Hosted at the National Council of Slovakia, and organized by the Slovak Ministry of Culture under the auspices of the Media Freedom Coalition, currently co-chaired by The Netherlands and Canada, the Media Freedom 2023 Conference took place on Monday, February 20th, in Bratislava and featured panelists from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), as well as journalists and politicians. The conferences addressed four main topics: the EU legislative proposal on the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), the initiatives regarding the Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), the editorial independence and the safety of journalists. Minister of Culture of Slovakia, Natália Milanová, opened the Media Freedom 2023 Conference, by invoking the turbulent times European media have been recently put under: the internal political crisis, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. Uncertain times need a plurality of information, the minister said.
In recent years, journalists have been killed: Daphne Caruana Galizia from Malta, in 2017; Peter R. de Vries from The Netherlands, in 2021; and Ján Kuciak, from Slovakia, in 2018. The media should be free from political control, as well as economical individual ambitions. According to Gabriella Sancisi, Dutch Ambassador to Slovakia, today there are three main priorities regarding media freedom: preventing attacks, protecting journalists, prosecuting perpetrators. Cheryl Cruz, Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of Canada in Slovakia, remembered that when speaking of media freedom, everyone is a concerned stakeholder. In the first panel, Ľuboš Kukliš, Chair of the European Platform of Regulatory Authorities discussed the 2022 EMFA with Florian Schweyer, from the European Commission’s (EC) Audiovisual and Media Services Policy unit; Pavol Szalai, RSF’s Head of EU and Balkans Desk; Radoslav Kutaš, Slovakian State secretary of the Ministry of Culture; and Michal Maruška, director of Ringier Slovakia Media.
The panelists examined how to protect sources transnationally, to facilitate journalists’ jobs when enquiring at the cross-border level. Unifying regulations with a common European standard across the EU is highly desired. Secondly, possible conflict of interests by media owners should be clearly exposed. Journalists across the European countries should be protected and defended: this also means to address unfair competition on online platforms and disinformation. Few words were also spent on the authoritarian regime’s repression of free media; the challenge to protect investigative journalists from political attacks; and the difficulty to have 26 European countries agreeing on media freedom protection measures. The second Media Freedom 2023 Conference’s panel dealt with a growing concern threatening media freedom: the so-called SLAPPs identify the legal actions aimed at blocking journalists from participating in public life, by lawsuits preventing them from doing their job, obliging them to spend much money and time in courts.
The issue was addressed by Flutura Kusari, the legal support program’s head at the ECPMF. Matthew Caruana Galizia, Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation’s director, Edita Pfundtner, Slovak State secretary of the Ministry of Justice, and Eva Kováčechová, attorney of “Via Iuris”, agreed that SLAPPs are targeting journalists and meant to intimidate them. Anti-SLAPP regulations are expected to be implemented by EU Member States. Defamation lawsuits are purposefully enacted and mass-produced by powerful firms engaged by wealthy clients, the journalists are investigating. Forcing journalists to go to court is a legal method to silence and weaken them. The relationship between financial power and political pressure makes it difficult for courts to determine which lawsuits are issued to silence the investigative journalist or not. Questions remain open, as to how to make a distinction in this field since the law cannot prefer to address or dismiss a case over the other.
Editorial independence is put on the spot in the Media Freedom 2023 Conference’s third panel, led by Lucia Michelčíková, Spokesperson of The Council for Media Services, who discussed media and money with Beata Balogová, Editor-in-chief of daily “SME”; Geert Jan Hahn, freelance journalist; and Maja Sever, president of the European Federation of Journalists. The panel addressed media independence from political power and economic resources. In Slovakia, media freedom increased since Vladimír Mečiar’s government, when public media was purposefully underfunded. Concerning media monetary independence, the question of public or private financing is largely debated. Journalists’ associations and trade unions play an important role in the protection of content and the rights of media operators but cannot remedy the economic problem of newspapers and media. Only if journalists are remunerated and fairly paid and protected, a better quality of content might be assured for the public.
The last panel was opened by Zuzana Petková, from Nadácia Zastavme Korupciu, who discussed with Lukáš Diko, editor in chief of the Ján Kuciak Investigative Center (ICJK); Youssef Louakili, Director of Media and Creative Industries at The Netherland’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Science; and Štefan Hamran, President of the Slovak Police Force. Based on more than four hundred journalists responding to a ICJK survey, Slovak journalists feel today more threatened than before. 66 per cent of them experienced an attack or threat – both online or offline – in the last 12 months. The most frequent are verbal attacks – 40 per cent. Female journalists are at the crosshead more than men are, experiencing one attack per week. Most people attacking journalists are ordinary citizens, the report confirms; then there are the supporters of political parties, and then public figures.
The ICJK report also stressed that only 1 out of 10 incidents is reported to the police. Journalists do not report aggressions because they do not feel the threat is serious, and that it is “part of their job”. 97 per cent of journalist will gladly welcome a system to tackle aggressions: safejournalism.sk is a new project in cooperation with RSF and the Slovak Police to protect journalists. It is important to break the chain of silence concerning threats to journalists. What can be done to defend them today? Training both journalists and the public would be a good start. While working on the polarization, competent structures should address online harassing and monitor extremism. The Police alone is ill-unequipped to tackle online threats. Despite cooperation with Europol and FBI has been strengthened in the last decade, difficulties of prevention and punishment are mainly connected to online-anonymity.
Concluding remarks have been carried out by Věra Jourová, Vice President of the EC for Values and Transparency. Free media allows the access to truth, Jourová said. She launched two monitors based on currents events. In Russia, independent media are shout down and journalists are in prisons: media freedom is one of open society’s pillars. Secondly, Slovakia will hold general election this year: to have well informed citizens, it is important to protect media plurality. We will move the issue of protection of journalists in Europe forward, Jourová pledged. Tackling corruption, in Slovakia and in the EU, is also possible thanks to the media, as part of the rule of law system. Transparency of the ownership of private agents and quality of public media, will be the main issues of this summer’s report by the EC on media freedom.
(Published on amedeogasparini.com)