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Spyware and emergency visas in European press freedom report

Stop spyware used against journalists and establish emergency, short-term or work visas for threatened journalists who have to leave their countries. These are among recommendations in the Council of Europe’s press freedom report 2024.

“Although the year registered a decrease in the number of killings of journalists and in violence against the press in street protests, the alerts published on the Safety of Journalists Platform show a growing diversity of threats, pressures and constraints under which journalists must carry out their mission”, the report says.

“The Safety of Journalists Platform report shows the increasing risks and obstacles that journalists and media face in Europe”, says Secretary General, Marija Pejčinović Burić, 

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“We need determined action from states to protect journalists and counter threats to media freedom such as abusive lawsuits and illegal surveillance. To enhance journalists’ safety, our member states should show a strong commitment to respecting media freedom standards and promote the Council of Europe’s ‘Journalists matter’ campaign at national level.”

The report covers the 46 Council of Europe member states, as well as Russia, following its expulsion from the Council of Europe in 2022, and Belarus. 

The Council of Europe’s Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists was set up by the Council of Europe in 2015, in co-operation with  international NGOs active in the field of the freedom of expression and associations of journalists.

The report highlights the threat of increasingly active criminal organisations as well as media bashing by politicians, which may be used as an alibi for violence against journalists. 

“In 2023 the state of press freedom was again shaped and battered by wars – in Ukraine, where the Russian war of aggression has been raging for close to two years, and in Karabakh, but also, indirectly, in the global spillover of the Israel-Hamas conflict.”

The report stresses so-called systemic threats – criminal defamation and the limits on the independence of media regulators – which affect more extensively press freedom. 

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The report mentions social and economic insecurity affecting journalists as well as the “new threats looming over the profession, in particular artificial intelligence, the impact of social networks, disinformation, the repression of the coverage of climate change – or environment-related events – and a political atmosphere dominated by radicalisation and polarisation, hostile to the exercise of free and independent journalism”.

The report’s recommendations:

  1. Impose, without delay, a moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of highly intrusive spyware tools such as Pegasus, and establish clearer, stronger regulatory frameworks for the use of modern surveillance technology. 
  2. Member states must refrain from the unlawful deployment of spyware against journalists and comply with their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to ensure the legality, necessity, and proportionality of each instance of deployment. 
  3. Judicial authorities must fully investigate all alleged spyware abuse, and Governments should establish rigorous procedures to order the examination, use and storage of any obtained information. 
  4. Member states should guarantee the strongest possible legal safeguards in national legislation for the protection of journalists and media workers against spyware and wiretapping surveillance, even when these are deployed for reasons of national security, and make national oversight systems more effective and strengthen accountability. 
  5. Journalists should be granted, in full, their right to an effective remedy against unlawful surveillance. 
  6. Council of Europe member states should establish humanitarian visa schemes and take other appropriate measures for journalists facing imminent danger or in need of respite because of persistent persecution in third countries, as well as facilitate the issue of emergency, short-term or work visas for them in such situations.
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