Protection of journalists in the EU: long overdue

Despite being the bulwark of democracy and free speech, the EU was not spared to deal with having its journalists assassinated for their work. Daphne Caruana Galizia, Jan Kuciak, Peter de Vries, Giogios Karaivaz and many others who had their lives cut short because of their investigations.

In response to this worrying trend in the Union, today, the European Commission published the long-awaited recommendation on the protection of journalists in the European Union.

The European Union is founded on the principles of rule of law, media freedom and pluralism and the media is considered as the fourth pillar of democracies. The role that journalists play in our society is often misunderstood, misinterpreted and most of the time despised. The extent of these reactions depends heavily on the way society has developed.

Recent experience in the US shows that no country, irrespective of its democratic heritage, can be spared. Attacks on the media are still a daily occurrence across the globe. Journalists play a very important role in our societies as they keep those in power in check. Without such checks, we would not be able to take democracy as a given. So many journalists around the world have had their lives cut short while doing their duties. Images of journalists covering the Afghan debacle give us a taste of how difficult such job is.

This recommendation, albeit, not binding on Member States, outlines the various measures EU governments can implement to further protect their journalists from physical attacks and abuse and from vexatious lawsuits called SLAPP.

This recommendation came after criticism leveled at the EU for allowing such practice on its territory. Although such criticism is right in principle, the EU has its hands tied unless a new proposal is submitted on the table, which allows deviation from the Brussels I Regulation.

Cross-border court procedures in the EU for civil and commercial lawsuits are regulated by the Brussels I Regulation(recast). This regulation allows for lawsuits to be instituted in Member States where the damage occurred.

Given that not all Member States have legislation that prohibits such actions, this loophole allows for forum shopping. In her State of the Union speech yesterday, Ursula Von der Leyen announced that a new Media Act is in the offing. This may take time to get approved at Council level. Therefore, this recommendation provides guidance to Member States to implement these measures.

Proposals include the setting up of coordination centres among law enforcement, the judiciary, and media organisations to foster dialogue and understanding between authorities, rapid response units that would assess imminent threat to journalists, female participation and inclusion, online protection and protection against surveillance and to support their training among others.

Malta is expected to be at the forefront on these measures as Prime Minister Roberta Abela announced earlier this month, with an anti-SLAPP regulation being drafted.

Malta has suffered greatly in the aftermath of the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The greatest suffering was undoubtedly experienced by her family, and by the press community whose role in society must be strengthened.

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