Impunity of Journalists: a New Challenge for Europe and Its Democracies

Renate Schroeder, EFJ Director

Ноябрь 27, 2018

In the past three years, 18 journalists have been murdered in the EU Member States and in the EU candidate countries. In the past twelve months alone seven journalists were murdered, four of them in EU countries. Since 1992, over 150 journalists have been killed in Europe, one every two months. Some were covering conflicts, while most were trying to bring criminal activities and corruption under public scrutiny. Many of them had solicited police protection, but most state authorities ignored such requests.

“This situation of extreme gravity requires a strong reaction from States to better protect journalists. It also requires a fierce fight against impunity. We are waiting for concrete gestures, beyond the symbols,” says Ricardo Gutierrez, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ).

The most prominent case within this last year has been the brutal killing of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on 16 October 2017. She was murdered by a car bomb in the town of Bidnija, near her family home. One year after, an unprecedented number of press freedom organizations including the International and European Federation of Journalists, prominent journalists and - with enormous passion - Daphne’s three sons deplore the lack of independent public inquiry and the unwillingness of the Maltese government to take concrete action to end impunity around this crime. Daphne Caruana Galizia was a 53 year-old prominent investigative journalist who kept a blog labelled Running Commentary, one of the most widely read websites in Malta. The journalist had been targeted and sued many times for her writings in which she revealed several corruption scandals involving Maltese politicians. She was the first to break the news on Maltese politicians’ involvement in the Panama Papers, in April 2016. She had filed a police report 15 days before her murder, saying she was being threatened.

On December 2017, the investigation into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder has resulted in the arrests of only a few suspects. Three of them, brothers George and Alfred De Giorgio, together with Vincent Muscat were charged with her murder. However, we denounce the lack of willingness to identify the masterminds behind Caruana’s assassination.

In February 2018, that is only four months after the shocking killing of Daphne, a young investigative journalist Ján Kuciak together with his girl-friend Martina Kušnírová were shot dead in their home in Veľká Mača, Slovakia. Kuciak worked as a reporter for a news website, investigating tax frauds and corruption. The journalist’s last investigation was uncovering ties between Slovak government officials and an Italian mafia syndicate, who were supposedly collaborating to commit fraud of EU subsidy funds, as well as a separate story on Eastern European drug cartels. In September eight persons were arrested and three are still in custody. While press freedom organizations keep putting pressure on the authorities, the Slovak authorities may have found a potential mastermind behind this crime. It seems the Slovak authorities are taking the investigations more seriously.


Needless to say, the situation in Russia remains very bleak. In 2017 two journalists were killed, Nikolai Andrushchenko and Dmitry Popkov and the murders have not been found yet.


On 15th April 2018 Maksim Borodin faced a very suspicious death, and all international organizations have asked for an investigation.


On 7 October, we marked twelve years since Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in front of the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow. After several arrests, releases and retrials over eight years, five people have been jailed for her murder. However, it has still not been established who ordered the murder. In July this year, the European Court of Human Rights found that the authorities of the Russian Federation failed to take adequate investigatory steps to find who had commissioned her murder and to explore allegations that officials of the Russian Federal Security Services or representatives of the Chechen administration had been involved in arranging the murder.


The Ukraine has also been a bloody place for journalists, and this not only because of the war. A well-known, prize-winning Belarusian journalist, Pavel Sheremet was killed by a car bomb on 20 July 2016 in Kiev where he wrote for news site Ukrainska Pravda and presented regularly at Kiev’s Radio Vesti. Investigators believe Sheremet’s murder was linked to his work as a journalist and outspoken critic of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian authorities. Here too, the killers have not been caught, the same mafia methods, the same desire to intimidate the press, the same context of impunity.

“Pavel Sheremet’s murder was the public assassination of a world renowned journalist in the center of Kiev. The investigation should have been swift and thorough in order to punish those responsible and send a signal to society that crimes against journalists are inadmissible,” said the head of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine Sergiy Tomilenko.

The safety of journalists is not a country-specific issue. Every aggression that is made against a journalist is an attack on our democratic principles. Freedom of expression and safety of journalists and media workers go hand in hand. And while it is true that the primary responsibility to ensure the safeguarding of human rights lies with national governments, it is often them who are the main perpetrators of threats and attacks against the media.

The number of physical attacks against journalists in Europe is on the rise. Since 2015, the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists has received over 123 alerts of attacks on physical safety and integrity of journalists, and 20 cases on impunity sometimes covering several journalists.

If this were not enough, detention, judicial harassment, political and private intimidations oppress journalists in many European countries. A recent report of Index on Censorship and the European Federation of Journalists shows that 220 journalists were detained or arrested in Europe in 2017. It also highlights over 1 000 cases of limitations of press freedom, almost 200 criminal charges and civil law suits against journalists and more than 250 cases of intimidation. Many journalists in Europe resort to self-censorship, as a 2017 survey also by the Council of Europe showed.

Governments can no longer deny these problems. They must take urgent measures to increase journalists’ safety. This is of high importance to save democracy, weakened already throughout Europe by rising populism and open attacks against press freedom, the people’s right to know and fierce verbal attacks by politicians against journalists.

To progress towards that goal, governments do not have to reinvent the wheel. They just have to hold true to human rights standards and become more serious in implementing existing solutions.

In April this year, the European Parliament has adopted a report on media freedom, in which they -among other - call on its Member States to:

do their utmost to prevent such violence, to ensure accountability and avoid impunity and to guarantee that victims and their families have access to the appropriate legal remedies;

set up an independent and impartial regulatory body, in cooperation with journalists’ organizations, for monitoring, documenting and reporting on violence and threats against journalists and to deal with the protection and safety of journalists at national level;

To fully implement Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec (2016)4 on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors.

A good starting point is the strategy that the Council of Europe has launched in March to help its member states implement this 2016 Recommendation. Though all member states but Russia signed, not yet enough has been done to this direction.

In Italy, where many journalists have been killed in the past and still face a variety of dangerous threats, including very hostile political rhetoric, the police and the judiciary have been providing for years life-saving protection measures. Last year, 19 journalists were under 24 hour police escort and more than 160 journalists benefited from other, less strict protective measures.

In the Netherlands, the ministry of Interior, the national journalists' union and the police have recently signed an agreement on joint recommendations related to journalists' safety. In May the Government of Sweden started an action plan to protect free speech which also includes measures for journalists who are exposed to threats and hatred.

However, European states are far away from having delivered on their promises having signed the CoE recommendation. They do have the duty and the tools to reverse course. It is now time to show more political will, if we wish to remain a continent where human rights, press freedom and the rule of law is respected.

Brussels 23 October 2018