European debate: The world is unsafe for journalists

By Muhammad Ittefaq, SPJ International student and contributor to

According to a recently European study, 2294 journalists have been killed world wide, including 191 women, between the years 2000 – 2016. Journalists are looking for serious answers on how we can defend and protect the journalism community as violence peaks against journalists in Europe and all over the world.

A recent debate on Oct. 5 over safety of European journalists from the European Center of Press and Media Freedom” (ECPMF) in Leipzig Germany was organized at a conference entitled, “Defending journalists under threat” addressed that “the world is not a safe for journalists.”

European Center of Press and Media Freedom” (ECPMF),
The European Center of Press and Media Freedom met for a recent debate “Defending journalists under threat” in Leipzig, Germany.  Photo by Muhammad Ittefaq

I was attendee of the conference along with more than 100 participants from different countries including the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Macedonia, Sweden, Slovakia, Afghanistan, Hungary, Greece, Italy, Syria, Russia, Central Asian states, Austria, Ukraine, Germany and many more.

Participants were from various organizations and institutions including: Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Whistleblowing International Network (WIN), University of Vienna, Council of Europe, Bournemouth University, Article 19, Agency France Press (AFP), European Commission Department for Justice, Transparency International, European Media Governance and Integration, International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), Protect Defenders, Association of Journalists of Macedonia and Asian Journalism Network.

There were 20 speakers who addressed five different but critical topics:

  1. Contemporary threats to journalists
  2. Recent developments on legal protection of whistleblowers
  3. Statistics on the death of journalists throughout the world
  4. Journalists roundtables: Practical solutions to safeguard journalists under threat
  5. Journalists roundtables: Political initiatives to safeguard journalists and journalism.

Journalists speak of their own contemporary threats

Aleksei Bobrovnikov
Aleksei Bobrovnikov

In the first session, speakers shared their personal stories:  Aleksei Bobrovnikov, an Ukrainian investigative journalist, told his story about Ukraine and Russian conflict zone and his investigation over drug smuggling, cheap cigarettes and dangerous medicine which were being exported to Europe. He said his sources were killed recently. Bobrovnikov now looks for shelter and protection from journalism organizations who can support him.

Alexandra Pascalidou
Alexandra Pascalidou

Alexandra Pascalidou, a Swedish TV journalist, faced many challenges as an immigrant from Greece and many people’s slant of her.  Pascalidou faced gender bias, racism, and hate speech against her along with death threats. She shared her story during the session at European Center For Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

Will Vassolopoulos, an AFP video journalist, covered stories on the refugee crisis and won Rory Peck Trust Award for outstanding reporting over this issue. He said his experienced great difficulties during the coverage. He said that refugee crisis reporting

Will Vassolopoulos
Will Vassolopoulos

was “very hard” because it’s also a social crisis. Journalists cannot be prepared for what they would be facing nor knew how to react to the situation, Vassolopoulos said. He said journalists need to be mentally prepare and might faced psychological problems because they are taking their own lives in their own hands. And because of this, it is hard to cover the refugee crisis efficiently, said Vassolopoulos. This is why it is important that journalists must also follow with media ethics and journalistic integrity.

Video journalists capture vulnerable faces during the refugee crisis and continue to be brave, be professional and tell a story in an objective way.

Vassolopoulos said, “No Greeks and no European member” could help refugees during the crisis.

There are number of legal challenges to the freedom of the press and journalism community in Europe. The laws on media freedom are there but the will to implement them is still great. Journalists’ organizations do put pressure on about the threats to

Frane Maroevic,
Frane Maroevic, director of the Office of OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

journalists, members of the government and other responsible bodies.

Close to 200 cases annually deal with press freedom in OSCE countries said Frane Maroevic, a director of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. He said there are certain countries in which they are concerned about in regard to

Alberto Spampinato
Alberto Spampinato

media freedom, but none are exclusive.

In addition, Alberto Spampinato, a journalist from Ossigeno Per L’Informazione,  highlighted the press and media freedom issues in Italy. He said the Italian mafia targets journalists and his own brother was one of the victims.

Developments for whistleblower’s legal protection 

WhistleblowerThe second session’s topic was completely new to me and the discussion was great: For example, the panel discussed the recent development on legal protection of a whistleblower. In the past, people were not aware whistleblowers, but now they are beginning to understand their role in exposing corruption and political scandals. Much attention from government and the civil society has developed.

“Whistleblowers are also human” said one panelist at the conference. The panel discussed a whistleblower’s challenges:

  • Common good individual versus collective good
  • Democratic accountability versus information control 
  • Illegal practices versus public interest

The panelists explained that the definition of a whistleblower is still ambiguous and a consensus should be built to define it. For instance, to support a whistleblower, they will need hierachy,  to set expectations, to have an institutional capacity, to gain public support, and to develop an international requirement and legal framework.

Furthermore, whistleblowers need protection because investigative journalists use their information and sources. Protection is vital for them. They are also taking the role of a “watchdog” in society, which is important. According to the Charter of European Union, Article 11 provides protection to media freedom and pluralism. 

Thousands of journalists killed, states recently study

Journalists killed 1Professor Katharine Sarikakis presented her research on the killing of journalists all over the world from 2000-2016. Her study claims that 2294 journalists have been killed during this period and the numbers may be much higher than reported cases in the media and journalism organizations. She and her team analyzed and verified each and every case twice before publishing it in Vienna University, Austria.

According to the study she presented at the conference, the numbers of journalists killed across the globe are shocking and provide an alarming situation against journalism. Out of 2294 killed journalists, 161 were women.

Dr. Katharine Sarikakis
Dr. Katharine Sarikakis

In addition, the study revealed that more than two thirds of the journalists killed where murdered by assassination, but many were recorded as accidents. The study included information and measurement based on age, date of birth, type of death, citizenship, country of death, job position, media employment, media type and reporting beat.

The study also revealed that the most dangerous topics of journalism coverage included “Politics” and “War reporting.”

Another study by the Media Governance and Industries Lab, University of Vienna, Austria, revealed that the most dangerous countries for journalists:

Journalists killed graph

Discussion on why practical solutions are need to protect journalists

During the third session, participants gathered within round tables to talk about practical solutions to protect journalists against threats. The topics at these tables included that it is dangerous for democracies when journalists’ voices are suppressed and to protect journalists is to protect democracy, transparency, accountability and freedom of expression. It is vital for modern societies. 

Journalists gathered to discuss safeguards for journalists with political initiatives

In the final session, political initiatives to protect media workers and journalist were discussed. Participants formed four different groups and discussed various steps which European organizations and countries have discussed safeguards for journalists and how they can do it better. 

The overall situation of journalists’ safety is not satisfactory anywhere in the world. We need to do our best if we want accountability, democracy, freedom and liberty. In addition, the employee and labor rights should provide protection to the journalism community. Governments need to be responsible to its society, and that also includes journalists.

Muhammad Ittefaq horizontal photo
Muhammad Ittefaq

Muhammad Ittefaq is a graduate fellow at the Institute of Media and Communication Science, Technical University, Ilmenau in Germany. He received his first MA from the Institute of Communication Studies, University of the Punjab Lahore, Pakistan. He is a co-founder of The Educationist, an English monthly newspaper of Pakistan and the Asian Journalism Network.  His research interests are social media and public diplomacy and strategic communication, public relations, international journalism, development communication, the role of emerging and new media in strategic communication, the role of social media in the socio-political change in the world, political communication and digital diplomacy. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Society of Professional Journalists

Twitter  @spj_3