This has been a particularly bad year for journalists – and Europe has been no exception. This week, Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova was found dead at a park in the city of Ruse. An early autopsy revealed that she had been brutally raped, beaten and suffocated before her body was dumped near the Danube River. A suspect was arrested three days ago in Germany who has confessed to the attack on Marinova but continues to deny the use of sexual violence. Though authorities have not linked her murder to her work as a journalist, Marinova had been covering alleged corruption cases involving the misuse of European Union funds in Bulgaria. She is the third journalist to have been murdered in the EU this year, and the third to die while investigating political corruption and organized crime.
With 126 journalists currently in detention across the EU, Kathimerini discussed Marinova’s murder and the deterioration of media freedom in parts of the bloc with Gulnoza Said, who works for the Committee to Protect Journalists and oversees the American independent nonprofit, nongovernmental organization’s research efforts in Europe and Central Asia.
The brutal killing of Viktoria Marinova raises the number of journalists murdered in the EU this year to three. Would you say that 2018 has been a particularly bad year for press freedom on the continent?
It has been a very difficult year for journalists in Europe. In a year and a half we have seen the murders of four journalists in EU member-states, and at least two of those have been confirmed by authorities to be related to their work. I’m referring to the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, and the brutal killing of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee in Slovakia. And just a few days ago we were all shocked by the murder of another colleague in Bulgaria, Viktoria Marinova. All those cases are very emblematic of a deteriorating press freedom environment in the EU, and at CPJ we have been documenting all cases including physical assault, threats, harassment or intimidation. I can tell you with certainty that a negative trend is definitely there.
The day after Marinova’s murder, the top news item on Bulgarian National Television was about secondhand cars. Have you noticed that journalist murders have received low media attention in their home countries/regions, and, if so, to what do you attribute this?
I can’t comment on Bulgarian media coverage, but there is an issue here. Local authorities in Bulgaria were very quick to conclude that the brutal assault was not linked to Viktoria’s work, and that it happened because she was a young, attractive woman. Very often, when we see attacks of any nature against journalists, if it happens to be a woman the threat is reported to have a sexual connotation. Bulgarian law enforcement’s immediate reaction is just one example of a gender bias that keeps being perpetuated. It was disappointing to see how quickly authorities tried to rule out any connection between Viktoria’s work and possible motives for the murder. We would usually like to see the authorities spend more time with such situations and explore more motives, especially in Bulgaria, where press freedom is among the worst in the EU.
Marinova covered alleged corruption and mismanagement of EU funds. A couple of days ago, in Greece, two journalists were detained over an article that also alleged mishandling of EU funds. Do you see a pattern when it comes to deteriorating press freedom and corruption coverage in the EU?
There is definitely a trend there. Even if we end up concluding that Viktoria was not murdered because of her journalistic work, we still have to look into a very difficult environment for investigative reporters in the EU. Take Daphne Caruana Galizia, who covered corruption in Malta, one of the EU’s most corrupt countries. The phenomenon is so rampant that Daphne underwent investigation herself, and was sued by high government officials for her reporting before the murder. Unlike other countries that have been in the EU for longer, the level of tolerance for corruption in Maltese society is very high, which makes reporting even more dangerous. The same goes for Jan, who investigated the misuse of EU funds in Slovakia, and alleged links with the Italian mafia. Viktoria also collaborated with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, uncovering the truth about how EU funds were used and misused in Bulgaria. This leads us to a very clear conclusion: It’s not just a press freedom issue but an issue of corruption and the general public’s attitude toward it. As long as there is corruption there are going to be reporters who want to uncover it and they will annoy powerful people involved in corruption mechanisms. That puts their safety under a huge question mark.
Today, many heads of state have openly attacked journalists and woven an anti-press narrative. Is there a link between that narrative and the deterioration of press freedom in Europe?
There is certainly a link between growing authoritarianism in Europe and journalistic safety. Populists are rising to power in countries like Hungary – autocratic leaders who create nepotistic or oligarchic systems, position their cronies in control of media outlets and establish control over coverage and public debate. But it’s also an issue of rhetoric, especially if you look at the US, which was once a guardian of liberal reforms and press freedom. I am from Uzbekistan, and was a reporter there 20 years ago, when it was ruled by a very brutal autocratic leader, Islam Karimov. We used to look up to the US – be it through statements coming from the US Embassy or speeches the president would make – and expect a certain degree of protection. Today, there is a president who wakes up in the middle of the night and tweets aggressively against any reporting that criticizes him and his policies. How can we expect other leaders around the world to adhere to the principles of free press and freedom of expression if the world’s flagman is now a laughing stock?