The recent violent attacks against media workers during demonstrations in Germany, four assaults in a week, and similar threats witnessed across Europe, are establishing a worrying trend. The right to free assembly and association is a vital underpinning of a modern and pluralist democracy and has itself come under significant threat across Europe. However, threats against the press and media further weakens their ability to cover demonstrations and to inform the public accordingly. This further undermines the public’s ability to access information and take an active role in civil society.

Attacks against journalists and media workers at protests or demonstrations come from a number of sources, including participants of the protests, activist groups or police officers deployed to maintain public safety. Police across Europe have deployed increasingly militarised tactics when responding to protest movements, including the use of non-fatal firearms, tear gas and aggressive crowd dispersal tactics. Even when journalists and media workers are clearly identified, they have been attacked as part of the police’s response to the protest in general. Police violence against media workers is unacceptable, as is police surveillance of journalists.[1] The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and partners launched the Press Freedom Police Codex to respond to this threat at the end of 2019.

Further to this, journalists and media workers covering movements are increasingly targeted by politicians and proposed laws restricting the free flow of public interest information. This threat is heightened at times of civil unrest and uncertainty, such as elections, economic disruption, constitutional issues and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. At a time where we need a free media and press more than ever, journalists and media workers are being threatened with arrest, detention and violence.

ECPMF has been monitoring violent attacks against journalists in Germany since 2015[2] and there has been a recent acceleration of attacks against journalists and media workers at protests in Germany:

  • The camera crew and bodyguards of the ZDF satirical news show, “heute show” were attacked at a Berlin protest on 1 May 2020, which left four media workers requiring hospitalisation.
  • An employee of a television crew was allegedly punched by a police officer during a police operation also on May Day in Berlin.
  • On 6 May, during an unauthorised demonstration against the COVID-19 lockdown, an ARD camera team was attacked in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin.
  • On 9 May, a right-wing demonstrator attacked WDR journalists during an anti-lockdown demonstration in Dortmund.

Further to this, the ongoing violence against journalists in France or the 2019 murder of Lyra McKee when covering rioting in Derry demonstrate the need for meaningful and substantial protections for journalists and media workers. There have been a number of documented cases across the EU and candidate countries of journalists being threatened at protests including:

  • Spain: According to analysis by cat, in October 2019, approximately 70 journalists were injured during protests sparked by the arrest of pro-Catalan independence leaders in Spain, with 69% of the assaults provoked by police forces, either deliberately against journalists or as a result of generic charges against protesters.
  • France: During protests organised by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement and general strikes across France, journalists have faced a very high level of violence: more than 120 incidents involved journalists and more than 54 journalists have been injured. Nadège Picard was hit by a shot from a riot gun (LDB) and a shot from a grenade launcher in Toulouse; and Taha Bouhafs, Gaspard Glanz and Mustafa Yalgin were all injured, similarly from tear gas grenades used by the police officers during protests in Paris.
  • Slovenia, Poland and Italy: States across Europe have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by targeting journalists and media workers; the Slovenian Interior Minister, Aleš Hojs called for journalists and media professionals who reported on anti-lockdown protests to face criminal prosecution. In March in Turin, a photojournalist working for La Stampa was threatened and had his SD card stolen while documenting a protest over coronavirus restrictions at a local street market. In Warsaw, on 8 May 2020, Paweł Rutkiewicz, a Gazeta Wyborcza reporter, was arrested by police during a protest despite showing his press card.
  • Greece: As refugees and asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East sought refuge in Europe, a number of journalists documenting this were threatened or attacked. On 1 March 2020, Giorgos Christides of Der Spiegel newspaper was harassed, intimidated and attacked by local protesters as he covered the arrival of refugees and migrants on Lesbos. In January 2020, during a protest meeting on refugee–migration issues in Athens, a group of right-wing extremists attacked the Deutsche Welle correspondent, Thomas Jacobi.

When media workers are attacked, threatened or unlawfully detained, full, independent and robust investigations are vital to ensure that journalists and media workers are able to continue working, others are not threatened into silence and the public can be informed about the public movements or protests demanding change, both in their native country and across Europe.

The undersigned organisations call on European institutions and the national authorities to guarantee the safety and protection of media professionals during demonstrations and protests.

Recommendations for national authorities and police officers:

  • Ensure proportionate and lawful responses to protests and demonstrations that are inline with all national laws, human rights standards and international norms.
  • Establish robust and independent mechanisms to investigate attacks on journalists and media workers by state officials including police officers.
  • Deliver training for police officers on proportionate and lawful responses to demonstrations and protests, with a focus on protecting journalists and media workers. Training should be offered to all officers and on a regular basis to ensure best practice is shared across all officers.
  • Require police officers to systematically record criminal offenses against the media and draw up a regular situation report that is accessible by other journalists and media workers, public watchdogs, unions and European institutions.
  • Embed protections for journalists and media workers in the state planning of and response to all protests and demonstrations.
  • Develop cooperation schemes with journalists and media organisations and prioritise investigating threats against journalists.

Recommendations for journalists, media workers and media outlets:

  • All media outlets should ensure all journalists and media workers are regularly trained and offered necessary security, legal and practical support to safely cover protests and demonstrations. In certain circumstances, this may require personal protection and other measures.
  • Ensure all journalists and media workers are prominently identified as such when reporting on sensitive situations such as protests and demonstrations.
  • Respond responsibly and flexibly to the ever-changing situation at protests and demonstrations to ensure safety and security can be guaranteed.
  • Ensure risk assessment and safety procedures are followed before the assignment.

Recommendations for protest or demonstration organisers:

  • Ensure journalists and media workers are protected in the build up, during and following any protest and demonstration. There should be a zero tolerance approach to threats made by protest attendees and organisers against journalists and media workers.
  • Guarantee that all threats, violations and attacks against journalists and media workers are responded to in a robust, transparent and proportionate manner. Where possible engage with the victim to identify the most suitable response, which may include making a complaint to the police. This should also be coupled with a public condemnation from the protest or demonstration organisers to isolate the perpetrators.
  • Establish locations and processes for the protest or demonstration to ensure journalists and media workers can report safely and securely.
  • Ensure all observers, marshalls and security staff are adequately briefed in regards to the protection of journalists and media workers.

Signed by:

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

Article 19

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Institute for Applied Informatics at the University of Leipzig (InfAI)

International Press Institute (IPI)

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), an Europe-wide mechanism, which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. This project provides legal and practical support, public advocacy and information to protect journalists and media workers. The MFRR is organised by an consortium led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) including ARTICLE 19, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Institute for Applied Informatics at the University of Leipzig (InfAI), International Press Institute (IPI) and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT). The project is co-funded by the European Commission.

Tags: Media freedom Germany Spain France Slovenia Italy