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EU urged to do more to protect freedom of speech

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The desperate plight of independent journalists and the threat they face in doing their work has been highlighted at a conference in Brussels.

The meeting heard from a Ukrainian blogger who said he faces up to 15 years in jail if he returns to his homeland for “trumped up” charges.

These, said Anatoliy Sharij, include allegations of “high treason” which he says are unfounded and the result of attempts by Ukraine to discredit his work as an investigative journalist.

The conference, called “Defending the Freedom of Speech”,  was told of several other examples of similar attacks on press freedom in other countries, including Belarus and Russia.

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Willy Fautre, of Human Rights Without Frontiers, the leading, Brussels based rights NGO which organised the gathering, told the meeting that such cases should be of “real concern” to the EU which, it was said, continues to fund allegedly corrupt organisations in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Sharij, a keynote speaker at the conference, told of how his life and that of his wife and young child, had been threatened because of his work which, he said, seeks to expose wrong doing in Ukrainian circles. He lives under 24/7 protection in exile in Spain after fleeing Ukraine, via Lithuania, over ten years ago.

Sharij, whose audience is mostly educated young Ukrainians, fled, he said, due to threats after his journalistic work which was critical of successive regimes in the country, including the current government led by Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy.

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Speaking in Russian via an interpreter, Sharij, who is one of the most prominent bloggers in Ukraine with 2.5m subscribers to his website, said: “The EU is not aware of the situation in Ukraine as it doesn’t get the same exposure as some other countries. Ukraine wants to join the  EU but EU membership is not just about economic advantages as some in Ukraine seem to think but also about human rights and respecting press freedom and freedom of speech.”

The journalist, whose work includes exposing “illegal” casinos which, he said, are protected by the State, and drug trafficking,  said he faces a jail term of up to 15 years if he returns to Ukraine but denies all charges made against him by the Ukrainian authorities.

He said the evidence he had presented should serve as a “wake up call” to the EU which, he said, currently helps fund some of the allegedly corrupt organisations in Ukraine he had sought to expose.

Such funding ran into tens of millions of euros, he said, and includes an EU funded organisation which had “grossly overstated by ten times” the income on property it rents.

Another online organization was receiving EU funds, he said, even though it had “hardly any” visitors to its website.

He said: “It goes without saying that the EU should wake up to this and act.”

He also highlighted the recent Pandora Papers which show how the rich hide their money. It said Ukraine has the highest number of politicians in the world involved in such practice and Sharij said: “These show that the current regime has transferred money to offshore schemes. Indeed, the practice is depicted in Ukraine as a good way of doing business.”

He said that last year alone, three tv channels in Ukraine had been shut down because of coverage deemed to be against the state.

“The regime is allowed to get away with all this and there has been no proper reaction from the EU or Europe. In doing so and allowing dictatorial regimes to grow the EU is risking a new Hitler to emerge.”

Another speaker at the event, Christine Mirre, who runs a French  rights NGO, spoke of similar events in Russia where, she said, independent reporters and media outlets were being “discredited” and turned into “social lepers” by the State.

She said that since August 34 independent media groups and reporters had been classified as foreign agents which, she said, was a direct attempt cut off their sources of revenue.

Their only “crime”, she said, was to have published articles critical of the Russian regime.

Alia Papageorgiou, vice president of the Association of  European Journalists, a body set up to protect the rights of reporters and others, said all three countries, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, ranked lowly when it comes to press freedom, adding: “The personal testimony we have heard today from Anatoliy Sharij speaks volumes for what is going on.”

Fautre, summing up the event, said, Everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and expression  but certain journalists are forced to look for a safe haven in another country.

“The message from this event is that the EU should not close its eyes to what is going on. It should not lift sanctions and, in the case of Ukraine, it should not be a case of business first.”

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European Commission

Joint Statement on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists

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Ahead of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (2 November), High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell and Vice President Věra Jourová issued the following statement: "A few weeks ago, Maria Ressa and Dimitri Mouratov received the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize as a recognition of their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression. With their reporting, they have uncovered human rights violations, corruption and abuse of power, thereby putting their lives at risk.

"Unfortunately, the stories and voices of many independent journalists continue to be silenced all over the world, including in the EU. They face an increasing number of threats and attacks, including assassinations in the most tragic cases. According to the UNESCO observatory, 44 journalists have so far been killed in 2021 and many more were attacked, harassed or unlawfully imprisoned.

"Independent journalists protect freedom of expression and guarantee access to information for all citizens. They contribute to the foundations of democracy and open societies. Be it at home or around the globe, the impunity for crimes against journalists must end.

"Work needs to start at home. The first-ever Recommendation to Member States on safety of journalists is a concrete step to improve the situation for journalists and media workers within our Union. This includes increasing protection of journalists during demonstrations, greater online safety or support to female journalists.

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"The many initiatives taken for journalists' safety within the EU will be reflected in the EU's action around the world.

"Throughout 2021, the EU has continued to raise its voice when journalists are under threat across the world. Hundreds of journalists received support through the EU Human Rights defenders tools and many media workers benefited from opportunities for professional training. Increased resources are being earmarked to support independent media, and to develop professional skills of journalists working in difficult situations.

"We will stand by and protect journalists, no matter where they are. We will continue supporting a free and diverse media environment, supporting collaborative and cross-border journalism, and tackling violations of media freedom. There is no democracy without media freedom and pluralism. An attack on media is an attack on democracy.”

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BACKGROUND

The EU is still considered one of the safest places for journalists. Yet, the number of threats and attacks against them have been on the rise in the past years with the most tragic cases being assassinations of journalists. In 2020, 908 journalists and media workers were attacked in 23 EU Member States. 175 journalists and media workers fell victims of attacks or incidents during protests in the EU. Digital and online safety has become a major concern for journalists due to online incitement to hatred, threats of physical violence. Female journalists are particularly vulnerable to threats and attacks with 73% declaring having experienced online violence in the course of their work.

On 16 September, the European Commission issued the first-ever Recommendation for the Protection, Safety and Empowerment of Journalists. The Recommendation includes a set of concrete actions, such as joint coordination centres, support services for victims and early warning mechanisms. It also envisages reinforced and more effective approach to prosecution of criminal acts, cooperation with law enforcement authorities, rapid response mechanisms as well as economic and social protection. It proposes actions to better protect journalists during protests and demonstration, addresses online and cyber-threats threats and draws particular attention to threats against female journalists. It aims at ensuring safer working conditions for all media professionals, free from fear and intimidation, whether online or offline.

The Commission is working on an initiative to tackle abusive lawsuits lodged against journalists and rights defenders to prevent them from informing the public and reporting on matters of public interest (SLAPPs). The Commission will present a European Media Freedom Act in 2022, to safeguard the independence and pluralism of media.

The Commission has also recently launched a new call for proposals on media freedom and investigative journalism, representing close to €4 million in EU funding. The initiative will support two separate actions: the Europe-wide response mechanism for violations of press and media freedom, and the emergency support fund for investigative journalists and media organisations to ensure media freedom in the EU.

The EU works around the world to contribute to the safety and protection of journalists by condemning attacks, as outlined in the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020-2024. The EU assists those intimidated or threatened via the EU human rights defenders protection mechanisms and supports media initiatives and appeals to state authorities to prevent and condemn such violence and take effective measures to end impunity. EU Delegations around the world attend and monitor court cases involving journalists, helping to identify those cases that need a special attention. In the last 12 months, the EU has supported more than 400 journalists with emergency grants, temporary relocation, or support to their respective media outlets. Dedicated programmes are implemented in all regions to support independent media and journalists' safety such as 'COVID-19 response in Africa: together for reliable information' or the programme 'Safejournalists', run by Western Balkans journalist associations.

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Awards

The Pegasus Project awarded the 2021 Daphne Caruana Galizia Prize for Journalism

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On 14 October, the Daphne Caruana Prize for Journalism was awarded to the journalists from the Pegasus Project coordinated by the Forbidden Stories Consortium.

The award ceremony held in the Press Centre of the European Parliament was opened by the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.

From 22 June to 1st September 2021, more than 200 journalists from the 27 EU countries submitted their media stories to a panel of judges.

Representing the 29 members of the European jury, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists, Anthony Bellanger, presented the 20.000 EUR prize money to the representatives of the consortium, Sandrine Rigaud and Laurent Richard.

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About the winner

Forbidden Stories is a consortium of journalists whose mission is to continue the investigations of murdered, imprisoned or threatened journalists.

Since its inception in 2017, Forbidden Stories and its partners have pursued the work of Daphne Caruana Galizia, but also of journalists murdered for their investigations into environmental crimes or Mexican cartels.

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With more than 30 partner news organizations around the world and nearly 100 journalists, Forbidden Stories relies on a network that believes strongly in collaborative journalism. For its work, Forbidden Stories has won prestigious awards around the world, including the European Press Prize and the Georges Polk Award.

About the winning story

Pegasus: The new global weapon for silencing journalists • Forbidden Stories

Short summary of the winning story:

An unprecedented leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers selected for surveillance by the customers of the Israeli company NSO Group shows how this technology has been systematically abused for years. The Forbidden Stories consortium and Amnesty International had access to records of phone numbers selected by NSO clients in more than 50 countries since 2016.

Journalists from the Pegasus Project – more than 80 reporters from 17 media organizations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International’s Security Lab – sifted through these records of phone numbers and were able to take a peak behind the curtain of this surveillance weapon, which had never been possible to this extent before.

The Forbidden Stories consortium discovered that, contrary to what NSO Group has claimed for many years, including in a recent transparency report, this spyware has been widely misused. The leaked data showed that at least 180 journalists have been selected as targets in countries like India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco and France, among others. Potential targets also include human rights defenders, academics, businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, union leaders, diplomats, politicians and several heads of states.

For more information about the Pegasus project:

Pegasus: The new global weapon for silencing journalists • Forbidden Stories

About the Prize

The Daphne Caruana Prize was initiated by a decision of the Bureau of the European Parliament in December 2019 as a tribute to Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese anti-corruption investigative journalist and blogger who was killed in a car bomb attack in 2017.

The Prize is rewarded on a yearly basis (on the 16 October, the date Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated) to outstanding journalism that promotes or defends the core principles and values of the European Union such as human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights. This is the first year the prize has been awarded.

The Prize was opened to professional journalists and teams of professional journalists of any nationality to submit in-depth pieces that have been published or broadcast by media based in one of the 27 European Union member states. The aim is to support and highlight the importance of professional journalism in safeguarding freedom, equality and opportunity.

The independent jury was composed of representatives of the press and civil society from the 27 European member states and representatives of the main European Associations of Journalism.

The prize and the €20 000 prize money demonstrates the European Parliament’s strong support for investigative journalism and the importance of free press.

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Awards

Commission announces winners of Megalizzi-Niedzielski prize 2021 for aspiring journalists and launches a new call for proposals

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The Commission has announced the winners of the 2021 Megalizzi-Niedzielski prize for aspiring journalists: Irene Barahona Fernández from Spain and Jack Ryan from Ireland. Irene and Jack received the prize for their promising work, dedication to quality journalism and attachment to EU values. Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira, said: “We are glad to see that European young journalists are full of energy and show interest in the EU.Once again, during the Covid crisis, we have seen the importance of accurate and informative media. A free press, like all the institutions of democracy, must not be taken for granted; we must water the plant of democracy if we want it to continue to benefit from its fruit. It is important to think of the future of journalism, and to support and nurture young journalists. That is why we have launched another round of support for media.” During the awards ceremony, the Commission has launched the 5th call for proposals supporting information measures relating to EU Cohesion policy, with an overall budget of €7 million. Media, as well as universities, communication agencies and other private entities and public bodies are invited to submit their proposals for editorially independent reporting on Cohesion policy. The Commission will cover 80% of the cost of the projects, with grants up to €300,000 for selected beneficiaries. The deadline for application is 11 January 2022. The Megalizzi – Niedzielski prize for aspiring journalists was launched in 2019 and honours the memory of Antonio Megalizzi and Bartek Pedro Orent-Niedzielski, young European journalists with strong attachment to the EU and its values, who lost their lives after a terrorist attack in Strasbourg in late 2018. Examples of communication actions of previous beneficiaries can be found on this interactive map.

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