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European Media: 2015, an awful year for Europe’s free media - by Alex Spence

It was a terrible year for journalists in Europe.
Attacks by Islamic militants, unjustified arrests, assaults, harassment, threats and tougher legal restrictions made it harder for editors, reporters and photographers to hold the powerful to account across the region this year, according to media organizations and NGOs.

Hopes that politicians would increase protections for independent media after the murderous assault on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January — when politicians proclaimed their commitment to free speech as a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy  were quickly dashed, the groups said. Instead, the ability of the press to report freely and critically was diminished in 2015 — and not just in countries on the periphery of the European Union with dubious human rights records.

“It’s been an awful year,” Ricardo Gutiérrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, the largest professional organization of journalists in Europe, told POLITICO in an interview. “I must say, five years ago I was not suspecting such a bad evolution.”

Dunja Mijatovic, representative for media freedom at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said: “Unfortunately, we continued to see killings, attacks and threats targeting members of the media throughout 2015, and it has become evident that the overall media freedom situation has deteriorated the past year.”

“We have also seen a shift in how members of the media are being attacked and threatened, with the scale of these threats growing in both magnitude and severity.”

Eleven journalists in Europe were killed in 2015, including eight at Charlie Hebdo, according to the Council of Europe, which in April began monitoring instances of abuse against journalists. Thirty-three journalists across the region were physically assaulted, and dozens more were threatened or intimidated.
The decline of media freedom was most grave in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Western Balkans, Mijatovic said.

In Turkey, independent media organizations opposed to the government have been targeted during President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarian crackdown. Fourteen journalists are currently in prison there, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. They include Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of the daily Cumhuriyet, and his colleague Erdem Gül, who were accused of espionage after reporting that Turkish intelligence services were allegedly smuggling weapons into Syria.

The crackdown in Azerbaijan has been even more repressive, the NGOs said. In the best-known case, Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist for Radio Free Europe who has published reports about government corruption, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half-years on charges including conducting an illegal business, tax evasion and embezzlement. Other journalists have been jailed on trumped-up charges of possessing guns and drugs.
There have also been alarming developments within the European Union, the media groups said.

Tighter regulation and political pressure has weakened press freedom in Hungary. Journalists in Germany have repeatedly been physically attacked while reporting on anti-refugee demonstrations organized by the far-right Pegida group. Numerous reporters in Italy have been threatened for writing about organized crime.

In Spain, the media’s role as political watchdog has been diminished. Plans by Poland’s new conservative government to reform its media have sparked concerns about editorial independence.

“We’re definitely going backwards,” William Horsley, of the Association of European Journalists, said in an interview. “It’s become clearer than ever that there is a very widespread and many-sided oppression of free media going on. It consists both of coercion — pressure and violence — and also cooption, the taking over of media space by pressure groups and politicians.”

“Media freedom, pluralism, and the protection of journalists are at the very base of a free and democratic society,” a spokeswoman for the Commission said. “The Commission stands for these values and is supporting them through different initiatives and when legally justified in the scope of its competences.”

However, representatives of several journalism and free-speech groups said they have been disappointed by the EU’s commitment to media freedom. Among their concerns is that officials in Brussels will overlook Turkey’s treatment of independent journalists in return for Erdoğan’s help in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis.

\Read more: 2015, an awful year for Europe’s free media – POLITICO

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