Council of Europe declares fresh efforts to safeguard citizens against mass surveillance and protect bloggers and journalists

William Horsley, AEJ Media Freedom Representative

Ministers from the 47 states of the Council of Europe with responsibility for media matters, meeting in Belgrade, have declared themselves ‘appalled’ that journalists in Europe are increasingly subject to threats, assaults, imprisonment and even being killed because of their work. The Ministers, who gathered on 7-8 November for the first such conference for four years, blamed national government authorities for systemic failures to effectively investigate such attacks, which they said were fuelling a ‘climate of impunity’. They described this situation as unacceptable and set in train a work programme aimed at creating a safe and enabling environment for journalists as well as other media actors such as bloggers who can now be considered part of the ‘media ecosystem’.

The conference also broke new ground because the ministers agreed on two significant steps aimed at increasing the protections for freedom of expression in line with the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights. One is to examine the gathering of electronic communications date on individuals by security agencies, including the potential risks to the rights of citizens arising from the deliberate weakening of encryption systems. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, emphasised the chilling effect on investigative journalism which he said might result from the operations of the US and UK intelligence services, as recently revealed by the former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. The UK argued unsuccessfully for any reference to ‘vast’ amounts of data collection or to ‘flaws and backdoors’ in Internet security systems to be deleted from the text which was finally adopted.

The ministers or their deputies also acknowledged that not only traditional journalists but also bloggers and other media actors may qualify to receive stronger legal protections under the European Convention when they are communicating in the public interest. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that journalists should enjoy the broadest scope of protection – including the right to refuse to reveal their confidential sources of information -- provided that they conduct themselves in good faith and in an ethical way. This decision reinforces the already widely accepted idea that the function of journalism needs to be protected in order to safeguard freedom of expression in whole societies, and that function may extend from journalists to others, such as bloggers and human rights defenders. Russia voiced dissatisfaction with the text, arguing that all who are to enjoy the rights of journalists must also explicitly accept certain ‘responsibilities’. But in the end the Russians agreed to endorse all the conference texts.

The Council of Europe’s Secretary General, Thorbjorn Jagland, announced the intention of the member States to establish a new online media platform to publicise serious threats to media freedom as what he called an ‘early warning system’ against serious abuses. The prospective web-based database would rely on a stream of information from authoritative human rights and media NGOs. Representatives of those non-government organisations said they had not yet been officially invited to participate in the project, which ministers approved in principle back in July. Questions were also raised about the Council of Europe’s willingness to provide adequate fund to launch such an initiative, without which sceptical observers said it would remain a piece of political wishful thinking.

Mr Jagland also called for additional measures, to be fleshed out in the Council of Europe’s future work, to help ensure effective protection for journalists and others who are threatened because of what they say or write, as well as ensuring that justice is done in cases involving physical attacks on journalists, in order to stamp out impunity. Next year the ministers are expected to consider a range of possible responses, including new efforts to ensure that states fulfil their ‘positive obligations’, as set out in the case law of the Court of Human Rights, to put in place effective measures to protect journalists who face imminent threats to their physical safety.

The Political Declaration and Resolutions, including the first Council of Europe ministers’ Resolution specifically on the Safety of Journalists, are the outcome of three years of deliberation among member States and Council of Europe officials. In that time leading human rights and media monitoring organisations across Europe have strongly criticised the Council of Europe for failing to take concrete actions to ensure the implementation of numerous standards in the field of media freedom which have been clarified by rulings from the European Court of Human Rights or set at the highest level by the Committee of Ministers themselves.

In particular, some forty NGOs and leading experts in media and human rights matters called repeatedly on the Council of Europe’s member states and the Secretary-General to fulfil the political pledge which they made at the previous conference of media ministers, held in Reykjavik in 2009, to conduct regular reviews of each state’s laws and practices on anti-terrorism to ensure that they conformed with the safeguards for freedom of expression enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Ministers were reminded again of that broken pledge during the Belgrade conference.

In Belgrade an informal session on threats to journalists’ safety heard urgent appeals from leading journalistic figures, calling for international action to end serious repression and abuses against the media. Veran Matic, a renowned journalist who now heads a special Serbian Commission investigating the unsolved killings of three journalists in that country, spoke of the strenuous efforts needed to uncover the causes of impunity, and importance of removing from the intelligence services any figures who may have been complicit in past misdeeds. Kadri Gursel, a columnist on the Turkish daily Milliyet, appealed to the international community to press Turkey to free scores of journalists who are now in prison, he said, because of unfounded terrorism charges. And Nadezhda Azhgikina of the Russian Union of Journalists spoke of what she called the ‘nightmare’ for journalists in Russia, that the dream they cherished in the 1990s of a bright future for free journalism had now dissolved; instead, today inquiring journalists were regularly intimidated, assaulted or prosecuted on specious charges. It was vital, she said, for journalists to show stronger solidarity among themselves and to do their job professionally even in dangerous and difficult conditions.

Leading human rights lawyers and experts called for the Council of Europe to develop more muscular legal and practical protections for free and independent journalism, in line with recommendations made in the expert papers prepared for the Belgrade conference and the recent Report on the Safety of Journalists by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.