Journalists grapple with increasing power of European extremists

By Jean-Paul Marthoz on April 27, 2015 11:01 AM ET

Supporters of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party raise flares as they celebrate polls results in Thessaloniki, Greece, on May 6, 2012. (Reuters/Grigoris Siamidis)

Athens, May 6, 2012. Journalists attending Golden Dawn's triumphal election night news conference are ordered to stand up when the group's leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, enters the room. "Rise up! Rise up! Show your respect!" barks the master of ceremonies, an agitated black-clad, bald-headed toughie. The journalists who refuse the injunction are asked to leave the room.

Welcome to Golden Dawn, a group known for its Nazi symbols, jackbooted militants, violence against migrants, and growing electoral force. Welcome to a party that hates and attacks the press. On November 4, 2012, SKAI TV reporter Michael Tezari was beaten by party militants and had his mobile phone and press card stolen while covering a demonstration against immigrants.

On December 10, 2013, Star TV journalist Panagiotis Bousis was physically abused while reporting on a Golden Dawn demonstration in an Athens suburb.

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Attacks on the Press book cover

On July 4, 2014, two photojournalists were assaulted by Golden Dawn militants demonstrating in front of an Athens court where their leaders were standing trial.

The cradle of democracy is no exception in the European Union. In recent years, the most extreme right-wing groups have been on the march. "The rightwing extremist scene remains of considerable concern," the 2014 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report stated.

The "fachosphere," as their adversaries have dubbed the groups in reference to their perceived fascist approach, includes neo-Nazis, Blood & Honor skinheads, white supremacists, virulent counter-jihad associations, extremist religious traditionalists, and lone wolves, such as Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who often operate on the margins of the law. It also includes hardcore far-right parties that, despite their extremism, have been able to attract a significant share of Europe's disgruntled voters. Although Golden Dawn barely scrounged 0.1 percent of the vote in the 2009 European parliament elections--which are organized at the national level, with each member state sending a number of deputies designated by population--its share rose to 9 percent five years later. Likewise, in Hungary the ethnonationalistic and anti-Semitic party Jobbik grabbed 15 percent of the vote and sent three deputies to the European Parliament.

There is another form of right-wing radicalism, however, that evolves in a gray zone in which it "simultaneously distances itself and intermingles with the extreme right," wrote University of Munich researcher Britta Schellenberg in a groundbreaking 2009 Berlelsmann Foundation report. These right-wing populists who prefer suits to boots rocked the May 2014 European parliamentary elections. The FrenchNational Front and the Danish People's Party even came first with a quarter of each nation's vote.

To be sure, some luminaries of the new right lost ground: In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-EU Party for Freedom (PVV) fell from 17 percent to 13.3 percent of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections; in Italy, the Northern League went from 10.2 percent to 6.2 percent; and the British National Party even lost its representation in Brussels. The trend, however, is unmistakable. Far-right and right-wing populist parties gained a record number of members of the European Parliament, or MEPs.

In the wake of the European elections, a number of mainstream politicians and commentators chose to de-dramatize the electoral rise of the radical right. In fact, mainstream political groups, including the center-right European People's Party, the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the middle-of-the-road Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the United Left, and the Greens maintain a large majority among the 751 MEPs. Radical right-wing groups are often deeply divided on issues of national identity, economic philosophy, or anti-Semitism. However, because these groups have already demonstrated their capacity to influence the mainstream political discourse at the national level, many observers fear that the populists' illiberal views will undermine the EU's fundamental values and corrode its human rights and press freedom policies.

The most extreme far-right groups have an unpalatable record of violence against the press. In September 2011, the U.K.'s National Union of Journalists claimed in a motion that "it had received numerous reports of journalists being harassed, racially abused, and having bottles and fireworks thrown at them by the anti-Islamic group English Defence League."

"Far-right attacks on media workers are aimed at deterring them from carrying out their work and are designed to stop the media reporting on far-right activity," the National Union of Journalists said. In France on November 19, 2012, militants allegedly beat up Caroline Fourest, a journalist and writer known for her essays on religious fundamentalism and on the National Front, while she was covering a demonstration convened by the ultra-Catholic group Civitas against gay marriage. In Sofia on June 27, 2013, shock troops of the far-right Ataka party, led by their president, Volen Siderov, forced their way onto the premises of the Bulgarian public broadcaster BNT and partially disrupted its operations. In June 2014, Britain First, a uniformed group conducting "Christian patrols" in Muslim areas, threatened journalists with "nonviolent direct action" after Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about it. "If you print something that you know not to be true, then we'll find out where you live, we'll leak it to all your neighbors," the group's leader, Paul Golding, told BuzzFeed.

Reporting on the most extreme far-right groups has always been a dangerous assignment. It is a subgenre of investigative journalism practiced by a small number of hardheaded reporters who move into these dark waters as they might wade into the criminal underworld. Swedish journalist and writer Stieg Larsson, famed author of the Millennium trilogy, was the role model for this deeply political and activist form of journalism. His Expo magazine was created in 1994 to expose the far right and its infiltration of Swedish society and institutions. At the time, similar journalistic ventures--including Searchlight Magazine in the U.K. and CelsiuS in France and Belgium--were being developed in a number of European countries, part of an "antifascist" media movement often rooted in militant left-wing politics and usually distrustful of corporate-owned media.

In those days, the far-right sphere was already a tense and often thuggish world. In his 2000 essay "Surviving the Deadlines: A Handbook for Threatened Journalists," Larsson recalled the advice of English journalist Graeme Atkinson, editor of Searchlight: "What do you do if you are attacked by the Nazis? Run like hell."

"In the 1970s," Larsson added, "Atkinson was badly beaten up and had his nose broken by Nazis. For the last 15 years he has been forced to live in virtual anonymity."

Journalists usually went undercover to infiltrate extremist groups; far-right militants retaliated with threats and, at times, physical attacks. "Expo cut Stieg's life short," wrote human rights author Kurdo Baksi in his 2010 memoir Stieg Larsson, My Friend, "because of all the threats it received and the financial crises it suffered." Baksi also wrote, "In May 1996, fifteen months after Expo's launch, the magazine's printer's premises were sabotaged. Every window was smashed and totally demolished. Walls were sprayed with the message 'Don't Print Expo!'"

"When I worked with CelsiuS [a Belgian-French magazine], we were keenly aware of the risks involved," Manuel Abramowicz, founder of the Belgian online antifascist magazine RésistanceS, told CPJ. "We received death threats on the phone. Some investigative journalists were harassed during public events. We were on alert all the time as a band of conjurors leading an uphill battle against the far right." Right-wing extremists also set up a number of U.S.-based websites called Redwatch that published personal information on activists. In 2006, Redwatch-Poland posted a list of 15 allegedly left-wing and liberal journalists whom it threatened with reprisals for hostile coverage. In January 2014 the German journalists' union announced that neo-Nazis were using press cards to better spy on journalists and place them on their watch lists.

Nowadays undercover journalism remains the best option for covering the most extreme groups. Spanish journalist "Antonio Salas" (a pseudonym) infiltrated Real Madrid Ultras Sur fans to investigate football far-right hooliganism. German journalist "Thomas Kuban" (also an alias) has spent 15 years disguising himself as a skinhead so he may clandestinely film neo-Nazi rock concerts, "the conspiratorial heart," as he puts it, "of Europe's diverse and burgeoning neo-Nazi scene."

*****

Journalists use more conventional fact-finding methods while reporting on right-wing populist parties. They request interviews and ask for accreditation to their events but sometimes face push-back and exclusion.

In fact, even if they seek respectability as they court the general electorate, right-wing populist parties have continued to accuse the media of tyranny and to label mainstream journalists "limousine liberals" or stenographers of Brussels and Wall Street. The parties play upon what they perceive as a profound resentment against an allegedly elitist, cosmopolitan, and "bobo" (bourgeois bohemian) media establishment, distanced from the real, hard-struggling, and truly patriotic common people. In France, members of the right-wing sphere have created a media criticism website, l'Observatoire des journalistes et de l'information médiatique, and every year Polémia, a foundation set up by Jean-Yves Le Gallou, a former National Front MEP, organizes the Bobards d'Or (Golden Canards) ceremony to denounce journalists who, it says, are deliberately lying in the service of political correctness.

Despite its electoral successes, the French National Front remains deeply suspicious of the press. Reporters from allegedly adversarial media, such as the muckraking online magazine Mediapart or cable TV channel Canal+, have been excluded or expelled from the party's public meetings. Others have been harassed with defamation lawsuits or threats of legal action. The National Front is suspected of keeping files on critical journalists and of encouraging its militants to harass them, although the party denies this. On May 1, 2013, stickers with the personal home addresses of a Le Monde journalist, Abel Mestre, and of Caroline Fourest were distributed on the margins of a National Front rally. In 2012, Sylvain Crépon, author of a penetrating sociological study on the party, was directly targeted on Twitter and sarcastically accused of being a "far-right sociologist" because of his comments qualifying the National Front as "d'extrême droite," undermining the rebranding strategy of the party as a respectable and democratic organization.

In Hungary, the radical ultranationalist Jobbik party has adopted similar tactics. Despite the party's ethnonationalist ideology and militaristic trappings, it dismisses the far-right label. In early June 2014, the party's rejection of the far-right characterization was supported by Hungary's Supreme Court: TV channel ATV was judged to have violated the 2010 media law's restrictions on commentary by describing Jobbik as "far-right" in a newscast. "The court's rationale," Human Rights Watch Central Europe researcher Lydia Gall told CPJ, "was that as Jobbik doesn't call itself a far-right party; referring to it as such expresses an opinion and may leave viewers with a negative impression. Given Jobbik's blatant anti-Roma and anti-Semitic agenda, 'far right' seems like fair comment that courts ought to protect."

In recent years, some of these far-right and right-wing populist parties have tried to dissociate themselves from their most unsavory allies and have condemned anti-Semitism and claimed their democratic credentials. The process of de-demonization of the far right has been particularly successful in France, where Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, even clashed with her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man known for his controversial and rowdy statements and surly jokes about the Holocaust or Islam.

The result is that a more palatable vocabulary has been imposed upon some militants, and the most thuggish groups have been shoved away from the limelight. "When I was among the public in a National Front Congress in Paris," Manuel Abramowicz told CPJ, "security people were telling militants to stop shouting words like bougnoules ["niggers"] or bicots [a derisive term for Arabs]. There might be journalists in the crowd, they said. Such words should be avoided, in the interest of the party."

If some journalists have normalized their coverage of the National Front, many remain unconvinced and continue to use the far-right label. "Don't be fooled," warned Christine Ockrent, one of the more famous French journalists and a target of Jean-Marie Le Pen's xenophobic taunts. "Marine Le Pen talks patriotism rather than nationalism, the love of France rather than the fear of foreigners, and she disputes the term 'extrême droite,' [but] for all the rebranding, the National Front remains true to itself."

Despite its dark history of authoritarianism, the far right has held aloft the banner of free speech as a shield against its enemies in the press. What right-wing politicians call liberal or leftist journalists have been accused of censoring inconvenient truths on multiculturalism, immigration, European integration, and globalization. On a continent where, in the aftermath of World War II atrocities, hate speech was severely restricted, the far right, despite its traditional anti-Americanism, has positioned itself as a boisterous apostle of the First Amendment. European laws against racism, hate speech, and Holocaust denial have been denounced as state censorship.

In 2005 in Denmark, the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoon controversy was shamelessly hijacked by the extreme right. Whereas liberals were torn between their defense of freedom of expression and their fear of stigmatizing Muslims, right-wing organizations such as Lars Hedegaard's International Free Press Society relished muddling the debate by mixing free speech absolutism with Islamophobic discourse.

The far right also makes claims to unlimited free speech in its own media sphere, a ragtag mix of magazines, journals, books, radio stations, and websites, which has considerably boosted its outreach. The far right has been able to navigate a "dark network" as Norwegian journalist and author Øyvind Strømmen calls it--where the most extreme groups mix and conspire. It has also skillfully exploited the legal Web and social media networks to circumvent the mainstream media and directly address its constituencies, particularly the young.

The far right's concept of free speech is, however, partial and sectarian. Its leaders and sympathizers are much less liberal when free speech allegedly hurts their nation's traditional institutions and faiths. In Greece, Golden Dawn proclaims itself the protector of the Orthodox Church and aggressively uses blasphemy laws to attacks its opponents. In France, members of far-right Catholic groups have campaigned for the restoration of blasphemy laws and against so-called Christianophobia. "In 19 years of existence we have been sued 13 times by the Catholic far-right and once by Muslims," the late Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier joked on November 13, 2011, after his no-holds-barred satirical weekly published an issue deriding Islamic fundamentalism. Charbonnier, who was widely known by his penname Charb, was shot dead in the January 7, 2015, attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo by heavily armed Islamist militants, which killed 12 people, including eight journalists.

*****

Far-rightists and national populists have shown no qualms about cultivating close relations with authoritarian and press-restrictive states, in particular Russia, Syria, and even, in the case of Jobbik, Iran. Of the 14 far-right parties that sent representatives to the European Parliament in 2014, "at least eight of them are pro-Russian," said an August 2014 Human Rights First report bluntly titled We're not Nazis, but... In the report it was also noted, "Some analysts assert that Kremlin cultivation of far-right parties is part of Putin's strategy to weaken the E.U. from the inside and to blunt anti-Russian policies in the E.U."

According to most EU observers, right-wing parties are expected to provide their authoritarian allies with a political echo chamber in the heart of the European Parliament. They will relay their illiberal positions on Internet governance or surveillance. They will also strive to delegitimize EU foreign policies aimed at supporting civil society in authoritarian states, in particular human rights nongovernmental organizations and independent journalism, under the pretext of respecting national sovereignty.

In 2009 the BBC raised a storm when it invited British National Party leader Nick Griffin to its flagship program, "Question Time."

"Should democracy, should the media, give the floor to those who reject democracy and the media?" asked French sociologist Erwan Lecoeur in a 2013 interview. "Should we denounce Golden Dawn and demand that they be banned?" wondered Greek journalist Xenia Kounalaki.

The issue of whether to give the floor to the far right profoundly divides the profession. In some countries journalists have tried to set up quarantines, refusing to consider the far right as just another political party despite its presence in national legislatures and the European Parliament. In the 1980s Anne Sinclair, then the anchor of "Sept sur Sept," one of the more popular French political TV shows, refused to interview National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1993 the Belgian journalists' association recommended a "critical approach of the far right and racism." Others have shied away from covering too extensively hot-button issues, such as alleged disproportionate rates of criminality and welfare cheating by migrants, which are seen as playing into the hands of the extreme right.

This electoral rise of the far right has put journalism on the frontlines of controversy. While the right-wing populists continue to slam the establishment media, anti-racist and leftist groups often accuse the press, in particular the tabloids, of echoing the far right's slogans. They have also slammed commercial TV channels for inviting right-wing leaders too generously to their talk shows. In Greece, masked militants pelted with yogurt and eggs a journalist who had interviewed the Golden Dawn spokesman.

"Journalists have to cover the far right and all the relevant issues," said Ricardo Gutiérrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists. "It is the journalist's duty to report." And quarantine has proved ineffective. According to Sinclair, now editor-in-chief of the French edition of The Huffington Post, "ostracizing the National Front does not work."

When radical populist parties reach a certain threshold of popular vote, some media outlets are inclined to adopt policies of accommodation under the mantra of journalistic impartiality and fairness. Others drop adversarial journalism to avoid upsetting an electorate that is part of their audience. "Marine Le Pen has so successfully laundered the image and the core rhetoric of the National Front that the mainstream media have adjusted as well," wrote Ockrent. "No more soul-searching about the diabolical dimension of the far-right, or the moral implications of interviewing its representatives. Marine Le Pen sells. Radio and TV want her. Magazines put her winning smile on the cover, making the story of the National Front less political and more human interest."

For journalists, the political stakes are high. "The present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis of journalism," Walter Lippmann famously wrote in his seminal 1920 essay "Liberty and the News." Nearly a century later, the equation between journalism and liberal democracy is pivotal.

At such a decisive moment, when archconservative movements are skillfully using liberal institutions and principles to emerge from the silos where they once were safely contained, journalists are being called upon to define themselves and their profession and, in many cases, to take a stand. As such, the rise of the far right directly challenges the soul of European journalism.

Jean-Paul Marthoz is CPJ's Europe correspondent, a columnist with Le Soir (Brussels) and professor of international journalism at the Université de Louvain (UCL, Belgium).

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