2021: press freedom under pressure in Europe

While the stream of news on society, politics, economics and crises never stops, news about the news is much rarer. When media however shine the light on themselves and their circumstances, it often gives reason for worry. The situation has not only worsened because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image: Terje Sollie via Pexels

For the Press Freedom Index for the year 2021, established by the non-profit organization Reporters without Borders (RSF), draws a somewhat bleak picture. In Europe, the Nordic countries continue to top the ranking of press freedom, and Europe as a whole is still in a considerably better position than other parts of the world, such as notably Africa or Asia. Yet there are several circumstances that have led to an overall worsening of the situation.

The pandemic impact

One undeniable problem has been the Covid-19 pandemic. It came as a slight shock when Germany, traditionally one of the highest-ranking countries on the RSF index, lost its press freedom status of “good” to “quite good” in 2021. While this seems like a small change, it embodies the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences for journalism. The medical problem that the virus represents is almost overshadowed by the disinformation pandemic that has accompanied it.

And, in a parallel development, Covid-19 has led to an additional problem; for, as governments were in a constant state of crisis, some used pandemic measures to restrict press freedom. The American non-profit organisation Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has thus identified ten symptoms of worsening press freedom conditions. Among them are suspensions of free speech laws, or restrictions on access to information. But the list also includes surveillance, harassment and attacks on journalists.

Overall, the pandemic has worsened distrust in media, which in the worst case results in physical attacks against those representing them. The phenomenon of “fake news”, often distributed via social media, has undermined popular trust in both state-sponsored and independent press.

Germany functions as a particularly acute case study of this development. Covid-19 has led to the creation of opposition movements concerning government measures against the pandemic. The scepticism of a part of the population regarding the existence of Covid-19, the effectiveness of vaccines and mask-wearing regulations has led to sizeable protests across the country. While the situation has slightly improved in the last months, at their height these protests witnessed repeated violences against journalists. In 2020, there were 69 physical attacks against journalists in Germany; this was the highest number since 2015, when the European Center for Press and Media Freedom began to document such attacks.

Never-ending interference from politics

To stay in Germany, due to parliamentary elections in September 2021, the country has also seen a worrying development regarding political publicity. In the run-up to the election, political parties exceeded their budgets for publicity, thus creating problematic competition for media. This, of course, leads to an excessive amount of non-neutral information about political parties. Such a development is arguably worrying when key democratic processes such as elections are at stake.

The interferences of politics come in all shapes and forms. In Austria, for instance, politics have in fact had a say in the making of news for a long time; the state-sponsored broadcasting service ORF has seen its general director be elected with direct influence from the respective Austrian chancellor. The general director of the broadcasting service is thus never politically neutral. As the ORF represents one of the biggest sources of information for the population, this again raises questions about access to neutral information.

A much more concerning and global event was however the use of the Pegasus spyware by governments to monitor at least 180 journalists. The problematics of this scandal, revealed in July 2021, are multi-layered; the infiltration of journalists’ phones around the world with this spyware points to an alarming attempt at controlling information by political leaders. As Pegasus was even used in allegedly democratic nations such as India, this also highlights the crucial importance of investigative and critical journalism. Yet at the same time, it also emphasises the risks that journalists face as a profession.

Autocracies on the rise

Where this situation can lead, another concerning phenomenon shows: the rise of autocracies. In the very east of Europe, the situation of journalists has plummeted, especially in Belarus. Since August 2020, when election fraud during the presidential elections led to national protests and the creation of an opposition movement, the access to information and the freedom of media organisations and journalists has decreased drastically. Independent media outlets continue to be shut down in regular intervals as the government under Alexandr Lukashenko cracks down on access to information and criticism of the regime. Popular news websites such as Nasha Niva, Tut.by, or orsha.eu have been blocked and their editors-in-chief were detained by police or had to flee the country.

While Belarus as a thirty-year autocracy remains an extreme example, it should worry that countries that continue to be members of the European Union slowly follow it on its path. No Eastern Eurpoean country finds itself in a particularly good position on the RSF ranking, yet Hungary and Bulgaria negatively exceed the European average.

Hungary has continuously been restricting press freedom over the last several years. The situation has especially worsened since Viktor Orbán has come into power. While Orbán is slowly establishing censorship and an increasingly authoritarian system in a variety of sectors, press freedom has suffered especially. The independent radio chain Klubrádió, for instance, did not have its broadcasting licence renewed this year, thus making Hungary lose one of its last independent information sources.

Bulgaria is placed 112th out of 180 in the RSF ranking. In this country, very few independent media remain and especially investigative journalists are in a precarious situation. While corruption remains one of the biggest issues in Bulgaria, any journalistic investigation into this domain has been severely hindered by the government and legal institutions.

A profession constantly under threat

The developments in Europe over the past two years are thus arguably negative. Of course, the situation is not yet comparable to countries such as Russia or Afghanistan, where amid controlling authoritarian regimes or conflict press freedom barely exists. Yet the situation in Europe should continue to be closely monitored; even here, journalists remain under threat or are hindered from doing their work. This is most drastically illustrated by the assassination of Dutch crime reporter Peter R De Vries, who was shot in the street in Amsterdam in July 2021. He died of his injuries nine days after having been attacked. The Netherlands are ranked 6th in the Press Freedom Index 2021.


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