Before the first match even kicked off, the 2022 FIFA World Cup has been overshadowed by endless scandals, primarily centred around host country Qatar’s troubling human rights record. In recent weeks, particular attention has been centred around the Gulf nation’s stifling of the free press. On 5 November, The Sunday Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published an investigation exposing the Qatari government’s alleged hiring of India-based cybercrime group WhiteInk to hack into the email accounts of European journalists who had written about suspected corruption associated with FIFA awarding Qatar the World Cup.
This troubling story was only compounded by chilling restrictions on filming permissions and a high-profile incident in which a Danish television crew, attempting to report on conditions on the ground for journalists, were forced off air by Qatari security officials. European politicians and activists have rightfully sounded the alarm over this curtailment of press freedom—but unfortunately, the freedom of the press is at risk at home as well, with Europe’s investigative journalists increasingly targeted for exposing uncomfortable truths.
Press freedom dividing Europe
While Europe remains one of the world’s safest media environments overall, Reporters Without Borders has identified a troubling divergence emerging within the EU, with press freedom “caught between two extremes.” In some countries, particularly in Scandinavia, journalists enjoy a robust, pluralistic media climate, while the free press faces a growing assault in certain member states in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe.
Investigative journalists are being targeted in various ways for asking difficult questions and uncovering wrongdoing, particularly when this involves the illicit activities of political and business elites. At its most disturbing, this mounting threat has involved the return of journalist murders in Europe. In recent years, immensely courageous journalists including Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Ján Kuciak in Slovakia and Giorgos Karaivaz in Greece have been assassinated for exposing state corruption and organised crime.
A slew of more subtle and systemic forms of hostility are also being directed at journalists, ranging from verbal threats and vexatious litigation to repressive laws and cyberattacks, undermining the press freedom at the heart of European democracy.
Rising tide of intimidation
The spyware scandal sending shockwaves across Europe aptly reflects the emerging threats facing the continent’s journalists. This so-called “EU Watergate” involves several European governments, including Greece and Hungary, apparently using Pegasus and Predator spyware against journalists for purposes ranging from hiding corruption to cementing state authority and curbing dissent.
In Greece, Europe’s lowest ranked country in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, a group of journalists including Thanasis Koukakis—whose phone was hacked by Predator spyware—and Stavros Malichoudis—wiretapped by Greek intelligence—testified to the EU Parliament in September about their experience as victims of surveillance. Worryingly, the Greek government’s response has been tepid, with certain officials casting doubt on the affair and the committee established to investigate these cases sorely lacking in transparency.
Meanwhile, Hungary is using this military-grade spyware as an “integral element” of a systemic effort to silence remaining government critics, but Budapest is also employing more insidious ways to exert media control. Orbán’s administration has weaponised the national media regulator, the Media Council, to freeze out critical independent radio stations Klubradio and Tilos Radio while using public broadcasters as a state “propaganda organ” and leveraging state advertisement funds to control the narrative of even commercial media. What’s more, dissenting journalists are harassed and smeared online, adding to a hostile media environment.
In Slovakia, meanwhile, the general degradation of the rule of law as the ruling OLaNO coalition government has embarked on a questionable anti-corruption campaign against opposition figures has contributed to a conducive climate for abuses against the free press. Prominent Slovak investigative journalists such as Adam Valček, a former collaborator of the late Ján Kuciak, have faced increasing headwinds.
Valček has published a number of recent articles exposing potential wrongdoing, including a possible money laundering scheme involving the lawyers, Jana Valkova and Miroslav Ivanovic, of two “flipped” witnesses—Michal Suchoba and Frantisek Imrecze—in one of the high-profile corruption cases targeting individuals linked to the political opposition. According to Valček’s investigation, the lawyers received suspiciously large legal payments from one of the flipped witnesses, Suchoba—funds which they used to purchase a large quantity of silver coins. Even more peculiarly, the lawyers apparently never actually received any coins, and hundreds of thousands of euros supposedly paid for the precious metal were withdrawn in cash for unknown purposes—a discovery for which Valček is now being slapped with vexatious lawsuits and smearing.
Brussels heeding the call
Faced with this emerging assault on press freedom, the EU is rightfully springing to action. In September, the Commission introduced its European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) proposal to ensure that a free press continues to serve as the bedrock for robust democracies in the bloc. Specifically, provisions aim to protect journalists from surveillance and other forms of repression, increase media ownership transparency, regulate state advertising funding and control government propaganda, all of which would help boost editorial independence and media pluralism. What’s more, the Commission is also proposing the creation of a European Board for Media Services, which would assemble national media authorities to identify and curb domestic threats to the integrity of the EU’s media climate.
While the EU has demonstrated the right intentions, significant ambition and commitment will be needed to deliver on this agenda. As it takes on this challenge, it should leverage its competition and state aid laws to crack down on weaponised public media funding in countries like Hungary while passing robust legislation to shield investigative journalists from vexatious lawsuits aimed at concealing their revelations. Moreover, national governments must take a leading role in realising the EU’s vision for press freedom, particularly by transparently investigating attacks on journalists and reforming the regulatory environment to help independent media voices thrive.
The outcry over the curtailing of the free press at Qatar’s World Cup must serve as a wake-up call to Europe. Vigilance is and always will be required to root out emerging threats to its core principles, with the protection of press freedom essential in preserving an open, democratic Europe.