‘Frontiers: Inside the Outsiders’ is Pi Comment’s very own column tackling social issues and trends from the perspective of students. Karolina Kašparová takes a look back at an alarming trend in 2018 – the increasing persecution of investigative journalists within EU countries – and questions how journalistic risk should be better protected in the year ahead.
The media has been, and rightfully so, appalled by the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the subsequent inaction of most European and American elites and politicians. Many of us cannot understand how countries which claim to promote human rights still maintain such strong ties with states like Saudi Arabia whose freedom of speech record is so poor. But perhaps we should not be so surprised. After all, Europe seems to have grown used to overlooking shocking abuses of press freedom much closer to home. It is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that the elites are genuine when espousing democratic values and human rights in a climate in which a steady stream of journalists are being targeted and persecuted.
Remember Daphne Caruana Galizia? The investigative journalist from Malta who tried to reveal connections between several Maltese politicians and the Panama Papers scandal and was assassinated on 16 November 2017? Margaret Atwood took a stand for the atrocity this October, reminding us that justice has yet to be served and the journalist’s work has been discredited by a smear campaign. The message conveyed seems to be that, not the corrupt and untouchable, but those who reveal the corruption, are condemned to pay the price.
What about Jan Kuciak, another investigative journalist from Slovakia who focused mainly on scrutinizing the tax fraud of several businessmen with connections to high-ranking Slovak politicians? He was assassinated on 21 February 2018. You might say that this is a domestic concern for the individual countries in question. But such a stance would be misguided – Kuciak also wrote about systemic misappropriation of European Union funds, while Galizia exposed tax heavens, which are problems that every country in the Union now faces that cannot be tackled on just a national level. Both tax heavens and fund frauds constantly undermine society’s belief that the current condition of democracy is fair and abides by law.
These are no isolated incidents, but rather reflect a more general tendency. According to a report published by Politico, global freedom of expression has been worsening for a decade, but took a particularly steep tumble over the past three years, including in EU countries. Reporters without Borders also calculated just how many European journalists and their families have to live under constant surveillance due to the danger posed by organised crime.
If that isn’t enough, journalists have to withstand constant vitriol on the internet, sometimes verging on death threats which place a huge strain on their mental health and may well lead to self-censorship. Especially when they are often verbally attacked by politicians, such as when Czech president Milos Zeman ‘joked’ about loving journalists so much that he would organise a banquet for them at the Saudi embassy (because killing journalists, apparently, is supposed to be a good punchline).
On the whole, this year just passed has been a very depressing one for investigative journalists, and – by extension – for society at large. Eliminating journalists, and even just discrediting them to take away their voice, contributes to the growing fear that ‘the truth is being hidden from us’ and thus that democracy is deteriorating. The next time another politician complains that society has irrationally succumbed to populism, maybe we should ask them what they have done to protect and appreciate those who dedicate their lives to uncovering corruption. There have been demonstrations commemorating the legacy of the aforementioned journalists, but that alone will not do the trick. We need to get real and realise that being an investigative journalist is no longer safe in Europe. Safeguards are required, and it is high time to demonstrate how much we appreciate and need their work, increasingly being carried out at risk of their own well-being.