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INDEPENDENT MEDIA AND JOURNALISTS FACE INCREASED FREE PRESS RESTRICTIONS IN EASTERN EUROPE,  LEGISLATIONS ON ALLEGEDLY FOREIGN AGENTS AND EXTREMIST ORGANIZATIONS SPREAD

Elena Alice Rossetti, Alina Papke, Tejas Vaidya, WATCH/GSOC Team

Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

Date of Publication: December 20, 2023

Industry: Eastern European independent media


Map of Eastern Europe[1]


BLUF

Eastern European journalists and independent media are facing restrictions on press freedom, governments’ control of the media environment, severe legislation, and direct threats to investigative reporting. Research from the 2023 Global Press Freedom Index and the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) which assesses political, legislative, and social indicators to delineate media liberties in 180 countries, shows poor indicators for Russia (Rank 164), Belarus (Rank 157), and Azerbaijan (Rank 151).[2] These countries are implementing strict legislation labeling independent media as foreign agents or extremist organizations to ban, prosecute, and silence them. Other Eastern European countries, such as Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Hungary changed legislation or proposed laws to restrict press liberties and increase government censorship. This raises serious concerns about freedom of the press with adverse effects on democratic decision-making processes.


Summary


Russia

RSF’s Global Press Freedom Index for 2023 shows a worsening in the legal framework for Russian journalists, as Russia fell from 146 to 158 placement on the legal indicator.[3] Russian authorities have implemented amendments to increase the Kremlin’s control of the media landscape and the law on foreign agents introduces monetary fines, detention, and forced labor for organizations and persons who do not fully comply with the provisions.[4] This law restricts media independence and violates the European Convention on Human Rights.[5] Russian authorities labeled The Moscow Times news outlet[6] and Dmitry Muratov, former editor of well-known independent media Novaya Gazeta, as foreign agents. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, revoked Novaya Gazeta licenses, forcing the newspapers’ journalists to relocate outside Russia and open Novaya Gazeta Europe. Censorship increased soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, banning foreign and independent media websites and imposing internal media to report only official information. On February 24, 2022, the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Roskomnadzor stated, “When preparing their materials and publications regarding the conduct of a special operation” media outlets “are obliged to use information and data received by them only from official Russian sources.”[7] In March 2023, the Duma approved amendments to the Fake News Law, designed to punish  people who “discredit” Russian military forces, spread false information, or call for sanctions against Russia with up to 15 years of detention.[8] Independent journalists are forced to flee, self-censor, or risk monetary fines and detention; as of December 2023, 28 journalists are prisoners in Russia.[9]


Belarus

Belarus’ restrictions on free press have increased, based on the Mass Media Law’s amendments, which President Lukashenko signed in July 2023. These changes aim to protect Belarus’ “national interests” and increase the cases in which Belarus authorities can revoke media’s accreditation or limit “access to an internet resource, online publication, or news aggregator.”[10] Belarusian authorities label multiple journalists and media outlets as “extremist,” and accuse them of disseminating discrediting information to detain them, as happened to Alyaksandr Mantsevich.[11] As of December 2023, Belarus authorities detained 39 journalists.[12] The Law of the Republic of Belarus On Countering Extremism defines extremism as the “dissemination [...] of knowingly false information about the political, economic, social, military or international situation of the Republic of Belarus, the legal status of citizens in the Republic of Belarus, discrediting the Republic of Belarus” and activities “discrediting public authorities and administration.”[13] Belarus and Russia are implementing similar restrictions on media and they are aligning their strategies, the meeting between Belarus Ministry of Information and Russian Roskomnadzor suggests.[14]


Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan recently intensified arrests against journalists: from late November until December 2023, Azerbaijani authorities detained at least six journalists before their trial, accusing them of allegedly “fabricated” charges, states Amnesty International.[15] In February 2022, Azerbaijan approved the new Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan on media imposing restrictions, especially for exiled journalists, since “if the founder is a natural person, he must be a citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan permanently residing in the Republic of Azerbaijan.”[16] Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) declared that impartiality and objectivity remain undefined and Azerbaijani authorities might interpret this as aligning with the government’s positions.[17] The European Commission for Democracy through Law called for a revision of the new Azerbaijani Media Law, which restricts the media environment and requires sensitive information for the Media Register.[18] Justice for Journalists Foundation registered 159 journalists or news outlets in Azerbaijan in 2022; Azerbaijani authorities did not charge or punish these perpetrators.[19] 


Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, countries that scored better than Russia and Belarus on the 2023 Global Press Freedom Index, are implementing new laws or proposing drafts that could limit the free press. In July 2023, the Croatian Journalists' Association (HND) wrote a letter to the Minister of Culture and Media to oppose the new Media Act draft. This proposal is “unacceptable” since it increases censorship, widens the publisher’s power over editorial and journalistic work, and confirms the political nature of the Media Council.[20] The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) joined HND in opposing the draft.[21]


Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two territorial entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, implement different media legislations. The International Press Institute (IPI) and the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) findings show that media freedom declined in the Republika of Srpska, a state-level self-government in Bosnia and Herzegovina[22], even after Bosnia and Herzegovina gained the EU candidate’s status.[23] The EU underlined the draft Law on the Special Registry and Publicity of the Work of Non-Profit Organisations, which the Republika Srpska approved in September 2023, endangers media independence and freedom of expression by labeling NGOs foreign agents.[24] 


Hungary

The Hungarian Parliament approved the Sovereignty Law in December 2023, which instates a separate authority tasked with monitoring threats of political interference.[25] The law states, “It is necessary to tighten the current regulations. [...] Hungary's sovereignty is increasingly under illegal attack. [...] attempts to gain influence take place during which foreign organizations and persons try to assert their interests in our country, against Hungarian interests and rules.”[26] This law established The Office for the Protection of Sovereignty “an independent body [...] also penalizing the use of foreign aid.”[27] This law aims to ban individuals, parties, and organizations deemed a risk to national security. To carry out this task, the authority can target and request personal data on anyone without accountability and oversight mechanisms in place to prevent law abuses. [28]


Analysis 

The systematic silencing of independent journalists in Eastern Europe will very likely amplify curated state news and reduce access to critical views on the government. Citizens will very likely face difficulties verifying information on domestic and international political events, likely strengthening the government’s narratives. In silencing journalists, the government almost certainly reduces an important democratic oversight and accountability mechanism. There is a roughly even chance this censorship will create favorable circumstances for the governments over the opposition in future elections, very likely leading to further democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe.


Eastern European governments will very likely increase free press crackdown before the 2024 election terms, justifying this crackdown as necessary to protect their national interest and counter malign foreign influence and extremist groups. Vague legislation and the absence of checks and balances will very likely permit authorities to label journalists and media as foreign agents or extremist figures without clear, objective criteria. Lack or restrictions of foreign funding and international contacts in Eastern European countries will very likely limit local media's ability to operate and grow, very likely worsening both local and international coverage. Legislative hurdles to cooperating with international media will limit local sources’ chances to develop interesting professional contacts, likely depriving them of educational and professional exchanges. In the long term, there is a roughly even chance that Eastern European countries will suffer brain-drain since independent journalists will likely attempt to flee and settle in countries that guarantee higher free press levels. International news outlets will very likely worsen their local coverage, likely reducing real-time reporting, fostering Eastern European countries’ isolation, and decreasing international awareness of local events.


Russia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine very likely accelerated the path toward strict censorship and restrictions on foreign media in the country to eliminate internal dissent and ensure a closed media environment where state narratives dominate. The incremental closure of international news outlets and the foreign agents’ law provisions almost certainly erode pluralism and prevent local citizens from finding thorough and impartial coverage. Widespread pro-government narratives and official propaganda will very likely limit citizens’ critical thinking, likely increasing Putin’s social base and internal support ahead of the 2024 presidential run. Broadcasting of official-narrative news will likely curb citizens' ability to distinguish between impartial reporting and fake news. There is a roughly even chance that this prolonged government-imposed narrative will convince some citizens to perceive different, impartial reporting as fake news, likely eroding popular support for investigative journalists and independent media. 


Belarus

Belarus will very likely increase free press crackdown before the 2024 and 2025 election terms, very likely justifying this crackdown as necessary to protect the national interest and counter malign foreign influence and extremist groups. Belarus Ministry of Information will likely align local legislation with Russian up-to-date media laws, likely increasing fines and punishments for allegedly extremist organizations. Lukashenko will almost certainly exploit vague definitions and the lack of checks and balances to label journalists and media as extremist figures if they oppose his views or his re-election. This partial designation of extremist organizations will almost certainly restrict Belarusian local, unbiased news sources, likely impoverishing political electoral debate. There is a roughly even chance that remaining local media will self-censor their reporting to avoid arrests, very likely depriving opposition parties of a media platform to present their campaign.


Azerbaijan

Azerbaijani authorities will very likely increase oversight and restrictions on media to tackle potential opposite narratives regarding the 2024 presidential elections and the Nagorno-Kharabak conflict. The 2022 law, which requires media owners and journalists to reside in the country and provide sensitive data to fill in the media register, very likely worsens local professionals’ security.  Sensitive data will very likely provide authorities with enhanced tools to track journalists or threaten them. Government officials will likely continue arresting independent journalists for allegedly impartial or unobjective reporting, likely detaining them pre-trial. The Azerbaijani government will likely exploit these pre-trial detentions to press local journalists to refrain from criticizing his stances or investigating sensitive topics such as corruption.


Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Croatian journalists will almost certainly continue opposing the new Media Act draft, very likely profiting from support from European and International journalists’ associations such as the EFJ. There is a roughly even chance that this advocacy and the provisional agreement of the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), which aims at defending media freedom and pluralism, will lead Croatian authorities to review the draft, likely reducing restrictions to comply with EU principles. Bosnia and Herzegovina will likely decrease press freedom standards since Republika Srpska's authorities will very likely designate media or journalists who criticize their government as foreign agents. Journalists living or working in the Republika Srpska will likely flee this entity to escape the government’s oversight and potential censorship, likely resettling themselves in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This resettlement will likely increase Republika Srpska's isolation, likely reducing inhabitants’ access to impartial reporting.


Hungary

Hungarian Sovereignty Law very likely attempts to emulate the Russian legislative approach to limit independent journalists, representing them as instruments of threatening foreign influence. There is a roughly even chance authorities will depict them as EU elites’ tools to advance the anti-Hungarian agenda, undermining the country’s cohesion.  This nationalistic and populistic narrative will very likely increase during the upcoming 2024 European elections campaign, likely encouraging hate speech and online attacks against media opposing Fidesz, Orban’s political party. Orbans’ supporters will very likely discredit international news outlets and independent media, reinforcing the foreign agents’ narrative at a popular level. It is unlikely that Fidesz will modify the draft to comply with EU standards since the political party is attacking actual EU authorities in its electoral campaign.

Recommendations

  • Journalists and media platforms should stay informed about changes in local laws affecting media operations and understand the implications of new regulations to adjust news collection and publication strategies proactively.

  • Journalists should explore legal avenues through international courts to challenge laws and actions that violate press freedom and international human rights standards.

  • Media professionals, especially ones covering sensitive topics, should seek a legal counsel specializing in media law to get a consultation while navigating complex legal challenges.

  • News agencies and human rights organizations should establish international legal defense funds to assist journalists and media organizations in actively pursuing legal challenges against unjust restrictions and designations.

  • News agencies should develop comprehensive emergency response plans, like communication strategies, evacuation plans if necessary, and coordination with support networks, to address sudden threats or crises.

  • News channels should foster collaborations and alliances with international and independent media outlets for sharing information, amplifying stories, and supporting persecuted journalists.

  • Media agencies should encourage journalists to use secure, encrypted communication channels and platforms to protect data and communications against interception and unauthorized access.

  • News channels should request international organizations, including the UN and the EU, and countries with close diplomatic ties to Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Hungary to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia and Belarus to respect press freedom and uphold international human rights standards.

 

[1] Eastern Europe by Google Maps

[2] 2023 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 2023,

[3]  2023 Press Freedom Index, Legislative Indicator, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 2023, https://rsf.org/en/index/score-leg?year=2023 

[4] How Russian legislation regulates the work of foreign agents, DUMA, http://duma.gov.ru/news/52039/ (Translated by Google)

[5] CASE OF ECODEFENCE AND OTHERS v. RUSSIA,The European Court of Human Rights, 2022,https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-217751%22]}

[6] The Moscow Time, X, November 18, 2023, https://twitter.com/MoscowTimes/status/1725915990662283498 

[7] For the attention of the media and other information resources, The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor), February 2022, https://rkn.gov.ru/news/rsoc/news74084.htm (Translated by Google)

[8] Responsibility is being introduced for the spread of fakes about the actions of the Russian Armed Forces, DUMA, March 2022, http://duma.gov.ru/news/53620/ (Translated by Google)

[9] “2023 ROUND-UP Journalists killed, detained, held hostage and missing,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF), December 2023, https://rsf.org/sites/default/files/medias/file/2023/12/Bilan_2023_EN_0.pdf 

[10] Amendments to Belarus’ mass media law signed into law, President of the Republic of Belarus, July 2023,  https://president.gov.by/en/events/aleksandr-lukashenko-podpisal-zakon-ob-izmenenii-zakona-respubliki-belarus-o-sredstvah-massovoy-informacii-1688372346

[11] Belarusian journalist Alyaksandr Mantsevich sentenced to 4 years in prison, Committee to Protect Journalists, November 2023, https://cpj.org/2023/11/belarusian-journalist-alyaksandr-mantsevich-sentenced-to-4-years-in-prison/ 

[12] “2023 ROUND-UP Journalists killed, detained, held hostage and missing,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF), December 2023,https://rsf.org/sites/default/files/medias/file/2023/12/Bilan_2023_EN_0.pdf 

[13] Law on “extremist” 2007 Law of the Republic of Belarus On Countering Extremism dated January 4, 2007 No. 203-З, https://kodeksy-bel.com/zakon_rb_o_protivodejstvii_ekstremizmu.htm   

[14] Working meeting of the heads of the Ministry of Information and Roskomnadzor, Ministry of Information of Belarus, Telegram, June 27, 2022, https://t.me/mininform/614 (Translated by Google)

[15] Azerbaijan: Authorities intensifying crackdown on independent media, Amnesty International, December 2023, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/12/azerbaijan-authorities-intensifying-crackdown-on-independent-media/ 

[16] Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan on media, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, February 2022,

[17] A New Draconian Media Law In Azerbaijan Gives The Government The Power To Decide What's News, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, February 2022, https://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-media-law-journalism-objective/31711614.html 

[18] Azerbaijan media law: overregulation in an already restrictive environment, Council of Europe_Directorate of communications, June 2022, https://search.coe.int/directorate_of_communications/Pages/result_details.aspx?ObjectId=0900001680a6ef8d 

[19] ATTACKS ON MEDIA WORKERS IN AZERBAIJAN IN 2022, Justice for Journalists Foundation, November 2023, https://jfj.fund/attacks-on-media-workers-in-azerbaijan-in-2022/#ukr 

[20] HND: WORKING DOCUMENT OF THE NEW MEDIA ACT - UNACCEPTABLE, Croatian Journalists' Association (HND), July 2023, https://www.hnd.hr/hnd-radni-dokument-novog-zakona-o-medijima-neprihvatljiv (Translated by Google)

[21] Croatia: The intolerable draft Media Law must be fought, European Federation of Journalists, July 2023, https://europeanjournalists.org/blog/2023/07/27/croatia-the-intolerable-draft-bill-of-the-act-on-media-must-be-fought/ 

[22] Bosnia and Herzegovina, European Committee of the Regions, European Union,

[23] Bosnia and Herzegovina: Media freedom in survival mode, International Press Institute, October 2023,  https://ipi.media/bosnia-and-herzegovina-media-freedom-in-survival-mode/ 

[24] Bosnia and Herzegovina: Statement by the Spokesperson on the “foreign agent” law in Republika Srpska, Delegation of the European Union to Bosnia and Herzegovina & European Union Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, September 2023, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/bosnia-and-herzegovina-statement-spokesperson-%E2%80%9Cforeign-agent%E2%80%9D-law-republika-srpska_en?s=219 

[25] Hungary passes 'sovereignty' law as Orban steps up campaign, Reuters, December 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/hungary-passes-sovereignty-law-orban-steps-up-campaign-2023-12-12/

[26] “On the protection of national sovereignty,” Hungarian National Assembly, November 2023,  https://www.parlament.hu/irom42/06222/06222.pdf (Translated by Google)

[27] Ibid

[28] Hungary passes 'sovereignty' law as Orban steps up campaign, Reuters, December 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/hungary-passes-sovereignty-law-orban-steps-up-campaign-2023-12-12/

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