The Media Today

A moment of truth for press freedom in Europe

October 3, 2023
Philipp von Ditfurth/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

In November 2021, Disclose, an investigative news organization in France, published a five-part series called the “Terror Memos.” The site reported, based on confidential government documents, that a few years ago, the French intelligence services collected information on behalf of the autocratic government of Egypt as part of a counterterrorism operation—only for Egyptian officials to use the intelligence to target and kill civilians, including drug- and people-traffickers, in the border region between Egypt and Libya. French law enforcement subsequently opened an investigation, on the grounds that the leak may have compromised national security secrets and risked revealing the identity of a “protected agent.” But French officials never denied that the documents in Disclose’s possession were genuine. 

Two weeks ago this morning, at 6am local time, a squad of intelligence agents and magistrates with counterterrorism responsibilities showed up at the home of Ariane Lavrilleux, a journalist who worked on the investigation, in Marseille. The agents brought with them equipment capable of accessing data from electronic devices, according to Lavrilleux, who said she learned that officials had been surveilling her for some time. The agents took Lavrilleux into detention for forty hours, before releasing her without taking further action (at least for now). Around the same time, officials went after a former military functionary, apparently on suspicion that he was among Lavrilleux’s sources; last week, a judge ruled that much of the material the agents took from Lavrilleux’s home could go forward as evidence in the case. Lavrilleux said she was bemused as to how the case had cleared the high bar of public interest that French authorities must satisfy to go after a journalist’s sources. She described the judge’s ruling as “scandalous.” 

This was not the first time that the French state had attempted to surveil or interrogate a journalist: as far back as the seventies, intelligence agents disguised as plumbers were caught trying to bug the offices of the satirical and investigative magazine Le Canard enchaîné in an episode that came to be known as “Watergaffe”; since President Emmanuel Macron took office in 2017, various investigative reporters, including several from Disclose, have been raided or summoned for official questioning in a bid to learn more about their sources. Indeed, mere hours after Lavrilleux was released, police in Lille summoned three journalists from Libération in connection with a series of stories they wrote about a police killing.

But the extent of the action against Lavrilleux was unprecedented, as various French journalists’ associations have noted. And the timing was inauspicious. Today marks the start of a sweeping consultation on the right to news and information in France that—while independently overseen, including by the head of Reporters Without Borders—was set up by Macron, who promised during his reelection campaign to help journalists fulfill their “essential mission,” and whose office launched the initiative earlier this year by situating it in the tradition of the French Revolution. 

And, more broadly, today also marked a key vote in the European Parliament, the legislative chamber of the European Union, on a new law, itself sweeping, that is aimed at buttressing press freedom across the bloc but that various countries, including France, have been accused of trying to water down. Together, these recent developments, among others, show that press freedom in the EU is more fragile and contested than the bloc’s reputation for liberal values might suggest. Two years ago, after several journalists were killed in EU member states—including Daphne Caruana Galizia, in Malta; Ján Kuciak, in Slovakia; and Peter R. de Vries, in the Netherlands—I wrote that lofty official rhetoric doesn’t always keep members of the media safe. Such rhetoric, it turns out, isn’t even a defense against official hypocrisy.

In September 2021, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, which is part of the EU’s executive arm, name-checked Caruana Galizia, Kuciak, and de Vries in
her annual State of the Union address, and described press freedom as giving “voice to all other freedoms.” She pledged action to “protect those who create transparency—the journalists.” A year later, the commission put forward a proposal, called the European Media Freedom Act, which it said would “protect media pluralism and independence in the EU,” including by requiring that member states protect journalists’ sources, bolstering the independence and funding of public broadcasters across the bloc, and ensuring “strong safeguards” around the use of spyware against journalists. Věra Jourová, the Commission’s vice president for values and transparency, said that “no journalist should be spied on because of their job.”

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The proposal followed other recent EU efforts to protect journalists’ safety and clamp down on nuisance lawsuits, as well as separate legislation regulating content on big online platforms (which my colleagues Mathew Ingram and Jem Bartholomew have covered recently). Among press-freedom watchers, the initial reaction was broadly positive, with some reservations; various experts picked over the new proposal’s technical provisions, not least a section that, they warned, could restrict platforms’ ability to moderate disinformation by allowing its peddlers to self-define as legitimate news.

Then, over the summer, an EU body that brings together ministers from member states published revisions to the proposal that, among other things, would grant national officials greater latitude to use spyware against journalists on security grounds. Press-freedom groups warned that this new language would be open to abuse; according to an analysis by Reporters Without Borders, it would also expand the field of investigations in which officials can spy on journalists, from those involving only the most serious crimes to a list that includes the trafficking of cars and hormonal substances. According to The Guardian and other outlets, France pushed hard for the new language, as did the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, and Greece, where powerful spyware has recently been used against reporters

Since then, the proposed legislation has gone through review by committees and lawmakers in the European Parliament, many of whom have criticized the idea of broad spying powers. A couple of hours ago, the Parliament voted to approve a revised text that would, according to a press release, justify the use of spyware against journalists only “as a ‘last resort’ measure, on a case-by-case basis, and if ordered by an independent judicial authority to investigate a serious crime, such as terrorism or human trafficking.” Under the EU’s byzantine procedures, the final language will now be subject to negotiation among the Parliament and national leaders.

Some critics, however, think that even the Parliament’s language does not go far enough, and would prefer a blanket ban on the use of spyware against journalists—and in any case, member states retain ultimate power over their national security, making a ban of any description hard to enforce. And if the negotiations drag out, they could run into two potential buzz saws: elections next summer to the European Parliament, and the ascent shortly afterward of Hungary—whose authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has clamped down on independent journalism—to the rotating presidency of the European Council, a position that comes with agenda-setting power.

In the past, Hungary has been accused of targeting journalists using Pegasus, a particularly potent spyware tool whose Israeli manufacturer, NSO Group, has been blacklisted by the Biden administration. Other EU governments are also clients of NSO; recently, critics of the use of such tools, including prominent figures in the European Parliament, have urged the bloc to regulate their use, and ban them at least in the meantime, but the area remains unresolved. The use of spyware against journalists is only one facet of the broader European Media Freedom Act, but it is a particularly important one. Recently, we were reminded why.

In February, Galina Timchenko, the cofounder and publisher of
Meduza, an independent Russian news site that operates from Latvia, attended a confidential meeting with other exiled Russian journalists in Berlin. Months later, she received a notification from Apple warning that her phone had been the target of a state-sponsored hack. Meduza’s technical team contacted Access Now and Citizen Lab, two outside organizations that specialize in tracing such attacks, and concluded that Timchenko’s phone was infected with Pegasus shortly before the meeting.

Timchenko was the first Russian journalist known to have been infected with Pegasus, and initially, the likeliest explanation seemed to be that the Kremlin was responsible, directly or indirectly. (“Who else cares about me?” Timchenko remembers thinking.) But NSO has said that Russia is not a client, and while the company’s word is hardly gospel, there are good reasons why this would be the case, not least that Russia has potent spyware capabilities of its own. According to The Guardian, Timchenko and her colleagues at Meduza now believe that a European state likely surveilled her. Germany and Estonia are believed to have access to Pegasus. So is Latvia, Meduza’s host country, which is home to many independent Russian journalists but has recently treated some of them with suspicion.

Meduza only has circumstantial evidence for this proposition, and if an EU member state did hack Timchenko, it may be impossible to prove which one. That the idea is plausible, however, reflects poorly enough on press freedom in the bloc. So, too, in a related but slightly different vein, does France’s treatment of Lavrilleux. Also today, protesters were scheduled to take to the streets in several French cities, including Marseille, in defense of press freedom. In an interview with 20 Minutes, Lavrilleux noted the coincidence of the timing with the European Parliament vote and the opening of France’s news and information consultation. Today’s rallies, she said, “are another opportunity to remind people and to put the protection of sources on the agenda.” 

Some news from the home front:
Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher for the past seven years, has told the publication’s staff that he plans to step down later this month. A statement from him follows: 

“It has been a great privilege to edit CJR during seven of the most challenging years for journalism, from the rise of authoritarianism in the US and around the world to the challenges of social media and the crisis in local news. Through it all, CJR has stayed true to its twin goals of advocating for the free press and serving as a watchdog of journalism.

“Now I have decided to devote my energies to another urgent crisis before us. Four years ago, I cofounded Covering Climate Now, a collaborative aimed at helping journalists produce more and better coverage of the most important story of our time. Much progress has been made. But the need remains urgent, which is why later this month, I’ll be leaving CJR to join the Covering Climate Now leadership team full-time.

“I’ll have more to say in coming weeks about what I’ve learned over the last seven years at CJR. But for now, I simply want to say thank you to our funders and board, particularly Rebecca Blumenstein, our chair, and Steve Adler before her; to Jelani Cobb, Steve Coll, and everyone at the Columbia Journalism School; and most of all to CJR’s staff and contributors, who have ensured that the review has remained the most authoritative source of journalism news and analysis in the world.”

You can read more about Kyle’s new role at Covering Climate Now here

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday was a busy day for media-business news. Pushkin Industries, the audio company founded by Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg, said that it would restructure its leadership team and lay off around a third of its staff. According to the New Jersey Globe, News 12, a regional cable news network, cut thirty staffers, including a popular political host and long-serving meteorologist. Elsewhere, the Buffalo News was printed locally for the final time over the weekend; it will print in Cleveland going forward. The Philadelphia Inquirer launched a major ad campaign targeting younger potential subscribers, with support from the city’s biggest sports teams. And Jeff Zucker, the ousted former leader of CNN, is buying a minority stake in Front Office Sports.
  • I noted in yesterday’s newsletter that Gideon Cody—the police chief who led the recent raid at the Marion County Record, a local newspaper in Kansas, sparking a ferocious nationwide backlash from press-freedom advocates—had been suspended from his post. Yesterday, David Mayfield, the mayor of Marion, confirmed that Cody has now resigned (he declined to give further details); Zach Hudlin, a local officer who also participated in the raid, will succeed Cody as acting chief. Eric Meyer, the editor and publisher of the Record, welcomed Cody’s resignation, but questioned the interim appointment of Hudlin given his role in the raid. The Wichita Eagle has more.
  • The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi explored how showbiz reporters have been keeping busy since the ongoing actors’ strike shut down not only Hollywood production, but its attendant promotional press rituals. “For many entertainment journalists, adjusting to the strike was reminiscent of the early months of the pandemic, which put television and film projects on pause and shuttered in-person events,” Izadi writes, except this time, “interviewers have had to navigate a complex web of rules, in part because they want audiences to know they aren’t crossing picket lines—and neither are their subjects.”
  • Yesterday marked five years since the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by state assassins in the country’s consulate in Istanbul. Writing for the Post, Karen Attiah, who was Khashoggi’s editor at the paper, recalls the moment she realized the world would try to move on from his killing: at Time magazine’s Person of the Year party a few months later. “I had naively expected the event to be somber, in remembrance of Jamal and his fellow honorees,” Attiah writes. Instead, “it was a holiday party.”
  • And Josh Kruger—a journalist who worked for the city of Philadelphia, then returned to journalism and wrote about the city’s most vulnerable residents—was shot and killed at his home yesterday. He was thirty-nine. Officials believe that Kruger’s death “may have been the result of a domestic dispute or may have been drug-related,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. “City leaders and community members took to social media Monday to grieve Kruger’s death and acknowledge the legacy of his work as a journalist. He loved cats and was proudly queer and openly HIV-positive. He had overcome a number of struggles in his life, including bouts of homelessness and addiction, and leveraged those experiences to fiercely advocate for and write on behalf of those communities.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.