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On World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2008, Reporters Without Borders publishes for the first time an investigation into violence against journalists within several countries of the European Union (EU)
There is genuine press freedom within the EU. No state has ordered the murder or imprisonment of a journalist and official censorship is a thing of the past. Media express a diversity of opinion and a pluralism of ideas is generally assured. But the situation is not perfect for all that.
Threats made against journalists, murder attempts by private groups, assaults, intimidation of families are all among the very serious risks run today within Europe.
In France, journalists are exposed to physical reprisals when they cover unrest in the suburbs. Events have taken an even more disturbing turn since the November 2005 riots, particularly in the Paris area. In two and a half years, scores of photographers, cameramen and reporters have been physically manhandled. Bénédicte Agoudetsé, journalist for Le Parisien in the Val d’Oise, was assaulted at Villiers-le-Bel, in February 2008. She has been back since, but with “a knot of fear in the stomach”. She and others believe things are worsening.
In Italy, the threat comes from the mafia, or rather the mafias which operate in the south of the country : the Camorra in Naples, the ’ndrangheta in Calabria, Cosa Nostra in Sicily and Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia. At total of around a dozen journalists work under police protection. Threats, anonymous letters, slashed tyres, scratched cars can be counted in hundreds. Every journalist who writes about the mafia, gets a message sooner or later, a signal warning that they are being watched.
Lirio Abbate, 38, correspondent in Palermo, Sicily, for the news agency Ansa, lives under permanent police protection. He says that journalists are more exposed than ever. "They are no longer farmers, men of the land. Today they are doctors, politicians and they are well-educated. They know how important news is and how it can be manipulated. Violence is only one means of applying pressure. Journalists can also be corrupted and bought”.
In Spain’s Basque Country, journalists have born, often for years, intimidation from the terrorist organisation Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). Gorka Landaburu, director of Cambio 16, says “pressure worsened at that time because of assassinations, particularly of journalists. On 7 May 2000, José Luis Lopez de Lacalle, of El Mundo, was gunned down in a hail of bullets. One year later, I was also the victim of a murder attempt. I was badly injured in a parcel bomb blast. I lost several fingers and the sight in my left eye”.
A colleague on the Madrid daily El Pais, spoke on condition of anonymity about his weariness towards the violence : “The past years have been tough. The problem is the general climate, an edgy feeling which makes our work hard. I am tired of it all. It has gone on for so long now”.
In Northern Ireland, several reporters continue to receive death threats, despite the peace process of the last few years and the formation in 2007 of a regional power-sharing government made up of former Unionist and Republican enemies.
The threats come chiefly from gangs that have sprung from Protestant Loyalist paramilitary groups, such as the Ulster Defence Association, that are in favour of keeping strong links with the United Kingdom. These gangs operate in fiefdoms, often involved in drug dealing and extortion/protection rackets, and occasionally fighting turf wars. Dissident Republican splinter groups of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) - which has given up its weapons in compliance with the peace process - also intimidate journalists.
Journalists working in the province say the level of protection the police and government provide for those under threat is generally poor or even non-existent. The killers of investigative journalist Martin O’Hagan, murdered in 2001, have still not been arrested.
A bullet was sent in the post to a Belfast TV station in September 2007, accompanied by a note with the name, address and car number plate of Robin Livingstone, editor of the Andersonstown News, a local newspaper chiefly read by the mainly-Catholic, nationalist and Republican community. The journalist vowed to continue publishing such reports, which he called “hard-hitting but fair”, but recognised that these threats have a “chilling” effect on press freedom.
Danish intelligence on 11 February 2008, uncovered a murder plot against Kurt Westergaard, who drew the most controversial cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. He has since been forced to live under the protection of the Danish secret services, changing his residence every two weeks. At 73, he continues to draw cartoons for Jyllands-Posten, but remains marked by the death threats he has received and the security surrounding him, probably for many more months.
Violence against journalists was also committed in recent years in Sweden, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Cyprus.