Vicious attacks force journalists to self-censor across the eastern part of the EU
Journalism is under attack worldwide. The trend, worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and the anger surrounding it, has been amplified by politicians inciting hate against those who criticize them. Across the eastern part of the EU, we can observe how this can lead to physical attacks, including the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová. Research in Slovakia suggests some journalists are now self-censoring to protect themselves.
Independent journalism is considered a requirement for a functional liberal democracy. Political scientist Robert A. Dahl, one of the most fundamental theorists of democracy, considers it absolutely necessary that citizens have „access to alternative sources of information that the government or any other single group does not monopolize”.
This role is typically fulfilled by media and journalists working in the public interest under strict ethical and professional standards.
In recent years, those functions of media have systematically eroded. From Donald Trump screaming “fake news”, through Jair Bolsonaro saying “condensed milk cans should be shoved up the backsides of the press”, to Viktor Orbán destroying the independent media and openly admitting he is replacing liberal democracy with “illiberal” or “Christian democracy” — which are just nicknames for autocracy — we see this troubling trend truly everywhere. It is no surprise that the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Freedom of the Press Index correlates to a large degree with different indexes of freedom and quality of democracy. For those who wish to uproot democracy itself, breaking the spine of the press is often one of the first steps. Controlling the flow of information — or eroding the very notion of truth and replacing it with absurd notions of “alternative facts” — is a fundamental step for any autocrat of the past, present and future.
We can observe this in Romania, where there has been an increase in attacks against journalists in the last few years, such as kompromat operations, political pressure, or lack of access to public information.
We can observe this in Hungary, where individual journalists and whole news outlets have been targeted through smear campaigns by government-affiliated media and politicians.
In Poland, journalists experienced physical attacks not only from fanatical supporters of hateful politicians or radicalized groups but also from law-enforcement representatives. In the Czech Republic, an ex-PM incited an online attack against the investigative journalist whom he blamed for his election loss.
In Bulgaria, which has seen an improvement in media freedom rankings due to the government change and the dismantlement of the media empire of the oligarch Delyan Peevski (who is now under Magnitsky sanctions), but paradoxically, during the same period the reported attacks on journalists increased. And also in Slovakia, where, despite the murder of a journalist five years ago, the levels of hate and intimidation once again grew to such a degree the journalists themselves admit to self-censorship just to be left in peace.
However, there is hope as we can also see signs of surprising resilience and ability to fight back. In Slovakia, despite the attempt to literally kill investigative journalism, not only it continue to exist, but the journalists themselves started a unique initiative of attack monitoring and journalist protection called safe.journalism.sk. In Hungary and Romania, independent investigative outlets have successfully fought smear campaigns in courts. In the Czech republic, an investigative journalist did not back down after an online attack was incited against her by one of the most powerful politicians in the country but fought in court and won a victory that sets an important precedent.
What kinds of attacks are most common in the Eastern EU?
In these bulletins, we focus on the countries of the Eastern part of the EU — The Visegrad Four, plus Romania and Bulgaria. What most of these countries have in common — besides problems with corruption, quality of democracy, and the rule of law — is they often do not even gather exact data on the problems they face. That is also the case with the attacks on journalists.
With the exception of Slovakia, where such research started to be systematically done only very recently by the journalists themselves, taking inspiration from the Dutch approach, none of these countries has exact numbers on the incidents involving journalists. However, the most common type of assault in these countries are threats, usually verbal threats, very often in the online environment, but sometimes in a more old-school way by letter. For example, in 2020, Slovak investigative reporter Peter Sabo received a pistol cartridge in mailbox.
Other common types of attacks include discrimination, legal threats, spying, and cybernetic spying — a problem which we focused on specifically in a separate bulletin — and even accreditation refusal or journalists from specific outlets not being let into press conferences.
Such cases were reported from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where for years, the party Smer-SD and its leader Robert Fico refused to answer the questions of the biggest independent dailies SME and N. Recently, with the upcoming parliamentary election, the party — poised to win — also is refusing to participate in the pre-election debates of TV Markíza.
Besides having to deal with discrimination and threats to their economic well-being and job safety since the Law and Justice consolidated power, Polish journalists must also deal with exceptionally high degrees of physical attacks and beatings. Hungarian journalists face very similar ordeals, with particularly nasty smear campaigns that seem to be orchestrated by the ruling party and its affiliates.
Where exact numbers are available, they are staggering. In Slovakia, two-thirds (66.2%) of journalists reported that they experienced some kind of assault last year; 76% of those incidents were verbal assaults. Up to 85% of journalists consider this to be a threat to the freedom of speech, with 16% admitting to self-censorship in relation to real or perceived threats. These attacks are one of the reasons why, despite the massive support of the public in 2018, nowadays there are significantly fewer active investigative journalists in Slovakia than when Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová were murdered.
The pandemic normalised hitting cameramen
Murder is an extreme form of physical violence. However, while there have not been other recent journalist murders in the eastern EU, other physical violence is on the rise. During the pandemic, angry mobs of protesters against COVID-related measures often assaulted media workers whom they perceived as parts of the “elite” that enforced the anger-inducing pandemic measures.
This trend was not exclusive to the eastern part of the EU. Protesters were regularly attacking journalists in Germany, while in the Netherlands, some outlets even resorted to hiring safety personnel to accompany reporters during the protests.
In Slovakia, aggressive protests resulted in physical attacks on cameramen of two TV stations who had their equipment damaged by water and ketchup.
Polish journalists are also becoming targets of physical attacks, and not only in connection with COVID-19 protests. In October 2020, two female journalists covering the event were physically assaulted in Wroclaw during a demonstration against stricter abortion laws. The coverage of the protests was also repeatedly obstructed by the police, who, for example, were able to detain a journalist and drive him out of town.
In 2021, photojournalists documenting the migrant crisis on Poland’s border with Belarus were brutally detained by Polish army soldiers while performing their duties. In April 2022, the prosecutor’s office closed an investigation into police violence against journalists covering demonstrations on 11 November 2020 because of the failure to identify perpetrators, as we read in the 2023 Rule of Law Report. Video footage of the event showed police using truncheons to beat media workers despite them either wearing PRESS signs or being clearly identifiable as journalists. According to the prosecutor’s office, police officers on site were either wearing a mask or a helmet, making it impossible to identify them. Moreover, interviewed police officers and their supervisors who participated in the questioned events were also unable to identify anyone.
In Hungary, physical attacks against journalists typically happen during protests that they report on when protestors recognize them and identify their journalistic outlet as the “enemies” to their political side.
A serious incident happened in a protest organized by pro-Fidesz influencers: there, two reporters were harassed and hit (one of them, András Hont, is currently working for Átlátszó). This incident can be considered more severe since the attacker, Zsolt Bede, was a well-known pro-government public figure who, at the time, often disrupted opposition events. Zsolt Bede ran a far-right news portal, and his activities (which he carried out with a group of activists) received a lot of positive coverage by pro-government media.
There were also several incidents where security guards used excessive force that impeded the work of journalists. In 2019, a reporter from ATV and a local representative tried to investigate a suspected case of illegal campaigning during the local elections. They were assaulted by members of a private security company contracted to guard local government offices, and the reporter’s camera equipment was damaged during the attack. A film crew from the same channel was also pushed by security guards in 2017, while trying to film a controversial building project in the Budapest City Park.
In Bulgaria, investigative journalist Slavi Angelov was attacked in front of his home in Sofia by two masked men armed with metal pipes, while a third man recorded the attack on his cellphone. The 2020 attack remains unresolved.
Verbal assaults create conditions for further harassment
While physical attacks are certainly the most shocking, they are not the most common kind of attack a journalist in the eastern EU countries can experience. Verbal attacks are much more common. Verbal attacks, especially from politicians, can also often fuel further harassment from the general public and state agencies, including both nasty smear campaigns and legal harassment. SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), in particular, remain a major problem in many countries.
In Poland, there have been repeated verbal attacks on independent media journalists during government press conferences. For example, in May 2023, Law and Justice Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski called a TVN24 journalist “a representative of the Kremlin.” At the same time, The international organization Media Freedom Rapid Response in its March 2022 report “Article’19” points out that the practice of SLAPPs, or lawsuits by government officials against journalists or activists critical of the government, is growing in Poland. The goal is always the same: intimidation and silencing. In 2021, Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie (The Journalist Society), a Polish NGO dedicated to protecting media freedom, published a report in which they counted, between 2015 and 2021, a total of 66 SLAPP lawsuits against journalists and 58 criminal cases, including 25 under Article 212 of the Penal Code. The latter is a particularly popular tool for obstructing journalists: it stipulates that a journalist can be sentenced to up to a year in prison for “slandering” a public figure.
According to information from Towarzystwo Dziennikarskie, out of 187 legal actions (SLAPP-type lawsuits, accusations under Article 212 of the Criminal Code, civil lawsuits), most are carried out by: public institutions (41), as well as state treasury companies (26), people affiliated with a given politician (26), and politicians themselves (21).
The most frequent targets of legal actions are journalists of “Gazeta Wyborcza”, which is critical of the authorities (73). According to information from the Axel Springer Polska concern (publisher of, among others, the popular Onet.pl portal and the weekly “Newsweek Polska”), its journalists were sued almost 100 times from 2016 to 2021. The authors of the latest report by the Batory Foundation on the level of the rule of law also highlight the problem of SLAPP lawsuits.
In Hungary, verbal threats of legal punishment are some of the most common threats journalists face. A 2017 report by the International Press Institute pointed out that female journalists in Hungary are more often targeted than men (which is consistent with global trends).
No proof emerged that such threats came from law enforcement, intelligence services, or similar actors. However, such harassment is often the result of media campaigns discrediting news outlets or individual journalists. For example, in February 2023, a reporter from the left-wing outlet Mérce received death threats after reporting from a far-right rally. Before the incident, pro-government media falsely connected Mérce to violent attacks committed by antifascist activists. The police later pressed criminal charges against the harasser.
While not illegal, there have been cases of pro-government national media targeting specific journalists with slander. In 2016, TV2 ran slanderous reports on an HVG journalist, Zsófia Gergely. This incident can be considered a form of intimidation since Gergely was not a well-known public figure. Despite that, she was suddenly singled out, had her photo shown on national TV, and was subjected to a smear campaign. TV2 was later forced by court to pay damages for defamation.
Apart from individual journalists, outlets in general were often subject to smear campaigns, both by government-affiliated media and politicians. Direkt36, Telex, and Átlátszó, for example, were accused of being “funded by foreign agents” and “threats to national security” in a series of identical articles republished by many pro-government news outlets, including the state-owned news agency MTI.
Similarly, in Romania, verbal assaults are often connected with harassment by state agencies.
The harassment of reporters is exemplified by the case of Alin Cristea, a journalist targeted by the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT). Cristea faced allegations of distributing child pornography. According to context.ro, Cristea previously reported that a DIICOT prosecutor pressured him not to publish critical articles about the head of the Brăila County Police. The same department charged a journalist turned whistleblower from the Romania National Radio Station after she exposed that one of her bosses used public funds in his interest. Eventually, the case was dismissed by the judges.
Furthermore, investigative journalist Emilia Șercan encountered threats and harassment after exposing plagiarism in a former Prime Minister’s doctoral thesis. The campaign of defamation and intimidation began in February 2022, after the journalist provided evidence to the police that her photographs were being shared on adult websites. The private images and evidence in the case were published on former MP Cristian Rizea’s website and disseminated across numerous other webpages, being utilized in disparaging materials circulated within WhatsApp groups associated with the “A.I. Cuza” Police Academy. As a result of Șercan’s actions, six criminal cases were initiated based on ten complaints she filed.
According to US State Department Report, the spouse of the editor-in-chief of G4Media.ro was threatened by a military officer in an apparent effort to censor an upcoming article. Captain Gabriel Cristian Alexandru from the National Defense University contacted and threatened Cristian Pantazi’s wife to exert pressure on the journalist, discouraging him from publishing an article about a professor from the National Defense University who was disseminating conspiracy theories and propaganda against Ukraine and its president.
Current and former government officials have used civil proceedings and criminal complaints against investigative journalists as pressure tactics. In one recent case, the international mining tycoon Beny Steinmetz filed two suits against RISE Project Romania and The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
Steinmetz requested the deletion of all articles published on the RISE Project and OCCRP. The businessman also requested in court that the two platforms be prohibited from publishing journalistic investigations about him. The request for the court was made „without summoning the parties.” Beny Steinmetz was sentenced in 2016 to five years in Romania and in 2022 also to five years in Switzerland, where the court upheld the corruption verdict but reduced the sentence to three years. Steinmetz plans to appeal to the Swiss highest federal court.
Bulgarian journalists also face a similar combination of threats and harassment from public officials. In 2022, investigative journalist and OCCRP member Atanas Tchobanov received a warning from the US Embassy in Sofia that there is an imminent danger of physical attack against him. His colleague Dimitar Stoyanov had to relocate to another country after a similar report about an imminent attack coming from other sources. In 2023, both Tchobanov and Stoyanov, who run the investigative portal BIRD.BG, faced an institutional assault by the office of the prosecutor general Ivan Geshev, who claimed they were conspiring with criminals and politicians to remove him from office and published correspondence with their journalistic sources. Tchobanov, who lives in France, has been also targeted by French intelligence company Avisa Partners, working for a Bulgarian client in 2020.
Launching smear campaigns against investigative reporters who reveal serious wrongdoing and corruption is also very common. This is an old tactic to change the wrongdoer’s focus and discredit the messenger. And when threats and smears do not help, there is always the legal threat: Bivol.bg (OCCRP member center) and the news portal Mediapool are both sued for 1 Million Bulgarian Lev (about 500,000 euros). Tchobanov and Stoyanov each face four SLAPP complaints by a notorious businessman.
In Slovakia, investigative journalists whom local businessman Marian Kočner hated were searched in state databases of the health insurance company and even the police. The results of these illegal searches were used by a team of spies employed by Kočner to follow these journalists, including Ján Kuciak. The photos from this surveillance were later used when Kočner’s affiliate ordered the murder of the journalist. Several people are charged for illegal surveillance; one policeman was sentenced to two years in prison for the illegal searches.
The Governments do not Care
After the Ján Kuciak murder, and especially after the following election in 2020, when the opposition took the reins of power, the politicians promised to pass several laws on the protection of journalists. Despite the new coalition starting with the support of a constitutional majority in the parliament in 2020, they failed to pass the constitutional law on the protection of journalists in Slovakia.
The government and parliament passed the much-needed amendments to the press code and even prepared the amendments to the penal code, which would bring about the promised higher degree of journalist protection. According to the proposed law, any crimes committed against journalists and several other professions, such as medical doctors, would be considered as more serious and would automatically carry more severe punishments.
However, the ruling coalition has been unable to pass the proposed amendment to the law in the parliament. It is anticipated the amendments will be considered by parliament later this year following the upcoming snap elections.
Similarly, in neighboring countries, there are no special laws to protect journalists despite their working in the public interest and facing high risk. The Press Club Poland has several times submitted – unsuccessfully – to the Sejm a draft amendment to the law aimed at extending increased legal protection to journalists and media workers. According to it, an attack on a journalist or editorial staff member (e.g., a sound engineer or cameraman) during or in connection with their work would be prosecuted ex officio and punished like an assault on a public official. In Bulgaria, the only noteworthy improvement is the recently passed new legislation on whistleblowers, but the implementation still needs to improve.
The only light of hope in many countries comes from the judiciary, which sometimes and can set important precedents. While Hungarian smear campaigns against independent media usually do not break any laws, there are exceptions: in 2023, Átlátszó successfully sued government-aligned media for corrections.
The Court of Appeals in Bucharest reviewed an appeal by RISE Project and its reporter, Ionuț Stănescu. This appeal contested two verdicts from July 2020 and March 2021, which favored Ramona Mănescu, a former minister and current European Parliament member. RISE Project had investigated allegations of illicitly obtained €31 million through real estate transactions involving Mănescu’s acquaintances, €4 million of which allegedly reached her family. Despite Mănescu winning two cases against RISE, claiming a lack of proof linking her to the transactions, the Court of Appeals on June 8 rejected her assertion and ordered her to compensate reporters with €8,000 and cover legal expenses of 18,000 lei.
In the Czech Republic, an investigative journalist won a case that sets an important precedent: After publishing the Pandora Papers investigation, revealing then Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš used a chain of offshore companies to invest money from an unknown source into the purchase of real estate in Southern France, Babiš’s ANO party lost the following election. He blamed investigate.cz and Pavla Holcová for rigging the election and decided to take a personal vendetta by inciting an online lynch. Holcová sued Babiš and the court ruled in her favor. Babiš had to apologize and cover all legal costs. The ruling is essential because it establishes a politician´s responsibility for his posts on social networks and moderation of following comments under the posts.
This collaborative newsletter is based on the research of seven investigative outlet members of The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project: Investigace.cz (Czech Republic), Bird.bg (Bulgaria), Frontstory.pl (Poland), Rise Project (Romania), Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak – icjk.sk (Slovakia), Átlátszó (Hungary), Context Investigative Reporting Project (Romania). The team will explore each edition’s organized crime or corruption topic and showcase the most relevant facts. Cover image: Editorial office of Gazeta Wyborcza in Wrocław. Source: Wikimedia Commons.