AFTER a bruising election in which politicians and reporters clashed from time to time, it is sombre to reflect that Europe is becoming increasingly difficult for the safety of journalists and for quality journalism.

Over the past two years I have been investigating this issue as General Rapporteur on media freedom and the safety of journalists for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace).

The Council of Europe represents all 47 countries of Europe, not just the EU, and is based on the European Convention on Human Rights, with a Human Rights Court and Commissioner situated in Strasbourg.

Under Article 10 of the charter, member states have an obligation to establish a sound legal framework for journalists and other media professionals to work safely.

In order to monitor the situation in each of our member states we have established a platform which has, over the past 10 years, reported on attacks and other threats to journalist. Our partners in this are human rights bodies, such as Reporters without Frontiers, and media unions. 

They report violations which are checked independently and then posted on the platform, with the state concerned expected to respond – though some are notorious for a lack of response.

My report points out that the platform information shows that the situation is getting worse in Europe. From 2015 to date, 25 journalists have been killed, 139 are currently in detention and 563 serious violations have occurred in 39 countries.

The worst situations are in Russia holds the dubious record for the highest number of attacks reported and Turkey has the highest number of journalists in prison; the situation is also bad in Azerbaijan, Hungary and Malta, where the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been investigating corruption at the highest level, was murdered.

As a result of a campaign by her sons and human rights bodies, supported by the Council of Europe, there have, at last, been resignations, including the Prime Minister, and we are on the way to getting some kind of justice.

My report proposes that our member states take further action to improve the situation by responding to platform alerts more positively as well as other measures to improve media freedom.

These include carrying out effective, independent, prompt investigations into crimes against journalists, supporting national hotlines or emergency points for journalists under threat and fighting on-line harassment of reporters.

On a more positive note, we suggest increasing exchange of information on good practice and highlighting countries where positive action has been taken.

However, it has already provoked a backlash. At our Pace committee last week, the Russian and Turkish MPs tried to delete the criticism of their countries but, thankfully, they were defeated. However, the report now has to be agreed by the full assembly at the end of January and we expect a renewed onslaught, but I am sure we will get the report approved.

As rapporteur I was asked to speak on this issue at Inter Parliamentary Union meetings and the conference on media freedom held in London in July organised by Jeremy Hunt when he was Foreign Secretary. But, most interesting of all, was a conference in Slovenia in November attended by 200 journalists, politicians and NGOs on the theme, Last Call for Quality Journalism.

There, I described the three greatest threats to quality journalism, using the report as a basis. Although there are more, I identified what I believe to be the three greatest threats to quality journalism.The first is the threat to the financing of public service media. 

Broadcasters, like the BBC, are able to report without fear because they have a guaranteed income from a licence fee. In other countries, and now regrettably in the UK, this is under question.

In some of our member states where the funding of media outlets depend on the state, they have become government propaganda tools and there is no way they could carry out independent investigations into government actions.

The second is the growth of social media platforms with no independent fact-checking. At the same time traditional media have lost readers, become more economically unstable and are in danger of rushing into print without fact-checking in order to compete with their on-line competition. Remedial solutions must be found to finance and support quality journalism.

Finally, and most importantly, are the threats to individuals in the media, particularly investigative journalists. The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia is probably the most shocking recent example, but there have been others in Slovakia, Russia and Turkey and, nearer home, the killing of the journalist Lyra McKee in April 2019 while reporting on clashes in Creggan, Derry/Londonderry.

Politicians need to be reminded that a free media, with journalists able to operate without threat or intimidation, is as important to democracy as regular elections. Carrying out this report for Pace has reinforced the importance to me of a free media and I hope it will do the same for my colleagues in all the 47 countries of the Council of Europe.

George Foulkes is a Labour peer and former Scotland minister