Over the last year more than 200 serious violations of media freedom were recorded in Europe as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to have a serious impact on independent journalism, according to the annual report of the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and the safety of journalists published yesterday.

The number of alerts reported to the CoE Platform was almost 40 percent higher than in 2019, the report compiled by partner organizations including the International Press Institute (IPI) found.

“In 2020, extraordinary damage was inflicted on the practice of free and independent journalism” as a result of emergency regulations implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, the report found.

Access to information was also restricted, limiting independent media’s ability to report on the health crisis, IPI’s deputy director Scott Griffen noted. IPI has recorded over 600 press freedom violations related to the pandemic worldwide.

“Despite the importance of media freedom, which arguably has never been more important than during this public health crisis, the pandemic led to an array of restrictions on reporting”, Griffen said. “These included the misuse of legitimate concerns around disinformation to pass so-called ‘fake news’ laws which have the potential to restrict legitimate expression as we saw for example in the Russian Federation and in Hungary.”

Examples of pandemic-related press freedom violations recorded by the Platform included blocking critical media from attending press conferences, suspending freedom of information response deadlines, limiting journalists’ access to healthcare workers, and detentions and fines. Attacks on journalists by members of public also increased as anti-government demonstrations took place in many countries.

Over the last year, 52 out of 200 alerts involved physical violence against journalists and media workers, with the highest number of attacks occurring in Russia, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Due to the clearly deteriorating situation of journalists, the partner organizations called for urgent actions to protect free media in Europe and published a set of recommendations.

According to the report, independent journalism is also being undermined by state capture, which involves the abuse of state power and resources to control the media market. In Hungary, the media regulator revoked the license of the country’s last independent radio broadcaster. In Poland, a state-controlled oil company bought the leading publisher of regional newspapers.

The report noted that, as of the end of 2020, 33 alerts on impunity had been registered to the platform. Full justice has still not been achieved in the murder cases of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak, it noted. Impunity is also strongly present when it comes to online harassment, which surged in 2020. Women journalists in particular have faced gender-based insults and threats of a sexual nature.

Last year the CoE and its partner organizations also documented a notable increase in the use of vexatious Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) against media actors., including prominent cases in France and Slovenia.

“The report really highlights the growing threat to media freedom and the need for urgent action”, Griffen added. “The pandemic has revealed how fragile fundamental rights are, and we now need a robust defence of press freedom in the Council of Europe region to prevent a domino effect of attacks on journalism spreading further.”

The platform is comprised of 14 leading international journalism and media organizations, as well as freedom of expression advocacy groups. The report, “Wanted! Real Action for Media Freedom in Europe”, can be read here.