Wednesday, 04 February 2009

Overview of Europe

By Colin Peters

Alarm bells rang in Europe this year as governments both attempted to and, in some cases, successfully managed to introduce legislation that is damaging to press freedom. A worrying trend was the increasing tendency of governments to attempt to limit freedom of information, and at the same time to attempt to force journalists into revealing their sources. Very often, "security concerns" were given as the reason behind the measures. Reminiscent of 2006, death threats were made against a Swedish editor in response to his printing of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, and 2007 also saw the viciously premeditated murder of popular Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

Dink was gunned down at close range and in cold blood by a youth in an Istanbul street outside the office of his newspaper, Agos, on 19 January. He died at the scene. His killer had strong nationalistic tendencies, and the murder raised the volume of calls for the removal of Turkey’s infamous Article 301, which criminalises insults to "Turkishness", from Turkey’s penal code. It is believed that Dink’s conviction for breaching Article 301 for his writing concerning the massacre of Armenians during the First World War may have raised his profile as a target. At the end of 2007, despite promises from government members, Article 301 had yet to be amended.

Germany and France had major issues with protection of sources this year. A controversial amendment to German telecommunications law means that, as of 1 January 2008, all telecommunications providers are required to retain all customer communication data for a period of six months. This data could be made available to law enforcement agencies, which means that journalists’ ability to retain the confidentiality of their sources has been seriously jeopardised. This came on the back of a generally positive year in Germany, where the Constitutional Court found that the search of a journalists’ apartment and the offices of Cicero magazine in 2005 was unconstitutional. France had similar difficulties this year, with several journalists being subjected to attempts to extract the sources of their information. In the United Kingdom, a protracted wrangle over proposed amendments limiting the recently introduced Freedom of Information Act was a cause for concern. The debate is likely to continue in 2008.

Press freedom issues also arose in countries that are usually exemplified for their freedom of speech records. In Sweden in September, editor-in-chief of the regional newspaper Nerikes Allehanda received death threats from Islamist extremists, after allowing the publication of caricatures that pictured the head of the prophet Mohammed on the body of a dog, and in Finland, a photographer for the Suomen Kuvalehti, Markus Pentikäinen, was arrested while carrying out his profession and taking pictures at a demonstration in Helsinki. Pentikäinen was taken into detention for 18 hours without being given the chance to consult a lawyer or his colleagues at the weekly magazine. Pentikäinen was subsequently charged with disobeying police orders and received a criminal record.

Europe’s worst press freedom offenders continued to decline in 2007. In Belarus, the repressive regime of Alexander Lukashenko has all but silenced any opposition voices, and this year saw the first arrest in that country for content posted online. In Russia, freedom of speech took ever more knocks in the run up to the elections, and the country proved that it remains a dangerous place to practice journalism. The death of Kommersant journalist Ivan Safranov was explained by authorities as a suicide, although family and friends remain convinced that the reporter did not take his own life. Safronov fell to his death from a stairwell window on 2 March, not long after he had claimed that he was facing criminal investigation for information he planned to publish revealing state secrets. Azerbaijan held the dubious title of Europe’s main incarcerator of journalists. Nine journalists were in prison in the country in 2007, although all but three were released at the beginning of 2008. Many of the charges under which the reporters found themselves under lock and key were described as "trumped up" or "fabricated" by the victims; this, along with the squalid conditions in which they are kept, lead them to stage protests and hunger strikes.

In addition to this, concerns were voiced in some of the European Unions newest members. Poland continued to infringe on press freedom, and became the first European Union country to imprison a journalist for criminal defamation. Draft amendments to Slovak media law introduced in the parliament towards the end of the year, which would greatly expand the right of reply, could effectively hand newspaper space to anybody mentioned in that particular newspaper. Editorial independence would thus be severely compromised, and the danger that such an extensive right of reply law could lead to self-censorship of critical journalism would be very clear and very present.

In Slovenia, a petition signed by 571 Slovene journalists called for a stop to government pressure on the media. It has been claimed that, through the manipulation of state financing and state holdings in private companies, government influence has been exerted in the hiring and firing policies of some of the Slovene independent press, leading to different forms of censorship on critical reporting. Some Slovene journalists claimed to have created a "bunker", in which they kept commissioned articles that, due to their critical slant, were not put to print, and other print media talked of losing advertising contracts with state run companies, which they believe to be due to their political stance. In response to these claims and others, IPI conducted a fact-finding mission to Slovenia in November to interview media workers. Following the mission, IPI restated its call for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the matter. By the end of 2007, such a commission was yet to be established.

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