A delegation of LIBE committee MEPs, mandated to monitor the Rule of Law in EU Member States has this week visited Slovakia and Bulgaria.
The European Parliament’s Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG), chaired by Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in t’Veld, was originally formed under another name in June 2018 in reaction to the murders of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.
Both journalists had been investigating corruption and hidden links between business and government. Both, it is now known, were killed by hitmen in the contract of the businessmen they were investigating, although in Kuciak’s case, the initial guilty verdict was followed by an acquittal which was then overturned by the country’s Supreme Court, and the case is still ongoing.
The group’s delegation visit to Slovakia on Tuesday and Wednesday, therefore, carried a particular poignancy: on the agenda were not only meetings with government representatives, including Prime Minister Eduard Heger, and representatives of the judiciary and civil society, but also with Kuciak’s and Kušnírová’s parents.
Participating for the ID Group, Annalisa Tadino called the meeting on her Facebook page “challenging but very interesting” without elaborating any further.
But she also wrote that she had “expressed our willingness to collaborate in matters of justice and cooperation, also thanks to the important experience gained in the Italian legal system in the fight against organised crime and corruption”.
Her fellow MEPs were even more discreet about the meeting with the parents and focussed exclusively on the group’s mandate.
“The delegation is encouraged by the progress made in the investigations and prosecution of the murders and the numerous related case.” Sophie in t ‘Veld, Chair of the uropean Parliament’s Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group (DRFMG)
Chair Sophie in t ‘Veld in a press release said, “The delegation is encouraged by the progress made in the investigations and prosecution of the murders and the numerous related cases.”
Equally positive was the MEP’s response to Slovakian government plans “to address the challenges regarding media freedom, and we welcome the steps taken to reform the justice system”.
Sergey Lagodinsky, participating in the delegation for the Greens/EFA Group summed the trip up in saying, “My conclusions after the visit to Slovakia: good progress but a lot left to do. Particular attention needs to be paid to the media landscape, public media reform and restructuring of the justice system.”
But just before the delegation reached Bratislava, the Czech regional newspaper Deník had on Monday reported that a Slovak investigative journalist had been indicted for revealing the identity of a protected witness in the Kuciak murder case - a former head of the Slovak intelligence service who, as is publicly known, conducted the illegal surveillance of several journalists - Kuciak included - on behalf of the businessman charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder.
The report prompted the Vice-Chair of the Renew Group, Michal Šimečka, a Slovak himself, to comment on Twitter: “War within prosecutorial and police ranks. Journalists indicted for writing about the Kuciak killing. The country's future hinges on the government's ability to urgently shore up the situation in law enforcement.”
The delegation’s press release also referred to this development: “The most recent indictments of journalists and prosecutors and reports of hate speech raise sincere concerns that harassment and intimidation are still being used to silence critical voices and to undermine investigations into corruption and serious crimes.”
The Slovak government, the DRFMG delegation concluded, should do “everything in their power to end the persisting inter-institutional conflicts between (and within) law enforcement agencies and to overcome the resistance against reforms and investigations, which persists in Slovakia”.
“My conclusions after the visit to Slovakia: good progress but a lot left to do. Particular attention needs to be paid to the media landscape, public media reform and restructuring of the justice system” Sergey Lagodinsky MEP (Greens/EFA)
But also elsewhere in Europe, investigative journalists live more dangerously than should be tolerated, as the recent killings of Dutchman Peter de Vries in July and his Greek colleague Giorgos Karaivaz in April testify.
The European Commission last week unveiled its contribution to the fight against the persecution of journalists and for a free and independent media in Europe in the context of the State of the Union debate.
As Commission Vice-President Vera Jourová explained, “It is the first time that we put media freedom and safety so high on the European agenda.”
As a first step, the Commission published recommendation to Member States, representing a “comprehensive set of measures compiling good practices at the level of the European Union”.
Jourova highlighted the Commission’s expectation that “the Member States […] vigorously investigate and prosecute all criminal acts against journalists, making full use of existing national and European legislation”, and involving Europol and Eurojust as much as possible, but also practical ideas like “the creation of independent national support services, including helplines, legal advice, psychological support and shelters for journalists and media professionals facing threats”.
Going forward, Jourová announced the drafting of a Media Freedom Act, and recommendations as well as legislation, “to protect journalists and civil society rights defenders against abusive litigation – the so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAPP”.
The European Parliament had presented an own-initiative report on how to safeguard journalists and a free and independent media during the previous legislature, in March 2018.