About a month ago, on Thursday 3rd May, the President of the European Parliament (EP) Antonio Tajani delivered a speech at the EP in Brussels on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. By commemorating murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, President Tajani recalled the importance of respecting and protecting the freedom of expression that is among the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 provides indeed that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”, including “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. However, the recent escalation of attacks on freedom of the media in Europe has jeopardised the inviolability of such principle that plays a fundamental role in the transparency, accountability and integrity of any democracy in Europe. Threats and deadly assaults against anti-corruption journalists have proved once again that media reporting is one of the most important sources of public awareness-raising on misgovernment. In order to examine the connection among democracy, investigative journalism and corruption, this article will first give an overview on the level of media freedom in Europe; secondly, it will review the most important European Union (EU) instruments to fight corruption; thirdly, it will provide examples on how journalists’ protection could be enhanced in order to keep bringing allegations of corruption to light and fight against impunity.
Level of press freedom in Europe
The 2018 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters without Borders (RSF), represents a unique source of information for the evaluation of the level of press freedom in 180 countries of the world. The Index sends out worrying signals and confirms the growing trend that has recently renewed the attention of the EU on the urgency to protect free press. It reveals indeed that “[h]ostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries such as Turkey and Egypt”, as more and more democratically elected leaders no longer value the media as part of “democracy’s essential underpinning”. In fact, political leaders across the world increasingly encourage animosity towards the press, yet another enemy to which they openly display their aversion. An example outside the EU is given by the United States in which, since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, the press has been continuously bashed with the purpose of discredit and demean journalists so that negative stories about President Trump would not affect the public opinion. On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe is at the same time the area where press freedom is still the safest and where the regional indicator has worsened the most in 2018. In particular, the region has been shaken by two murders, the one of the aforementioned Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the one of Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old Slovak investigative reporter who was shot dead while investigating corruption and mafia infiltration in the State.
The climate of hatred towards journalists in Europe is far from being limited to these two countries:
- In Poland, anti-corruption reporter Tomasz Piatek was threatened with imprisonment after exposing the links between the network of Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz and the Russian military intelligence services as well as the Kremlin and criminal organisations.
- In Czech Republic, President Milos Zemanown brandished a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the word “journalists” at a press conference, after having referred to them as “manure” and “hyenas”, and suggested they should be “liquidated”.
- In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has accused George Soros, the Hungarian-American business magnate, philanthropist and founder of the Open Society Foundations, of supporting independent media outlets in order to “discredit” Hungary in the international public’s eyes, labelling him as “public enemy number one” of the country.
- In Serbia, investigative journalists have been accused of “treachery” and of being “spies in foreign pay” by President Aleksandar Vučić since his election in May 2017.
- In Albania, Prime Minister Edi Rama verbally assaulted journalists last October, calling them “ignorant,” “poison” and “public enemies”.
This alarming climate also involves other countries in Europe: Austria, Spain, France and Italy have indeed registered a sudden worsening of their press freedom indicators as more and more reporters covering organised crime and corruption are receiving death threats.
The European fight against corruption
Investigative journalists play de facto an institutional function. They provide an essential source of information in corruption and anti-money laundering cases that allows law enforcement and investigative authorities to indict businessmen and even national representatives. However,other than being publicly discredited by certain European leaders, journalists become targets of the criminal groups operating in Europe, which particularly dislike reporters who track down the cross-border networks of their operations.
As corruption continues to be a challenge for Europe, it is in the common interest to ensure that all Member States have effective anti-corruption policies and that investigative journalists and whistleblowers are protected effectively. The EU has dedicated several instruments to the fight against corruption: first of all, Article 83§1 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) lists corruption among the euro-crimes, namely serious crimes with a cross-border dimension for which minimum rules on the definition of criminal offences and sanctions may be established. Secondly, with the adoption of the Stockholm Programme, the European Commission has been given a political mandate to measure efforts in the fight against corruption and to develop a comprehensive EU anti-corruption policy. The Programme is supported by the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO or “the Group”) which in 2017 pushed for the implementation of a “solid body of recommendations to strengthen the prevention of corruption” in respect of members of Parliaments, judges and prosecutors. Thirdly, as corruption comes in many forms, the EU Anti-Corruption Report, published in 2014, demonstrated that the nature and scope of corruption is indeed related to the specificity of each EU country and that the effectiveness of anti-corruption policies can be thus quite different from one EU country to another. The EU Anti-Corruption Report has also served as the basis for dialogue with national authorities as EU countries have designated a national contact point to facilitate information exchange on common anti-corruption policy. Along with the anti-corruption experience-sharing programme launched by the Commission in 2015, “these efforts have encouraged national authorities to better implement laws and policies against corruption”. In this regard, a common high standard of legislation for all EU countries represents another tool to support anti-corruption efforts. As supranational entity, the EU has a “general right to act in the field of anti-corruption policies”, taking into account the limits established by the TFEU. Specific anti-corruption acquisincludes the 1997 Convention on fighting corruption involving officials of the EU or official of Member States and the 2003 Framework Decision on combating corruption in the private sector. Further important anti-corruption provisions are included in the European legislation in other areas such as anti-money laundering and public procurement.
Despite the EU efforts, many Member States such as Poland or Romania are implementing legislative initiatives in order to reverse reforms previously undertaken to comply with GRECO’s recommendations on common anti-corruption standards. Statistics show that it is especially in those countries where institutions fail to investigate corruption and to prosecute it, that journalists are more exposed to deadly threats. As GRECO reports, since 1992 two thirds of all murdered journalists were covering politics and corruption.
Structural challenges in fighting corruption
On the one hand, transparency and accountability are the most important ingredients in order to reduce corruption. On the other hand, effective prosecution of corruption, fair trials and a firm application of dissuasive sentences for corruption-related offences are crucial to foster deterrence. An effective legal protection of whistleblowers and the presence of free media and civil society are also complementary elements for a successful anti-corruption strategy. In addition, other than primarily relying on law enforcement, the fight against corruption needs to be supported by a sound prevention policy, which can only be implemented in “a context of improved quality of institutions and public sector governance”.
As previously mentioned, effective policy measures vary from one country to the other. Some EU Member States that have faced serious challenges in dealing with corruption have set up sophisticated legal and institutional frameworks, and adopted numerous targeted strategies. Other Member States have less comprehensive frameworks in place but face lower risks of corruption. However, despite national differences, an essential condition for the success of any policy is “political will from the top, both from elected politicians and appointed officials”. Also, the judiciary needs to be independent and impartial and must demonstrate the willingness and capacity to investigate, prosecute and sanction corruption. Removing challenges to the capacity of the judiciary to effectively prosecute and punish corruption is a political decision that may involve measures related to procedural, budget and quality of staff issues.
Integrity within the judiciary is thus crucial to ensure independence and impartiality as well as it is to fight corruption also with regard to internal relations in the judiciary, including appointments, allocation of cases and career opportunities. “Clear expectations about integrity, a clearly defined career path, and credible and merit-based appointment procedures at all levels greatly contribute to a well-functioning independent judiciary”.
In this regard, the 18th General Activity Report issued by GRECO in 2017 showed that the level of compliance of 26 States with the Group’s recommendations is still not sufficient to ensure the high standards of integrity, independence and impartiality without which the foundations of a democratic State may collapse.
“Reducing corruption can be achieved when there is a real culture change in public bodies and wider society”. That is why the simple adoption of statutory legislation or administrative measures will not be sufficient in tackling corruption.
Enhanced strategy against the repression of the press
The European Commission’s anti-corruption efforts are clear and are specifically centered around the following main pillars: (1) mainstreaming anti-corruption provisions in EU horizontal and sectorial legislation and policy; (2) monitoring performances in the fight against corruption by Member States; (3) supporting the implementation of anti-corruption measures at national level via funding, technical assistance and experience-sharing; (4) improving the quantitative evidence base for anti-corruption policy.
Since the respect and protection of the freedom of the press is a necessary element of the fight against corruption, what should be done in this regard? According to Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, three steps could be adopted by Member States in the short-term:
- Ensure protection. Police and law enforcement officers must not overlook threats against journalists nor neglect requests for protection. Some countries have good expertise on how to ensure police protection and they should share it with others. Increased co-operation with international organisations, journalists’ organisations and independent observatories on violence against journalists would also help increase states’ ability to protect journalists at an early stage.
- End impunity. The police and the judiciary must be able to investigate all cases of violence against journalists, including those involving state agents, and prosecute the perpetrators. This requires a well-trained and effective police force and a truly independent judiciary, free from political influence and able to prosecute the highest spheres of the state if need be.
- Change legislation. Lawmakers must enact legislation that protects journalists and shields them from undue pressure. When it comes to defamation and libel, they should fully decriminalise them, foresee only proportionate civil sanctions and provide penalties for those who abuse defamation suits to silence journalists. Moreover, laws tackling disinformation, terrorism or security issues must avoid limiting journalists’ freedoms and safety.
All these measures can be implemented, “provided there is political will”. As reported in the first part of this article, many politicians instigate violence towards the press or, at best, remain indifferent about threats to investigative journalists.
The murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ján Kuciak and many other of their colleagues can be also attributed to the “structural deficiencies in [S]tate institutions that should have protected them”. The violent repression of the pressendangers not only journalists but democracy itself. As stated by President Antonio Tajani, “[t]hese murders, these unfair arrests and detentions, these kidnappings, are wounds to the democratic fabric of our society. We must not limit ourselves to admiring the courage of those who fight for the truth. We must continue to support them, to stand by them.”
For further information:
OECD, “The Role of the Media and Investigative Journalism in Combating Corruption” (2018) : www.oecd.org/corruption/The-role-of-media-and-investigative-journalism-in-combatingcorruption.htm
Committee to protect journalists : https://cpj.org/
European Parliament, Multimedia Centre, “Handover of a work of art commemorating Daphne Caruana Galizia to Antonio TAJANI, EP President (16:30 – )” : https://multimedia.europarl.europa.eu/en/antonio-tajani-ep-president-receives-work-of-art-commemorating-daphne-caruana-galizia-extracts-from-the-ceremony-_I154729-V_rv
United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
ICIJ, “Press freedom slides as journalists face growing threats around the world” : https://www.icij.org/blog/2018/05/press-freedom-slides-as-journalists-face-growing-threats-around-the-world/
CBS NEWS, “Lesley Stahl: Trump admitted mission to « discredit » press” : https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lesley-stahl-donald-trump-said-attacking-press-to-discredit-negative-stories/
Reporters without borders, “RSF Index 2018: Hatred of journalism threatens democracies” : https://rsf.org/en/rsf-index-2018-hatred-journalism-threatens-democracies
European Commission, Migration and Home Affairs, “Corruption” : https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/organized-crime-and-human-trafficking/corruption_en
European Commission, European Semester Thematic Factsheet Fight Against Corruption : https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/file_import/european-semester_thematic-factsheet_fight-against-corruption_en.pdf
GRECO 18th General Activity Report (2017) : https://rm.coe.int/eighteenth-general-activity-report-2017-of-the-group-of-states-against/16807c0e91
Commissioner for Human Rights, “Europe’s duty to save journalists” :https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/europe-s-duty-to-save-journalists