The Freedom Chat Transcripts: An Interview with Media Freedom Expert Hannah Machlin

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Mapping Media Freedom

As current events like the Paris terror attacks and the refugee crisis continue to unfold, the relationship between European governments and the media is becoming increasingly tense. The issue of press freedom in seemingly transparent countries comes to the forefront in an ongoing conversation about upholding and defending international free speech.

To combat censorship and media abuse in Europe and the Western world, Index on Censorship recently began its pilot project, Mapping Media Freedom. This project, created in conjunction with Reporters Without Borders and the European Federation of Journalists, and funded by the European Commission, documents reports of abuses against the freedom of speech and press in the form of an interactive map that overlays reports on the country or city where abuses took place.

Hannah Machlin, project officer at Index on Censorship, oversees Mapping Media Freedom. Hannah has held various editing and research-based roles focused on the former Soviet Union, and prior to joining Index on Censorship, lived in Russia, where she conducted research on ethnic identity politics. She spoke with Sampsonia Way about the program and the state of press freedom across Europe.

How did the Mapping Media Freedom project get started?

It started after our first successful bid to the EU for funding, which the European Commission granted us in May 2014. We applied for this bid because at the time, there was no open-source, independent platform monitoring media violations throughout Europe. So with this bid, we decided to fill this unfortunate gap in the mediascape.

Have you had any major reforms or responses from governments or media outlets that have come out of any of your reports?

In terms of specific government responses, the EU has responded to our reports quite positively. They’ve noted that we have uncovered specific examples of violence in Turkey and in Croatia. We’ve also been working closely with the OSCE, Dunja Mijatović, the Freedom of Media Representative for the OSCE, has interacted with us on a lot of platforms. She has written a lot of articles about similar topics that Mapping Media Freedom covers, for instance harassment that journalists receive in the field.

You mentioned Turkey, one of a few non-EU states you track. What does your organization hope to accomplish by reporting on these nations, specifically Turkey and Russia?

The project focuses on the EU, then candidate countries, and Turkey is a candidate country. As part of the whole project, we do cover Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, 38 countries in total. As for the aim of covering these specific nations, we hope to shed light on the difficulties journalists are facing, for example in Turkey, because of the laws on terror. Many independent media outlets have been raided; many trustee boards have been dissolved, as well as a lot of journalists arrested. Most prominently, in the end of August, three VICE News journalists were arrested in the Kurdistan area of Turkey. One of them, Muhammed Rasool, still remains in prison. So we’d like this tool to first showcase these issues, and then from there we use it as a base to promote advocacy. For example, we’re currently working on a campaign to get Rasool released. In Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, we’re showing various different pressures on journalists. For example, in Russia over the last three years we’ve seen repeated attacks on various independent media outlets. Many are under very severe pressure. TV Rain, known as Dozhd in Russian, is currently under inspection. In Ukraine, different issues arise. There is pressure from the new government, but there also we see a lot of violence in Eastern Ukraine, affecting journalists’ ability to do their job.

Moving to Western Europe, what effects have the recent terror attacks in Paris and the ensuing state of emergency in France had on press freedom in France and the rest of the EU?

Interesting you mention that, because on our website we have an editorial about how the terrorist attacks are affecting press freedom in Europe, specifically in Belgium and France. In France, there was a law going to be passed that would suppress press freedom during times of alert, and that was very worrying for us. In Belgium, Twitter users and the general public were told not to tweet about ongoing police raids. This led to the inundation of cats on Twitter, which the media picked up. The project overall documents incidents of pressure that journalists and overall press freedom experience because of the terrorist attacks in general, and this is unfortunately causing the government to crack down on press freedom. This is very worrying because, as I previously mentioned, this is a type of rhetoric the Turkish government uses to arrest journalists and to dissolve independent media outlets. So we’re hoping similar legislation is not put in place in the rest of Europe.

Do you have any conception of the direction things are going in France, Belgium, Poland, places that have tried to bring in new media laws in the past year or so?

Each of these countries is quite different, so I don’t think I can comment on those broader trends. Yet on a case-by-case basis, the defamation law in Poland is quite worrying. We have a recent editorial about this—many journalists have been sued because of their work. The freedom exists to write in the first place, but there might be legal implications later for that work. In the future, I don’t see this law being overturned anytime soon, so eventually this can have a very negative effect on journalists, because he or she might not want to start an investigative story due to the very likely possibility that he or she would be sued. In France and Belgium, I can only remark on the events that are happening currently. As I said, it is very worrying, the legislation and the rhetoric after the terrorist attacks, but we’ll just have to see what continues to happen. What I’m most worried about is the increase in harassment journalists see across Europe, and that is a continent-wide trend. So we’re going to have to keep documenting it and putting pressure on lawmakers to make sure they’re creating an environment that’s safe and free for all media workers.

Turning quickly to Hungary, we recently did an interview with a Hungarian journalist on the evolving state of the media in his country. I was wondering, if and how is the EU able to exercise any power over member states who exert increasing control over their domestic media?

One of the points that each country has to address in order to be an EU member state is to have freedom of the press. Therefore, the EU should continue to put pressure on member states if they see countries repeatedly attacking or controlling the media. We haven’t seen, at least to my knowledge, any specific actions the EU has taken on particular countries, but that is something the Index on Censorship is going to push for. But yes, it is particularly worrying in Hungary where independent media outlets are under attack, and there has been a lot of violence against journalists as a result of the refugee crisis. This is something the EU needs to continue to watch and monitor.

In Hungary, across the EU, and even the globe, there has been a huge rise in online publications and online media platforms. What do you see as the role of online media platforms in subverting these regimes of control and censorship, due to their nature as online entities?

I think the online platforms give a lot of hope to the media. For example, a Russian language platform called Meduza is now based in Latvia, and they are one of the best and most independent sources of information about Russian politics, economics, and any culturally relevant news stories. There are outlets like these that are only-online platforms that are successfully disseminating truthful information. Overall, I’m quite optimistic about the future of journalism with online outlets like Meduza, because we’ve seen how successful they’ve been just with their coverage on Russia in the last year.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, the media was roundly criticized for giving away positions of hostages, and perhaps playing a role in the death of a French police officer. What would your response be to those who point to this as evidence that we need increased control of the media?

I would say that can be a very dangerous position, because the media and free speech in general is the only outlet where freedom of information comes from, so I think we have to be very careful about any control over the media, because it can be quite a slippery slope.

Turning back to your organization specifically, you just got your funding renewed from the European Commission, if I understand correctly. How do you plan to grow and expand this program in the coming year?

This funding was from last year, and it goes through the end of next year. In this time frame, we’ve been able to grow the project. As I said we cover 38 countries, with thirteen correspondents based all over Europe, and they’re all regionally based. They’re all native language speakers. And we’ve also used this money to redevelop Mapping Media Freedom. It’s been redesigned this year with new functions and improved search engine capability, so that’s really exciting. We’re also coding new aspects into the map, such as an alert system. We want the map to notify everyone live when a new violation is published, so journalists and any interested users can sign up for a filter. If, for example, you are interested in Russia, you can sign up for an alert, so that right when a story is published regarding Russia, you receive that by email. Overall we’ve used the money to improve the site, create this alert, as well as create new affiliations with local partners. Now we are partnered with the Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLDI), and this is an organization that provides pro bono support to journalists in danger. We’re able to flag cases now to MLDI if the journalist needs particular legal representation.

Does the Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders, or any involved organization want to expand a program like this to any other continents?

Ideally, we’d like to have a global platform. As you know we are co-funded by the European Commission, so they do pay for us to cover these countries. As the project grows, we’d like the scope to be five to ten years to create more accurate data in order to discover patterns that occur over the decade. Ideally, we’d like to expand into other continents, but for now we are only in Europe and Russia.

In the time you’ve been working on this project, have there been any reports that you’ve gotten in that particularly surprised you or were notable in any particular way?

An interesting and unfortunate case came out today, something that occurred in Greece. Four photojournalists were just detained whilst they were trying to document the refugee crisis on the border between Macedonia and Greece. They were just documenting where the police were not allowing the refugees to go through Macedonia so they could enter the northern countries, and the photojournalists were trying to document that. Just for being in the perimeter of the situation, the police decided to detain them and asked them to delete their content. I think this is quite worrying because they were only doing their job, they were just taking pictures of a police situation and the police did not want this to be filmed, so they made sure to arrest the journalists, even if there were no charges for the journalists to be arrested on. I thought that was particularly worrying, and that was something that occurred only this week.

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