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05.02.2019

What we need for investigative journalism to survive and thrive

by Lutz Kinkel

The establishment of the IJ4EU grant was a great initiative by the European Parliament and the European Commission to support investigative journalism. But a lot remains to be done. 

 

The recommendations

What we need for investigative journalism to survive and thrive Lutz Kinkel ECPMF Managing Director, Scott Griffen IPI. Photo: ECPMF

This text was written following the UNCOVERED conference on 31.January and 1.February in Berlin. It includes the major aspects that were discussed at conference.  Here are some examples of what we need next ...

1. Fight Corruption

Daphne Caruana Galizia and Jàn Kuçiak were murdered because they were investigating corruption. Corruption is a deadly danger to our profession because it also affects the national authorities responsible for the security of all citizens, including journalists.

Recently Transparency International presented its latest index documenting the global tendency towards more corruption. Carl Dolan, the organisation's expert for Europe, stated: "The EU demands that we establish a community of values. Instead we seem to go backwards in some cases. We see a fight against civil society in Hungary or against an independent judiciary in Hungary and Poland." The index ranks Hungary now in 64th place, behind such states as Saudi Arabia and Cuba. 

To fight corruption, these two countries should return to democratic principles and the rule of law. Until they do so, the current European Treaty Article 7 procedures against Poland and Hungary are appropriate.

2. Stop the haters

In October 2017 the Czech President Milos Zeman held a press conference showing a mock rifle with the inscription "for the journalists". The Washington Post wrote that Zeman was declaring war on the media – as his political role model Donald Trump did

Unfortunately Zeman is not the only European politician who is insulting and intimidating journalists. Wherever  authoritarian forces come to power they seek to destroy the credibility of the so-called fourth estate. They launch the concept of an enemy called ‚the journalist’ to get rid of this form of democratic control. This jeopardises not only the physical integrity of journalists. This jeopardises democracy itself.

Any politician who publicly smears journalists and journalism should be ostracised. Not only by the journalistic community, but also by his colleagues in politics.

3. Support safe houses

Several organisations like ICORN, RSF, PEN and ECPMF have provided safe houses for journalists under threat, who are typically investigative journalists. Usually the programmes include a monthly stipend, free accomodation and healthcare plus special training. 

Anyone who has ever had the opportunity to speak to one of the journalists benefiting from these programmes will recognise that this can be a life-changing experience. Some haven't lived in a safe environment for years. Some of them never had the chance to work on a big project without interference and economic pressure. You can see the effect on their faces.

As the situation for journalists in Europe further deteriorates we will need more of these programmes. This is an appeal to national and European institutions, to foundations and philantropists to invest more money in these programmes.

4. Stop SLAPP

It happens everywhere in Europe, including Germany. The Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) was sued by an entrepreneur claiming that one critical article in the newspaper had destroyed a business deal worth 78 Million Euros of profit. The newspaper had to invest more than 100.000 Euros in lawyers to counter the attack. Luckily the publishing house has quite some financial resources and backed the authors of the article in question. The SZ won the court case.

Another example: by the time of her murder, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia faced around 50 defamation lawsuits. Thirty of them are still active cases and might damage the financial situation of her family.

SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. Laws are misused to silence journalists and suppress inconvenient reports. Five members of the European Parliament called on the European Commission to combat this severe threat to investigative journalism - with an EU anti-SLAPP Directive

We support this approach.

5. Protect Sources

Investigative journalism relies on the confidentiality of sources. The European Court of Human Rights already declared in 1996 that an order to disclose sources would violate the guarantee of free expression in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

In practice this right has to be constantly defended, which is not always possible. Sometimes journalists are massively pressured to disclose sources. Sometimes police try to seize journalists’ confidential material.And sometimes secret services try to get the information through surveillance.

We urge the European states to strictly follow the Council of Europe's Committee of Minister's recommendation for implementing laws on the protection of sources.  

And we demand special protection for a special category of sources - the whistleblowers. Currently the draft directive on the protection of whistleblowers is being discussed in the trilogue between the EU institutions.

We think they should accelerate the debate, approve the directive and consider the concerns raised for instance by the European Federation of Journalists.

6. Guarantee access to information

Theoretically the democratic state is a service for the citizens. To hold the state to account, citizens - or journalists as their agents - need access to documents and files describing the activities of the government. This access is usually regulated by a special law, often named the Freedom of Information Act. Even China has a law for this purpose!

In fact the existing laws are widely ignored, twisted or circumvented by state authorities to avoid handing over the information requested. In Germany a Ministry even argued, the alleged “copyright“ held by civil servants would make it impossible to provide certain files. In other states, the authorities simply don't answer any request by critical media outlets and block any exchange - even phone calls. Instead they sometimes use the request to quickly issue their spin on the story in a government-friendly media outlet. 

Since 2003 the EU has had a so called Freedom of Access to Information Directive. But - it only refers to environmental information. 

We ask MEPs not only to make this Directive more comprehensive - it needs a complete overhaul.

7. Support the public good

Investigative journalism is by its nature an uphill battle and very expensive. This is why it is so deeply affected by the economic crises of the media. It is impossible to leave this sort of journalism to the private sector alone.

Instead we have to remember that professional journalism is a public good. This good may be costly, but it is even more costly for the citizen is to lose his or her ability to make informed decisions and hold those in power accountable. So we have to partly separate journalism from the market and equip it with alternative financial resources. 

We already have some good examples - the Schöpflin Stiftung finances the work of Correctiv in Berlin, and the Journalismfund.eu hands out a considerable volume of stipends provided by various donors. My organisation, the ECPMF, and the International Press Institute, IPI, disseminated the IJ4EU grant which led to this richness of information and insights, that otherwise probably would have never been brought to public attention.

So my final appeal is to all donors, wether public or private: re-double your efforts to finance investigative journalism. And accept the fact that the beneficiaries have to work independently from your interests. They might even discover facts that are not favourable for you. That’s their job!

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Lessons learned from the Uncovered conference you find here, an overview and materials here.