European public service broadcasters have warned of an “unprecedented” spike in violence directed against journalists and called for reporters to get prioritised legal protection against attacks and abuse.
The European Broadcasting Union, an alliance of 113 public service media organisations, warned that a rise in violence was forcing many outlets to hire security, fence off offices, hide the identity of staff in public and even neglect to report on certain events to ensure journalists’ safety.
Blaming “high-profile actors” for sowing distrust in public service journalism, the group called for attacks on journalists to be given “higher priority” for investigation by police, similar to protections for emergency service workers in some countries.
Alongside physical violence, intimidation and verbal abuse, the group also cited a surge in online abuse and legal attempts to silence and undermine reporters.
EBU head of news Liz Corbin told Press Gazette: “People’s focus at the moment is on war reporting and the situation in Ukraine, which has been really dangerous.
“But what we’re talking about here is the fact that violence and threats against public service journalists have been increasing in general over the last couple of years.”
Corbin added: “It is unprecedented… That’s what many of our members are telling us. In fact, every member that we speak to about it is concerned.”
“We can report all of these cases to authorities. But the legal action often isn’t effective, because either you can’t identify the person or it’s not considered high enough priority,” she went on.
“Just like an attack on an emergency service worker is given higher priority, we should be considered in those groups as well.”
Corbin cited several cases where physical violence and threats had forced public service broadcasters to change the way they operated in public.
In Ireland, she said RTÉ has added fences and increased security around its headquarters to protect journalists from attacks, while ORF in Austria had been forced to give reporters de-escalation training after a series of physical confrontations affecting journalists reporting in the field.
Dutch public broadcaster NOS has previously reported having to remove all references to its name from vehicles and equipment after its reporters were targeted. The broadcaster said cables on its cameras were regularly being cut and people were deliberately slamming their brakes in front of its vans on the motorway in order to try and cause accidents.
Corbin said: “You can measure the scale of it in terms of the type of response that they’re now putting in place. They would never have done these things previously.”
She added: “This is happening in Ireland, Germany and Austria, in Georgia, Lithuania, Sweden and Spain – across our whole membership.”
The EBU represents 112 public service broadcasters across 55 countries. All of its members are public service broadcasters, similar to the BBC, which are partly or completely funded by taxpayers in their respective countries.
Corbin went on: “It used to be with pride that we would drive around in our satellite vehicles or our radio cars with our logos and our names on them. Many members have now started removing those in order to become less identifiable and less vulnerable to attacks… And generally becoming less visible on the ground is not a good thing for a public service broadcaster.”
Other issues affecting EBU members, Corbin said, include online abuse triggering real-world attacks and increasing levels of lawsuits used to silence journalists, especially SLAPPs.
SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation and is used to describe heavy-handed legal actions used by wealthy individuals or companies to intimidate and deter journalists.
In the UK, SLAPPs have become an increasing topic of discussion among politicians and journalists after several prominent cases reached the High Court.
In one, former FT journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher Harper Collins settled with several Russian oligarchs including Roman Abramovich at a cost of £1.5m in a dispute over her book Putin’s People.
In another, a Kazakh mining giant’s case against Harper Collins and FT journalist Tom Burgis, who wrote Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World, was dismissed by a High Court judge, saving the publisher from a potential bill of more than £1m.
Corbin said the root cause of all of the threats facing public broadcasters was a rising level of distrust in the media, which she said had largely been induced by unjust criticisms of their reporting.
She said: “It’s about the significant high-profile actors who are propagating this stuff. And that’s what’s so damaging. The public need to be aware that public services broadcasters are there for them. They’re not there to promote a particular perspective.”