[WATCH] Journalism under threat | Marilyn Clark

A recent Council of Europe study found that almost 70% of European journalists experience psychological violence on the job. Lead report author Prof Marilyn Clark explains these worrying findings

Professor Marilyn Clark (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Professor Marilyn Clark (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

That journalism is a highly stressful and poorly paid profession has long been known; but the sheer extent of the pressures faced by working journalists – even in Western European democracies which supposedly value journalism as the fourth estate – may still come as a shock. 

A recent study undertaken by the Council of Europe has shed some light on this little-known dimension to the profession. The research suggests that a staggering 69% of journalists in CoE countries have reported experiencing intimidation, harassment and other instances of psychological violence in the course of their careers. A smaller percentage – but equally disconcerting – of 31% have also sustained various forms of physical violence. 

Prof Marilyn Clark, of the University of Malta’s Department of Psychology – also the lead author of this report ¬– acknowledges that these findings are alarming, though not necessarily surprising. But what prompted this study to begin with? 

“At the centre of the supreme value of human rights and democracy, is the right to receive and impart information. Freedom of expression is in fact a prerequisite for the development of any society, and for the development of the individual. But unfortunately, in the last decade or so, the world – and Europe – has seen threats to freedom of expression. The Council of Europe gives freedom of expression number one priority. The goal was therefore to examine the situation in a bit more detail...”

Journalism, she adds, plays a very important role in the freedom to receive and impart information. “Journalists are a very important critical voice that helps to maintain our democratic institutions. They act as watchdogs, they enable public debate, they hold people in positions of power to account. But generally, over the last decade, a number of forces have been brought into play that threaten these critical voices. The impetus of the study was derived mainly from the 2016 Council of Europe secretary general report, which highlighted that almost half the CoE states had failed to secure the safety of journalists; and also that freedom of expression was being threatened in a number of countries. We needed to have a clearer picture, in order to put into place a number of preventative measures and strategies to combat these threats. It is only, I think, through having trustworthy statistics that strategies can be brought into play to create an ideal environment for freedom of expression to flourish; for journalists to be able to do their job effectively; and consequently, to uphold democratic institutions...”

What emerged from this closer look was enough to sound alarm bells in various countries. In fact, the CoE report has been widely covered in the European press. The most widely reported statistic was the aforementioned 69% who experienced psychological violence. What does that mean, exactly, and how does one account for the sheer pervasiveness of the problem?

“There were three main research questions we started off with: one, to explore the prevalence of ‘unwarranted interference’ – we define that as any behaviour that interferes with physical and moral integrity of the journalist in the course of his or her work. That includes physical violence: assaults on journalists, intimidation, harassment, etc. But it also includes psychological violence... and even economic violence. journalists may be stopped from engaging in their work because a number of economic pressures are brought into play that make it difficult for them to exercise their profession. 

“Also, very important, there is judicial violence: we see a number of journalists being prosecuted, threatened with prosecution, arrested and sometimes imprisoned under a number of laws... most notably defamation laws. Our first aim was to measure the prevalence: how many journalists have experienced this? But we also wanted to look at the fear factor. This is very important: even if you may not have experienced the violence directly yourself, your colleague may have. A colleague may have received death threats for continuing to write about a certain issue, and this may influence others. Lastly, we wanted to examine the relationship between the actual unwarranted interference, together with the associated fear factor, and the issue of self censorship. We know of many situations where journalists are made to censor themselves... by editors, by management or by other powers that be. But self-censorship is very subtle. A journalist may use one adjective instead of another, which has a lesser negative impact.”

Self-censorship may be a less dramatic issue than violence or persecution of journalists; but it is also harder to quantify and therefore, ultimately, more difficult to address. To what extent does it undermine (if at all) the ability of journalism to perform its function within a democracy?

“The problem with all of this is that journalists are sometimes afraid to write the facts. Consequently, people are left in the dark; and this is a threat to our democracy. I would say it often arises directly from psychological violence, as attested by the 69% statistic. Nearly 1,000 journalists responded to the questionnaire: an equal number of men and women, most of whom had journalistic careers spanning 16 or more years. We also saw high levels of intimidation throughout: for example, in the last three years alone, 31% had experienced some kind of physical assault. But almost 70% reported psychological violence, including intimidation, harassment, belittlement, smear-campaigning, etc.

“We also gave an option for journalists to identify the source of psychological violence. We found that it emanated primarily from public authorities. This is a very worrying find. There was also a high level of intimidation by political groups and other interest groups. And another major finding was that around 39% of journalists reported having been subjected to targeted surveillance. This is a major issue today, as it concerns the protection of sources. Again, we see about a third of the sample reporting that they actually had sources compromised as a result of targeted surveillance. About 70% felt they were unable to protect their sources. Clearly you can see how this is putting the journalism profession very much under pressure...”

At the same time, however, the Council of Europe’s member countries also include a number of states which are not associated with democratic traditions. Countries like Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Turkey – which in different ways all have known issues concerning press freedoms – were also included. Could this have skewed the results slightly? 

“Up to a point, yes. But it is important to note that intimidation and psychological violence is not limited to those countries. If we look at the experience of judicial intimidation: nearly a third of the sample reported having been arrested, prosecuted or threatened with judicial procedures under various laws. In both EU and non-EU Western European countries, defamation laws are still given priority. Clearly, silencing journalists in these societies takes a different form. In countries like Turkey, you have anti-terrorism laws and ‘state interest’ laws. It is a different form of intimidation; but the pressures are still there in other countries. They may be more subtle...”

At a certain level, one could also argue that the more subtle the pressure, the harder it is to counter. A blatant clampdown of journalism would be difficult to justify in contemporary Western democracies; but the long-term psychological effects of less overt methods may for the same reason be more difficult to expose, and therefore condemn. Does the study illustrate this in any way?

“I wouldn’t say ‘harder’, but it is equally difficult to address. In the 2016 Council of Europe report, the secretary general highlighted how the imprisonment of journalists has reached unprecedented levels. Obviously this is not happening in the UK, or in France. It is happening in ‘the usual suspects’. But we need to be aware that the fear factor associated with less direct methods will also have a ‘chilling effect’ on journalists’ writing. It is not so much that they won’t write about certain topics; but a not-insignificant proportion (around 20%) said they feel pressured to tone down critical stories... or that they would write a piece to suit their company’s economic interests... or that they would self-censor, so that what they write may be phrased in more acceptable tones. Self censorship is clearly happening, and this probably comes from the long-term fear factor associated with psychological violence. We also gave journalists the opportunity to add comments to their answers; there was a lot of interesting qualitative data, along with the quantitative results. Journalists wrote some about very harrowing experiences, which impacted their ability to do their job. But I do want to stress that it wasn’t all doom and gloom; we also found that 36% said: ‘despite all of this, I remain committed not to censor myself; and actually, the fact that I get hurtful comments on the social media... these make me think, I must be doing something worthwhile. People are taking notice; if I didn’t cause a stir, what would be the relevance of my work?’ Up to a point, then, journalists are also becoming more resilient and more committed to their goals.”

It is of particular concern that much of this pressure comes from State institutions that also share in the responsibility of safeguarding democracy. Doesn’t this point towards a systemic failure of the democratic process itself... even within Western European countries that are supposed to have healthy democratic traditions? If so, how can this failure be addressed by reforming the institutional set-up?

“One of the main recommendations of this report was that all CoE states would fully implement the recommendation (from the 2016 report) concerning the safety of journalists. This included a number of actions that can be taken by member states. For example, the decriminalisation of defamation would be one of these strategies... while people have a right to have their reputations protected, that right needs to be balanced by the right of freedom of expression. Decriminalising defamation is something the CoE recommends; as many countries bring excessive force in play in this regard...”

This is also the direction Malta seems to be moving in. Libel remains a criminal offence in Malta, and we have recently seen examples of what might qualify as ‘excessive force’ (eg, the garnishee order imposed on Daphne Caruana Galizia in a libel case filed by Economy Minister Chris Cardona).

But there is a consensus on decriminalising libel. But as the study also reveals, such pressures do not come exclusively from politics. Are there any recommendations which address the commercial pressures faced by journalists? For instance, it was recently suggested (controversially, it must be said) that journalism is too important for democracy to be subjected to commercial pressures. The recommendation was for some form of state financing...

“Our study did not go into that area; in fact the issue of commercial interference would be fertile ground for another study in its own right. I am currently participating in an open democracy study that is specifically focusing on commercial pressures. But in this study – while there are individual policy recommendations that might make a difference in this regard – it was not something we really went into.”