Seventy years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being, one of its key articles – Article 19 – guaranteeing freedom of speech, is increasingly under pressure. This is true not only in the back alleys of Manila in the Philippines, or the power-hungry brain of president John Magafuli of Tanzania, but right here, right now, under our noses in Europe.
Take the Netherlands, where my organisation Free Press Unlimited is based. Here in Amsterdam, the city that boasts the logo “Heldhaftig, Vastberaden en Barmhartig” (“Valiant, Steadfast, Compassionate”) crime reporter John van den Heuvel, cannot continue his work. The city’s Rembrandt square television studio is deemed impossible to protect from the vile criminals who threaten to kill him. In spite of a legitimate referendum protesting a law that allows for unprecedented data collection of citizens by the Dutch security services, the government pushed through the so-called “dragnet law”, including scrutiny of communications between journalists and sources. The outcome: the committee overseeing the security services already conluded that safeguards for the protection of civil rights were not implemented and a high risk of unlawful actions. This year’s incident report in the Netherlands shows 59 cases of serious threats to journalists for doing their job. This excludes incidents which are not reported to the police. Like in the rest of the world, female politicians and opinion leaders in the Netherlands are subjected to systematic psychological Twitter torture and Facebook harassment.
On a larger scale we see the same patterns in Europe. Open internet advocacy group Access Now concluded that 271 internet shutdowns were registered, many by states pretending to be liberal democracies. Hungary has effectively closed the lid on the Central European University in its capital Budapest, simply because that institution – dedicated to democratic leadership, transparency and accountability – has become the target of a smear campaign led by the president of a member state of the EU, Viktor Orbán. Just last week, it was announced that around 500 pro-government media-outlets in Hungary will be brought together in a single umbrella group with the aim of preserving "national values". This is a very worrying development, as it will allow President Orbán to spread his propaganda with a single voice through radio, TV and print. Hungarians with links to pro- government media are showing expansionism, taking over commercial media in Romania and buying commercial media companies in Slovenia and Macedonia, one current and one potential future member state of the EU. Still, to date, Mr. Orbán’s political party Fidesz is member of the European People’s Party, the coalition of Christian Democrats in the European parliament.
In the Czech republic, investigative journalist Magdalena Sodomkova - an investigative reporter at Dinove - was sacked when business tycoon Mr. Babis bought up the Mafra Group in 2015. Many editors voiced concerns and resigned as they saw this a a politically motivated take-over of independent media. They pointed at the conflict of interest as Mr. Babis - who had political ambitions - interfered in editorial directions and launched investigations into the then prime minister. Interested to find out what happened to Mr. Babisj since that time? He is currently the prime minister of the Czech Republic. The trends in Central Europe are indicating a worrying connectivity between populist media capture and criminal influences and money laundering operations. Because it is not just repressive governments who pose a threat to independent journalism, stopping them from writing about what people need to know. Criminal groups force journalists to self-censor or pay the ultimate price – look at what happened to Jan Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia.
The European Union
The right to free expression and freedom of thought is under threat all over Europe and if we do not address this problem now, we will live to regret it. What is needed are concrete and visible steps to put journalist killers behind bars, protect journalists’ right to free access to the work place, stop the erosion of free expression by internet trolls and the propaganda machinery that is flooding the digital sphere with lies. We need to hold governments and corporations who continue to destroy the fabric of democracy to account or shut them down. The EU has to take bolder steps to protect access to free, fact-based and independent information by investing in public access to quality journalism, economic independece of media, policies against media monopolies and decisive steps to adhere to human rights. Politicians and the public should demand to support an Independent Information Infrastructure with the same panache and level of urgency that Europe showed in organising food security and ending European wars. If we don't act on this now, we might as well throw Article 19 in the bin, and with it, pronounce the entire Declaration a dead letter.
A picture of a protester that recently went viral on Twitter said: "First they came for the journalists, we don't know what happened after..."
Leon Willems, director Free Press Unlimited