the media sector, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis.

While this is a global trend, Europe is not immune, as reported by UN bodies and mechanisms, EU institutions, regional organisations and civil society. We need to protect media freedom because, as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on the occasion of the UN World Press Freedom Conference “free, uncensored and independent media are a cornerstone of democratic societies - conveying life-saving information, improving public participation, and strengthening accountability and respect for human rights.” I would take it one step further and argue that freedom of expression and access to information are enabling rights, because without these freedoms, how can people claim their rights?

Our office’s engagement is part of our broader effort to help States, as duty-bearers under international human rights law, to keep civic space open, uphold the rule of law and protect democracy. When journalists and the media are threatened, it stifles debate about public interest matters, it prevents public watchdogs from playing their role and, ultimately, it weakens democracy and rule of law. While media freedom and pluralism are essential components of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, they are even more so in times of crisis. In the Covid-19 crisis, is it essential that States and non-State actors are informed by transparent public debate and subjected to close scrutiny.

It’s against this background that our office, the UN Human Rights Regional Office for Europe, in cooperation with UNESCO and as part of the Global Drive for Media Freedom and Safety of Journalists, decided to undertake this project on the protection of journalists, media freedom and pluralism in the European Union.

Time is of the essence, not only because the situation is deteriorating, but also because the EU is taking unprecedented steps to address the challenges at regional level, with a series of ambitious initiatives of which the impact will likely extend well beyond the EU borders.

New initiatives include the recently adopted EU Recommendation on Safety of Journalists, the upcoming EU initiative against abusive lawsuits targeting journalists and rights defenders, known as SLAPPs, the future EU Media Freedom Act, and the proposed EU rules on digital markets and services.

A human rights-based approach to EU legislation and policies in this area is imperative. This requires both explicit reference to existing international and regional human rights law and standards, as well as strict adherence to the human rights principles of transparency, accountability, participation and non-discrimination.

Through this project, we want to enhance cooperation between international and regional human rights bodies and empower civil society and media practitioners so that their perspective can be heard in the legislative and policy discussions.

Today’s meeting is a first step: an exchange of views on pressing concerns and possible solutions. This will inform the next stages of the project. In February 2022, we will organize a high-level policy debate – hopefully in person - that brings the various stakeholders around the same table: EU policy makers, representatives of the international and regional human rights architecture, media and civil society.

The goals are clear. We need concrete progress in the protection of journalists from attacks and harassment, including legal harassment. Impunity must be addressed. We need to counter State and business capture or interference with independent and public service media. And we need to safeguard freedom of expression in the digital sphere.

This project will also inform our Office’s broader engagement with the EU on human rights, the rule of law and civic space in the EU, like our advocacy on human rights in the digital sphere and our contribution to the EU’s annual rule of law monitoring cycle.

We are symbolically holding this roundtable on International Human Rights Day. This year’s theme is ‘Equality.’ Equality also means a society where everyone is equally represented and can make their voice heard. That requires open and inclusive democratic debate, for which free and pluralistic media are an essential precondition. We look forward to your active participation. Thank you.