Dark clouds gather over press freedom in Europe

A week ago, Peter R. de Vries, a star journalist in the Netherlands, was leaving a studio where he’d just appeared as a guest on a TV program, RTL Boulevard, when a gunman shot him five times, including in the head. De Vries has covered the criminal underworld dating back to the eighties and nineties, when he tracked down a man who helped kidnap Freddy Heineken, the beer tycoon; recently, de Vries had been acting as a confidant and spokesperson for a gang informant in a high-profile case against an alleged high-level crime boss. On Saturday, RTL Boulevard canceled a planned broadcast and evacuated its studio, citing what it characterized as a serious threat from organized crime; police wouldn’t go into specifics, but a Dutch newspaper reported that they had learned of a possible attack by rocket launcher. (This would not have been unprecedented in the Netherlands—in 2018, an anti-tank rocket was fired at the offices of a newspaper publisher.) De Vries is still fighting for his life. On its latest World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked the Netherlands sixth out of one hundred and eighty countries globally—making it, theoretically at least, one of the safest places in the world to practice journalism.

The day after de Vries was shot in Amsterdam, three men attacked Erk Acarer, a Turkish journalist, at his home in Berlin, where he has lived in exile since 2017. Acarer, who writes for the independent Turkish newspaper BirGün and works for a broadcaster established by other Turkish émigrés, has been critical of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country’s authoritarian president; last year, Turkish authorities sought to prosecute Acarer and several other journalists on national-security grounds after they reported on the death of an intelligence officer. After the attack, Acarer said on social media that his assailants told him to stop writing, beat him with “fists and knives,” and left him in need of hospital treatment. “I know the attackers,” he said. “I will never surrender to fascism.” Can Dündar, a prominent Turkish journalist who also lives in Germany, called the attack “a direct message to Germany from Erdoğan: ‘I have a long arm. We can attack a dissident journalist even in Berlin.’ ” Reporters Without Borders ranks Germany thirteenth on its index.

Podcast: Nikole Hannah-Jones on the use of power

On Sunday, the mother of Alexander Lashkarava, a cameraman at TV Pirveli, in the country of Georgia, found her son dead at home. He was thirty-seven. Less than a week earlier, Lashkarava was among a group of more than fifty journalists that was attacked by rioters who set out to derail a planned LGBT+ march in Tbilisi, the capital. (The march was canceled.) According to a colleague, a mob of around thirty people broke in to a building where Lashkarava was filming march organizers and beat him up. He had surgery on his resulting facial injuries and was discharged from the hospital on Thursday. The cause of his death has not been officially confirmed; officials have suggested that he may have overdosed on drugs, but his colleagues dismiss such claims. (One has alleged that officials took away Lashkarava’s body without his family’s permission.) Since Sunday, hundreds of protesters have been in the streets demanding that Georgia’s government resign, accusing senior officials of stoking hate and failing to protect marchers and journalists from the mob. The prime minister has characterized such claims as part of a “conspiracy” against the state. Yesterday, journalists tried to enter Parliament to talk to pro-government lawmakers, and violence ensued. Reporters Without Borders ranks Georgia sixtieth on its index, higher than countries including Japan, Argentina, and Israel.

Taken together, the events of the past week paint a troubling picture of the state of press freedom in Europe, which has typically been seen as a bastion of media protections. “Europe,” of course, is a big and diverse place, not to mention a contested political and historical concept. Some geographical definitions would place Georgia in Asia. Germany is at the heart of Europe, but attacks on journalists there often seem to involve their work in or about countries that lie beyond the continent’s borders (or straddle them, in Turkey’s case); last year, for instance, it was discovered that a government press staffer with access to information about exiled Egyptian journalists had been spying on behalf of Egypt’s government. The Netherlands, for its part, has a range of geographical, institutional, and socioeconomic conditions that have long made the country fertile ground for drug traffickers—and de Vries may very well have been targeted for his unusual involvement with a court case, and not for his journalism, per se. Still, a general trend seems clear: there are bad people who would hurt journalists everywhere, and, in an increasingly globalized world, reporters aren’t completely safe anywhere—not in their TV studios, not at their homes, and certainly not while they’re out reporting on the street.

In recent years, a string of murders has rocked the European press: Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose car was blown up in Malta, in 2017; Ján Kuciak, who was shot alongside his fiancée in Slovakia, in 2018; Giorgos Karaivaz, who was shot outside his home in Greece, earlier this year. Karaivaz, like de Vries, was a longtime crime reporter; both Kuciak and Caruana Galizia investigated the nexus of organized crime and state corruption; the latter’s murder eventually brought down Malta’s government. These high-profile cases have unfolded against a backdrop of worsening relations between politicians and the press across the continent. Recently, another Reporters Without Borders metric, its gallery of “press freedom predators,” made room for a European leader for the first time, adding Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister who has systematically eroded the country’s independent media. (Presidents Vladimir Putin, of Russia, and Alexander Lukashenko, of Belarus—long-term fixtures of the gallery, both—lead countries that are at least partially in Europe geographically, if not politically. Even in those countries, attacks on the press have recently become more brazen.) Janez Janša, an Orbán ally who serves as prime minister of Slovenia, has explicitly declared war on media “presstitutes.” This month, Slovenia assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union’s council, and, with it, significant agenda-setting power within the bloc. When officials and journalists traveled to Slovenia for the handover, Janša forced them to watch a sixteen-minute video demonizing reporters as biased.

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By contrast, top officials in the Netherlands said all the right things after de Vries was shot last week. Mark Rutte, the prime minister, decried a “shocking and incomprehensible” attack, not only on “a courageous journalist” but also “the free press that is so critical to our democracy.” Femke Halsema, the mayor of Amsterdam, hailed de Vries as a “national hero”; even the monarchy put out a supportive statement. Officials would not comment on whether de Vries, who has received threats before, had recently been offered police protection. What is clear is that well-intentioned words about press freedom didn’t prevent his being shot near a busy street in broad daylight. And they won’t have any bearing, now, on whether he lives or dies. Let’s pray that he lives.

Below, more on press freedom around the world:


Other notable stories:

  • On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine journalist and driving force behind the 1619 Project who will soon take a teaching post at Howard University after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill bungled her appointment, seemingly for political reasons. “When people were trying to diminish me, I could come into my power in a very particular way,” Hannah-Jones told Pope. “Instead of using whatever power I have to force my way into an institution, I could actually use that power in a way that builds up institutions that already exist.” You can listen to their full conversation here.
  • Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang, two tech reporters at the New York Times, are out today with An Ugly Truth, their eagerly anticipated new book about Facebook. The book is based on more than four hundred interviews, and focuses on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, and Sheryl Sandberg, its COO. (Zuckerberg declined to be interviewed for the book; Sandberg initially agreed to talk, but cut contact after learning of its “critical nature.”) The Times and the Telegraph have excerpts, the latter detailing how Facebook engineers accessed the private data of people they were dating.
  • On Sunday, Tiffany Hsu, a media reporter at the Times, wrote a story about Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, of Fox News, and their recent comments denigrating the Biden administration’s efforts to distribute covid-19 vaccines. Yesterday, Dick Durbin, the senior Democratic senator from Illinois, read aloud from Hsu’s story on the Senate floor; he went on to call Carlson and Ingraham “anti-vax quacks,” and said Fox should “caution” them. (Responding on her show last night, Ingraham called Durbin a “fossil.”)
  • Emily Badger, also of the Times, revisited the early-pandemic media narrative that covid would kill America’s cities—a prediction, she writes, that won’t quite die even as it isn’t playing out. “The pandemic struck as ideological disdain for cities was again becoming a central theme of partisan politics in America,” Badger writes; some liberals, meanwhile, declared cities to be over in general because city life is over for them.
  • Writing for New York, Ankush Khardori takes aim at the “prosecutor punditry” that has long accompanied legal scrutiny of Donald Trump and his business, which was recently charged in New York. Pundits, he argues, have “offered analysis that distorted the public’s sense of how the criminal-justice system really works and flattered the audience’s prejudices by suggesting that serious legal consequences for Trump might be just around the corner.”
  • From next month, the US Postal Service is planning to hike the mailing rate for periodical publications by more than 8 percent. The change, the AP’s David Bauder and Anthony Izaguirre report, could deal another blow to struggling community newspapers, especially in rural areas. Smaller papers often “depend on the Postal Service since they have shifted from using independent contractors for deliveries.”
  • In media-jobs news, Parul Sehgal, a book critic at the Times, is joining The New Yorker as a staff writer; Kyle Chayka, Matthew Hutson, and Luke Mogelson will join as contributing writers. Elsewhere, Julián Castro, the top Democratic politician, is now an analyst for MSNBC and NBC. And Jamil Anderlini, Asia editor at the Financial Times, will be the editor in chief of Politico Europe, succeeding Stephen Brown, who died in March.
  • In New Zealand, Māori journalists from different outlets have come together to form a professional association. “It is the first time Māori journalists have come together to provide support to each other and talk about the issues specific to Māori in both mainstream media and Māori media,” Carol Hirschfeld, of Stuff, said. Hirschfeld added that “Māori stories are coming to the forefront of our news agenda much more.”
  • And local Republicans are demanding that the University of Virginia, which is a public school, open an ethics investigation into Larry Sabato, who leads UVA’s Center for Politics, on the grounds that his mean tweets about Trump constitute a betrayal of his duties as a public servant. Sabato writes an eponymous Crystal Ball newsletter on politics and is often quoted as an expert by major outlets. The Daily Progress has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.