The murder of a high-profile Greek journalist last week marks the fourth killing of a reporter in Europe in the past five years and has underlined growing concerns about a steady decline of press freedoms in several EU member states.
Giorgos Karaivaz, who covered crime stories on the private Star TV channel, was hit by at least six shots from a 9mm pistol fired by the passenger of a motorbike outside his home in Athens on Friday in what police called an execution-style killing.
“It is a worrying picture,” said Pavol Szalai, head of the EU/Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF). “Europe remains the safest place in the world to be a journalist, but the pressures on press freedoms – and the risks – are mounting.”
Karaivaz’s murder came five years after the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in Malta in 2017, and four years after Ján Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová, were discovered shot dead outside their home in Slovakia.
In April 2019, the 29-year-old campaigning journalist and author Lyra McKee was shot dead while covering rioting in Derry, Northern Ireland. Paul McIntyre, 53, has been charged with her murder, as well as with arson and hijacking. He denies the charges.
Seven men have admitted to or been charged with the murder of Caruana Galizia, a columnist and investigator whose blog focused on political corruption, money laundering and organised crime in Malta, but it is still unclear who was behind her killing.
A former soldier was convicted of killing Kuciak, who was probing tax fraud by businessmen linked to top Slovak politicians, and his fiancée, but the alleged mastermind, developer Marián Kočner, was acquitted. The verdict is being appealed.
“Murdering a journalist is a despicable, cowardly act,” the president of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted last week. “Europe stands for freedom. And freedom of the press may be the most sacred of all. Journalists must be able to work safely.”
Greek police have not so far confirmed that Karaivaz was killed because of his work, but the professional nature of his murder and the fact he was investigating organised crime makes it “very probable”, said Szalai.
RSF cites a decline in the rule of law, an increase in violent assaults and a rise in online threats as among the main concerns for media freedoms in Europe. It notes in particular a “sophisticated and methodological assault on press freedoms” in Hungary that is inspiring similar tactics in Poland and Slovenia.
In Hungary, which Szalai called “a counter-model” for press freedom in Europe, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has used the pandemic to assume full powers. Anyone convicted of publishing “fake news” now faces a prison term of up to five years.
The move gives authorities yet another means of pressurising independent media, RSF said in its 2020 report, which ranked Hungary 89th out of 180 countries in its world Press Freedom Index after a series of earlier moves to control the media.
RSF said in Poland, ranked 62nd in its index, the government’s control over the judiciary has harmed press freedom, with some courts now invoking article 212 of the penal code which allows journalists to be sentenced to up to a year in prison on defamation charges.
The organisation has described a veritable “crusade by the authorities against the media” in southern European countries such as Bulgaria (111th), Montenegro (105th) and Albania (84th), with journalists critical of the authorities suspended, detained and harassed.
In western Europe, RSF has been more alarmed by an increase in cases of violence against journalists during demonstrations – by both police and protesters – and in countries such as Germany, France, Spain and Greece.
Several journalists in France, which ranked 34th on RSF’s 2020 index, have been beaten or injured by flashball rounds and teargas grenades fired by police, and others have been assaulted by angry protesters, while supporters of far-right groups in Spain and Greece have deliberately targeted journalists for violent assault.
“This is also a trend of growing concern – violence agains journalists and arbitrary arrests,” Szalai said.
The organisation also lists online threats, such as harassment, trolling and state surveillance, as undermining journalists’ work across the continent, even in countries where freedom is held in high regard.
“The EU has called for media freedoms to be strengthened,” Szalai said. “But Orbán in particular has not been prevented from restricting press freedoms. It’s vital Europe lives up to its responsibilities and improves protections for all journalists.”