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HFHR’s opinion on journalistic coverage of protests

The dissemination of information about demonstrations and social protests is one of the key responsibilities of the media in a democratic society. In order to be able to discharge this responsibility, journalists must be given special protection. Uninhibited reporting on demonstrations is important not only for the freedom of speech but also for the freedom of assembly.

In a recently published opinion, the HFHR emphasises that members of the media must be present during demonstrations in order to provide reliable information, but also to monitor and publicise any irregularities, including human rights violations, that may occur during the demonstrations. Media presence may also increase the accountability of those responsible for the abuses.

Special protection for journalists

Public officials should take into account the important role of journalists as impartial observers. Special protection should be given not only to representatives of “traditional” media but also to other actors who perform a similar function during an assembly, such as human rights defenders and citizen journalists.

In order to be eligible for special protection, journalists must remain neutral and must refrain from being directly involved in a protest. Where possible, journalists and persons participating in a demonstration “for journalistic purposes” – in particular, those who do not display any visible markings and are not equipped with journalistic equipment – should take steps to facilitate the police to identify them as non-demonstrators.

Freedom to record events

State authorities must not obstruct journalists from reporting. The above prohibition extends to the coercive measures involving detention, denial of access or removal from the venue of a demonstration. However, it also includes the obligation not to obstruct the collection of information by, for example, preventing the recording of events, confiscating reporters’ equipment, refusing to grant accreditation or unjustified “threats” of legal action.

Journalists have the right to photograph and record demonstrations, regardless of whether such assemblies are legal or peaceful. Illegal or violent assemblies may, in fact, require even greater media access.

Obligation to keep journalists safe

The state also has a duty to protect journalists from unsafe behaviour by other persons, such as demonstrators or counter-demonstrators. However, this obligation cannot be used as a pretext to unreasonably restrict journalists’ ability to freely cover such events. Any restrictions must be based on a real necessity, have an adequate scope and imposed upon a case-by-case analysis of the situation.

Journalists’ professional freedom to cover demonstrations is crucial in times when the participation in public assemblies is becoming a key tool for civil society to manifest its views, as it is currently the case in Poland. In the last two years, however, there has been a dangerous increase in the number of incidents threatening the unimpeded media coverage of public gatherings. In the absence of specific laws that would protect journalists working during demonstrations, it is essential to develop appropriate guarantees in the case law of the courts. The opinion may be read here.

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