Press- and media freedom are increasingly under attack across the EU. The use of spyware against journalists is particularly alarming. Saskia Bricmont explains how severe the threat is, who the perpetrators are and their intentions.
Saskia Bricmont (MEP, the Greens/EFA) in conversation with Claudia Rothe and Georg McCutcheon
Claudia Rothe (CR): Press- and media freedom are increasingly under attack across the European Union (EU). The use of spyware against journalists is particularly alarming. How severe is the threat of spying software being used against journalists in Europe? Who are the perpetrators and to what aim is spyware used against journalists?
Saskia Bricmont (SB): Media freedom and media pluralism have been at stake throughout Europe for several years. The EU urgently needs to address this deterioration. One example of the threats faced by journalists is the use of intrusive spyware, such as Predator or Pegasus software. Recently, a consortium of journalists named “Forbidden Stories” revealed the use of spyware by European governments against their own journalists in what was coined the “Pegasus scandal”. It is clear that without the work of the press, we as legislators would probably not be aware of such severe abuses in our Member States. At the moment, several governments inside the EU are under high suspicion for the alleged use of spyware; including Hungary, Poland, Greece, and possibly Spain. However, it remains unclear who exactly has been targeted by these governments, making further investigations a high priority. It is important to note, however, that this is not exclusive to the EU. Third country governments have also been shown to have spied on EU citizens, journalists, politicians, and lawyers.
Let me draw on the example of Greece, as it is especially indicative of the problem. In Greece, journalists covering the pushbacks against refugees in the Mediterranean have been a particular target of spyware. The EU Member States’ governments officially claim that the use of such spyware is “justified” in the name of national security. In response, the European Commission argues that it cannot intervene, because it has no competency to legislate on matters of national security. Thus, it becomes even more important to build political pressure on the parliamentary level. Spying on journalists is a severe breach of our European democratic foundations, the rule of law, and freedom of the press. If the current EU framework and legislation is not sufficient to prohibit governments to use illegal spyware against journalists, then this means that we need to reform and reinforce it. In fact, this is our job in the name of national security.
CR: Why would you say this represents a threat to the EU’s democratic foundation as a whole?
SB: I am particularly concerned about how the response to the revelations indicates an erosion of our democratic foundation in the EU. In Greece for instance, we see that while a judicial inquiry was opened, the prosecution’s focus is not placed on the allegations, but on the question of how the information was leaked in the first place. Thus, the courts are not inquiring about illegal spying, but are investigating the journalists who revealed the information. That is why I believe it to be a serious threat to democracy and the rule of law. The European Commission should stand firm in its response to such illegal activities. However, in the case of Greece, Commissioner Didier Reynders simply referred to the judicial inquiry and stated that we have to wait for justice to do its work. This would be the correct way forward in a country where the rule of law and the separation of powers are respected. But that is not the case in Greece. We cannot wait until the situation is equivalent to countries like Hungary or Poland before we act.
Georg McCutcheon (GM): As the Coordinator of the PEGA Committee you have been very outspoken on the issue of spyware. Do you believe that the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) recently proposed by the European Commission adequately addresses the use of spying tools against journalists?
SB: The European Media Freedom Act is a very important step forward. Several years ago, the Commission and other EU institutions considered that they had no competency on the matter. That the Commission has now proposed the EMFA shows that they understand that it is very important to have a common EU framework in order to protect journalists and their work, and to safeguard their rights. The EU was built on democratic values such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and these building blocks must be protected. The EMFA is an essential step forward. It is also a very recent proposal. That said, the Commission’s reaction with regard to the developments in Greece that I outlined above and the Pegasus case in general, already falls short of the proposed mechanisms in the EMFA. Journalists have been spied on illegally, and despite several avenues of action laid out in the EMFA – so far – the Commission has not reacted decisively to protect the freedom of the press.
However, there are concrete measures that the Commission should take, to protect journalists under pressure. First, journalists have asked for support to check their phones for spyware, as they have no capacities or resources to do so themselves. In order to safeguard the anonymity of their sources, however, it is crucial that journalists can guarantee that the authorities cannot directly access their conversations. This is especially true for journalists interviewing refugees. Journalists have also told us that they feel abandoned and do not know who to turn to for concrete and immediate help. Here, the Commission should, for instance, quickly launch the intended emergency fund for journalists to provide the required support. Secondly, many journalists have abandoned their investigative work because they were threatened. Therefore, very few journalists remain willing to cover the Pegasus scandal due to pressure from their governments. The EU must therefore find concrete ways to help journalists secure their work, and to provide them with sufficient resources to continue their investigations, even under pressure from national authorities.
The EMFA is supposed to address those issues, so now is the time to trigger those budgets and to provide crucial support needed to journalists in the EU. At the moment, however, the Commission does not seem to be ready to do so. It will be interesting to see whether the Commission’s actions remain consistent with the proposed EMFA. If not, then it is our duty within the PEGA Inquiry Committee to advance the legislation in order to ensure that those needs are met.
GM: You already touched upon the national context of Greece. As outlined in the Commission’s proposal, the new law would explicitly prohibit national authorities to spy on journalists, giving lawyers in many Member States a basis to take legal action. Is this sufficient in view of different national contexts within the EU - and if not - what additional measures should be taken?
SB: In addition to the EMFA, most national legislation already provides a basis to act, if journalists are spied on. But in order to make it effective, a sanctions mechanism is a critical part of the response, if national authorities employ spyware against their own journalists. Otherwise, the problem will likely remain present. The way I read the EMFA’s text, it is unlikely to overcome the issue of the Commission’s lacking competency on matters of national security that I detailed above. Nevertheless, the proposal is a good basis to reinforce media freedom in the EU and to reinforce the legal means applicable at the EU level, if those rules are not respected.
CR and GM: Thank you for the interview!