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M4D Releases EU Delegation Handbook on Journalists’ Safety As COVID Pandemic Exacerbates Global Threats

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‘Combating violence, persecution, harassment and intimidation of individuals, including journalists and other media actors, because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression online and offline, and combating impunity for such crimes’

– First of six EU priorities outlined by the 2014 EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline

Brussels, July 2020 – Media4Democracy has released a comprehensive guide to assist EU Delegations and EU Member States in protecting the safety of journalists and other media actors in diverse contexts, at a time when the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating existing threats to freedom of expression around the world. Media4Democracy is an EU financed technical assistance project to support freedom of expression around the world.

Protecting the Safety of Journalists, Protecting Freedom of Expression: A Handbook for EU Delegations (the Handbook) provides practical information about threats to journalists, and examples of EU Delegation actions to respond to urgent threats to journalists. The Handbook also includes practical suggestions for longer-term efforts and programmes to enhance journalists’ security and, importantly, to fight the chronic impunity for violations and crimes against journalists. The handbook was developed together with EU staff and has been the subject of inclusive consultations of relevant services.

The Handbook is grounded in the political and operational guidance provided by the EU Human Rights Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline (the Guidelines). The Guidelines empower EU Delegations, institutions, and Member States to take ‘all appropriate steps to ensure the protection of journalists, both in terms of preventive measures and by urging effective investigations when violations occur.’ The Council of the European Union adopted the Guidelines in 2014 to defend freedom of opinion and expression as fundamental rights and as essential foundations for democracy, rule of law, peace, stability, and sustainable development, saying the EU attaches the ‘highest priority’ to the safety of journalists and media actors.

Media4Democracy consortium partner Free Press Unlimited provided inputs in the drafting of this Media4Democracy Handbook.

Role of EU Delegations amidst COVID and beyond

EU Delegations are at the frontline of promoting these principles through their work with authorities, institutions, and citizens in third countries. EU Delegations can have a substantial impact on strengthening governments’ commitment to protect journalists and fight against impunity, by supporting the improvement of legal frameworks and the adoption (and implementation) of national journalist protection mechanisms, and by supporting civil society and media actors to defend and advocate for their rights.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments – both authoritarian and democratically elected – are repressing and restricting reporting on the pandemic. This means that alongside the inherent dangers and personal risks that journalists confront to report on the epidemic and provide citizens with access to accurate information, they are also at risk of being arrested for doing so. Journalists in prison either before the pandemic or for exercising their right to freedom of expression to report on COVID-19 are at extreme risk of infection whilst held in custody. While some government moves to clamp down on journalists and media may be temporary; others may be longer lasting.

As much remains uncertain amidst the continuing spread of COVID-19, what is certain is that journalists and media houses are at increased risk and the role of EU Delegations working to protect them and defend freedom of expression is – and will be – even more vital as the pandemic unfolds and in the aftermath.

Journalists as Human Rights Defenders

The Guidelines include journalists within the broader category of human rights defenders (HRDs) as they are on the front line of defending and promoting the rights of all citizens to freedom of expression and access to information and the Guidelines reinforce and complement the EU Human Rights Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders adopted in 2008. The Guidelines make clear that journalists must have access to the same support as all HRDs, by emphasising that ‘Efforts to end impunity for crimes against journalists and other media actors must be associated with the protection and defence of human rights defenders.’ Equally, actions identified to protect journalists in the Guidelines are also applicable for protecting HRDs, such as continuing to provide technical and other support to ensure their exercise of freedom of expression online and offline.

The Media4Democracy Handbook highlights ProtectDefenders.eu that is the EU HRDs mechanism established to protect HRDs at risk worldwide; and journalists and other media actors are among its beneficiaries. Working with EU Delegations and journalists needing protections, ProtectDefenders.eu provides rapid response grants and other support such as relocation of journalists under threat to safe locations and follow-up trauma counselling.

Practical Tools and Resources

The Media4Democracy Handbook provides non-compulsory technical guidance to EU Delegations with practical information and resources to support them in taking actions to strengthen the safety and security of journalists. First, the Handbook presents a brief overview of the European and international policy framework regarding safety of journalists and clarifies relevant concepts. The second section focuses on the actions EU Delegations can carry out in their own local context – either during an emergency, or as methods for mid- and long-term policy and programming initiatives.

Alongside examples of EU Delegations’ actions taken both during emergency and as longer-term initiatives, the Handbook provides tools to support EU Delegations in understanding their local context and planning actions in their specific environment.

Mapping local context and stakeholders

For EU Delegations seeking to better consider the current in-country situation linked to media freedom and safety, and to systematically identify local stakeholders, the Handbook provides a detailed matrix for staff to use to conduct their own review, both through desk review of  relevant documents and sources of information, and in discussion with local stakeholders.  The matrix can also serve as a guide when commissioning research with external consultants.

To support stakeholder mapping and identify relevant documents, the Handbook also provides a comprehensive list of international, regional and national organisations active in the field of freedom of expression, and journalist safety and who regularly produce reports.

EU Delegation checklist for emergency situations

The Handbook provides a checklist as a tool for EU Delegations to prepare, plan and respond to emergency situations when journalists are under extreme threat – encouraging EU Delegations to proactively develop standard operating procedures to react when emergency situations arise, including, as possible, in coordination with EU Member States.

The checklist considers planning for engagement with authorities, public communication, monitoring an unfolding situation and any follow-up. The Handbook also identifies institutions and resources to support EU Delegations’ actions in emergency situations.

Additional Media4Demcoracy Resources for EU Delegations in the COVID context

As part of a five-part Media4Democracy webinar series for EU Delegations offered between May and July 2020, Tom Gibson of the Committee to Protect Journalists discussed with EU Delegation and Headquarters staff the unprecedented risks to journalists arising during the COVID-19 pandemic and the means for EU Delegations to respond.  EU Delegations can contact Media4Democracy to receive a recording of that session and support material, as well as information on and recordings of the other webinar sessions with experts, which address critical issues threating journalists, independent media and freedom of expression during the pandemic.

At the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) 2020 in May, at a time when many countries were in lockdown and  EU Delegations operating under strict social distancing orders, Media4Democracy issued an Information Note to EU Delegations  encouraging them to move WPFD activities online. Such an online session can still be valuable as part of ongoing activities to support journalists and media outlets increasingly under physical and financial threats during the pandemic, and can provide a platform for the exchange of information between donors, media actors and civil society.  The Media4Democracy Information Note outlines a range of questions that can be used by EU Delegations to frame discussions in the local context, and catalogues tools and materials rapidly developed by international media and freedom of expression organisations to support media and track violations during COVID.

To coincide with the 2020 European Media Literacy Week (EMLW) in March (now postponed), DEVCO and EEAS circulated the Media4Democracy Information Note: Review of EU Policy and Action on Media Literacy – Touchstone for EU Delegations’ Actions to Confront Disinformation. The issues, resource materials and individuals identified in the Note remain highly relevant as EU Delegations confront the spread of disinformation and misinformation on the pandemic across social media and other platforms, which WHO and many others have flagged as a serious public health concern.

EU Delegations can also obtain these Information Notes by contacting Media4Democracy.

Future Media4Democracy Activity to Support EU Delegations Actions to Protect Journalists

Media4Democracy will facilitate a webinar in early October 2020 to formally launch the Handbook and discuss how EU Delegations can use its tools and resources to strengthen their protection of journalists in diverse contexts.  The webinar will include a focus on supporting EU Delegation planning to mark the International Day to End Impunity (IDEI) on 3 November 2020.

The webinar will be available to staff from all EU Delegations. Additional details about the session and how to participate will be circulated in September 2020.