Governments that threaten journalists: an epidemic that Europe is not exempt from

Autor: Joan Sánchez Ros (@sr_joan)

“That crook Schembri was in court today, pleading that he is not a crook”. These are the words that make up Daphne Caruana Galizia’s last published headline in her personal blog: Running Commentary. Minutes after publishing, a bomb planted in her car took Galizia’s life while she was driving. More than two years have passed since her assassination but the trial is still going on.

By that time, Daphne Caruana Galizia was investigating the Maltese government (Labour Party), as well as the opposition leader (Nationalist Party), in relation to the Panama Papers. Together with Yorgen Fenech, one of the big businessmen in the Maltese casino and energetic industries, they were being criticized daily for offshore accounts and accused of corruption at Galizia’s blog.

A taxi driver who acted as intermediary in the murder offered information to the police in which he claimed the government was aware of the plot. This brought both Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi to announce their resignation as ministers and Christian Cardona to suspend himself from duties until the police investigation be over. Most recently, the Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, also resigned.

Protests in Malta demand the Prime Minister’s immediate resignation for Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

Galizia’s case reminded Europe that it is not exempt from serious violations to journalists’ rights or, in this case, fundamental human rights. The following year, a Slovak journalist named Ján Kuciak was shot while investigating tax fraud related to the government. Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, resigned one month later. Together with Malta’s, two European governments have fallen in the last two years because of crimes against journalists.

Also in 2018, the assassination of The Washington Post correspondent in Istanbul, Jamal Khashoggi, reached international news for its gruesome execution in cold blood. Ordered, presumably, by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who denies any involvement. These murders add to a list of crimes against journalists with political intentions that have never been solved or punished.

Murders of journalists between 2009 and 2019 for political reasons.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently published the 2019 Global Impunity Index for countries with unsolved murders of reporters. According to the CPJ, more than 200 journalists have been murdered in the last ten years by government officials or political groups around the globe. Only since 2017, the number amounts to 41, and this is not including Galizia’s case (or many others) because of a lack of evidence of the government’s involvement in the murder.

As stated by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), reporters shall “reject any kind of interference by governments or others whenever it comes to matters of professional honour”. Political and economic interferences will never be eradicated completely, but it is essential that their influences over journalists are minimized. Threats and pressures as well as attempts to bribe or blackmail reporters are never a good symptom when it comes to measuring a country’s democratic health.

Governments who implement such measures attempt against their own citizens’ rights to access truthful information and endanger journalists’ reputation and integrity as it puts them in situations that go against their professional and ethical principles as it suggests the Council of Europe. However, not many journalistic codes of conduct offer explicit guidance to journalists who happen to find themselves threatened by political powers. For those cases and many more, the CPJ provides reporters with a Journalistic Security Guide to help them act whenever facing pressures in their job.

The influence that bloggers like Galizia can have in society ought not to be undervalued. The online portal Politico Europe published an article about her in 2017 in which they assured that “on a good day, Galizia’s gets 400.000 readers, more than the combined circulation of the country’s newspapers”. But simply by killing the messenger, the message does not always die.

A year ago, UNESCO launched a campaign named #TruthNeverDies aimed to expose the impunity behind the crimes against journalists. The initiative asks readers around the world to “help keep the investigations of killed journalists alive and perpetuate their legacy by sharing their articles and their stories”. Galizia’s stories, as well as Khashoggi’s, Kuciak’s and many others’ are far more accessible now to the public, thanks to this campaign, than they have ever been.

However, for journalism to develop appropriately, not only governments have to facilitate a safe environment, but also journalists need to act ethically in order to maintain the reader’s trust. An annual report released by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) reveals that, “for the first time in 10 years, the proportion of countries in Europe that tend to trust the written press (58%) is greater than those that do not (42%)”. As hopeful as this may sound, there are still countries like Malta, North Macedonia, Serbia and the UK where the majority of the population does not trust the media.

Ethics matter when it comes to sources leaking information to the written press or any other form of media. If people have issues trusting the media, it is unlikely that they will be willing to hand sensitive information to news organizations. Quality investigative journalism relies on leaks and sources, but those require trust, and it will come soon to an end as long as ethics continue to be threatened from power positions with impunity.

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