The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Chris Wiersma, academic fellow in Media Law & Lucia Vesnic-Alujevic, Political Communication and Science and Technology Studies scholar.

On 22 March, a communication has been issued by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) about 49 cases against Russia. The country’s Foreign Agent Act is now under scrutiny by the European judges of the ECtHR. This law emerged from a law on NGOs in 2006 and was transformed and strengthened into Foreign Agents law in 2012, which directly introduced the concept of foreign agent. As a consequence, many NGOs financed from abroad are tracked and monitored by the state. These NGOs have to meet publishing requirements, both offline and online. The majority of organizations that are under threat by this law and that filed cases in front of the ECtHR deal with policy issues, human rights, electoral monitoring, social issues, but also media and mass communication.

Almost in parallel, MPs in Hungary drafted a proposal of the Law on the transparency of civil organizations funded from abroad. In his speech at the European Parliament last week, Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, mentioned that new Hungarian law might not be compatible either with the free movement of capital in the EU, or with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. What is even more significant is that he stressed the high importance of free and strong civil society for democracy, which this law could easily jeopardize.

These issues can also be compared to new developments in the USA. Recently, a Texas state House representative introduced a proposal to change Texas’s shield law. This House Bill proposes to take away the privilege of some reporters who claim the protection of the statute’s application against forced disclosure of journalistic sources. The Bill’s broadly targeted towards organizations involved in political activity. The country’s constitution does however protect against vague notions of fairness and necessity that would take away First Amendment free speech rights of journalists.

These can all be seen as small steps to start targeting journalists via parliamentary laws.

How far can legislations go?

One of the questions put to the Russian Government by the European Court in Strasbourg looks for clarification of the purposes of the law’s applications against the organizations who have now come up with several complaints. These so-called Non-Commercial Organisations have requested such review based on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). For example, the right to protection of freedom of expression can be limited by member states in the interests of national security but only with the purpose to subject it to ‘such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.’ Article 18 ECHR puts a ‘[l]imitation on use of restrictions on rights.’ This Article provides the basis for scrutinizing the national statute in Russia based on the question by the Court that asks whether the purposes fit the Convention. The European Court has rarely found violations because of deficiencies in the laws of member states that don’t meet the quality-standards of the Council of Europe in cases related to freedom of expression. In the days when terrorism attacks occur regularly, national security, for example, can often be a good excuse for governments to restrict human rights and come up more often than it used to. It is a real concern that states adhere to the rule of law according the Convention’s articles, as the requirements of necessity are repeated throughout its limiting clauses of the substantive human rights mentioned.

Governments’ orders and the free press

The Trump administration has been calling journalists unfair and responsible for “fake news”, and presented “alternative facts” for everything the president doesn’t agree with. Among many journalists dissatisfied with such a treatment, even Bob Woodward, the famous Watergate journalist recently questioned these constant claims of fake news by stating that “the media is not fake news”. Individual journalists experience a disregard of the limits to their personal accountability and are threatened for their involvement. Governments should not force information this way, but focus on reasonable facilities. In connection to these developments in media, several U.S. advocacy organizations have created a coalition with a determined goal to launch a new press freedom website that will adopt the name U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The Tracker has been founded primarily to seek out and maintain data on all press freedom incidents against journalists.

Ambivalent relationship with politics

Media and politics relationship is often ambivalent. They try to mutually influence each other and impose power. Journalists often need to resist to political and economic pressures. One of the main roles of media is to provide accurate information and at the same time be a forum for comments and critics. Therefore the role of journalists is not to do what governments tell them to do. A strongman’s view presented as a shock tactic works against such a role and is antithetical. Media need to be free from such pressures, but at the same time to be accountable and responsible for their reporting.

Future of free media?

On the global level, the adoption of aforementioned laws and the pressures journalists experience could threaten further freedom of expression and media freedoms. The world press freedom day, which is marked every year on 3 May, since 1993, exists to raise awareness of the importance of free media and to evaluate the level of media freedom in the world. During that day, in many countries, round tables and panels of different stakeholders are organized to discuss problems and challenges that media face today. Also, to remind politicians and governments of their duty to respect and protect freedom of expression guaranteed though the UN declaration.

Freedom House is declaring an alarming decline of freedom all around the world this year.

Therefore we believe it is crucial to turn around this trend, if we are to meet positive standard for the celebration of 70 years of the UN declaration of human rights next year.

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