Unfortunately, it’s not often that a journalist’s murder sets off a political shakeup that changes a country. But that’s precisely what happened in Slovakia, where public pressure over Ján Kuciak’s assassination in February 2018 led to resignations and heralded a new government. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) highlights this and other developments in Europe and globally in its freshly published World Press Freedom Index 2019.
The murder of the Slovak investigative journalist was the ultimate symptom of a sick system, both locally and regionally in Europe.
In it, media ownership patterns are shifting towards greater concentration and powerful interests that place economic and political gain well above journalistic integrity. After having ranked 12th worldwide in the 2016 index, sandwiched between Austria and Belgium on the scale, Slovakia has moved down incrementally to position 35, between Slovenia and Burkina Faso.
Harassment against journalists in Europe takes many forms: insults by online trolls, by protesters or politicians; SLAPP lawsuits; death threats; physical violence; and impunity, which often repeats the cycle. All of this happened to Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, having escalated into her murder by car bomb metres from her residence in October 2017. RSF’s description of Malta – as underscored by the perpetrators’ impunity and the government’s purposeful negligence in investigating Caruana Galizia’s case – illustrates the dangerous decay increasingly enveloping the country and region:
“The government’s reluctance comes in an increasingly hostile environment for independent journalists in Malta receiving threats for their reporting on corruption, and increasingly isolated in a compromised media landscape. Most of the media in the country is directly owned and controlled by political parties [and] the State broadcaster’s bias towards the government [leads to] major corruption stories [going] unreported. [Media in Malta] is increasingly dependent on massive expenditure by the government on advertising, which leads to control of information and the push of pro-government agendas.”
Malta has gone down 12 positions to 77th in the World Press Freedom Index 2019. But it still ranks above Bulgaria, which has been firmly in the world’s bottom 100 since RSF’s 2014 ranking, and has found itself at 111th for two consecutive years. RSF notes that, in 2018, the same year Bulgaria held the Council of the EU’s rotating presidency, bizarre coverup attempts by authorities followed the murder of TV journalist Viktoria Marinova. Six months after her death, on 22. April 2019, a Bulgarian court sentenced her murderer to 30 years in prison, finding that his motives were sexual rather than connected to her journalistic work.
Geographic divides in the press freedom landscape can be detected.
The top five countries for press freedom worldwide are all in northern Europe: Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark (in descending order). RSF notes Denmark’s recovery in the ranking, after the investor who murdered journalist Kim Wall there in 2017 was sentenced to life in prison – meaning that although not devoid of heinous crimes against media workers, a country with strong safeguards against rights violations is less likely to let a perpetrator run free. In sharp contrast, towards the very bottom of the 180-country ranking are the southeastern European countries of Turkey (157th) and Azerbaijan (166th), both infamous for the mass imprisonment and habitual intimidation of journalists.
Among Europe’s 10 most populous countries, the best-ranked is Germany, which has kept a steady position over the past several years and gone up slightly to 13th in the 2019 index. However, a recent report from the ECPMF shows a spike in and correlation between extreme right-wing demonstrations and violence against journalists, especially in East Germany, where they are routinely insulted as “lying press.” Other populous Western European countries rank significantly lower than Germany: Spain (29th), France (32nd), United Kingdom (33rd), and Italy (43rd). Reporting is once again becoming a dangerous job in those countries, as extremism reemerges: Over Easter 2019, UK journalist Lyra McKee was killed while standing in the line of fire during riots in Northern Ireland.
Trailing farther behind in Central and Eastern Europe are Poland (59th) and Hungary (87th), where the rise of authoritarian governments in recent years has seen press freedom and other democratic rights being scaled back – reminiscent of Iron Curtain times. Accompanying these elements is a growing epidemic of hate speech against journalists and minorities in society.