Authors: Stavros Malichudis, Laure Playoust & Anna Heudorfer
Lead photo: Konstantinos Zilos
In 2020, police behavior related to refugees and migrants’ issues in European countries was harshly criticized, as a number of incidents against people on the move were reported. At the same time, journalists reporting from the ground were prevented from documenting their realities and, at times, prosecuted for doing their job.
From the infamous “jungle” of Calais to the evacuation of makeshift camps in the center of Paris, and from the “Black lives matter” demonstrations in different German cities to the destruction of the continent’s largest refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesvos, cases of police oppression across Europe were condemned by press freedom organizations like the Reporters Without Borders.
This cross-border collaboration by Solomon (Greece), Guiti News (France), and Kohero (Germany) – three independent media outlets working on migration – delves into a worrying and escalating trend of police violence during the previous year; not only against people on the move but against the media professionals documenting their issues as well.
France: Police violence towards migrants and journalists covering migration
Police violence against migrants is not new to 2020. It was first highly publicized in Calais, a city in the north of France, which is a compulsory transit zone for people leaving for Great Britain. Calais became the largest “slum in Europe” in 2016, before falling off the map in recent years. The subject returned to the forefront of the scene at the end of November, in the heart of Paris, when some 300 exiled people who had set up their tents in the symbolic Place de la République – following the evacuation of the Saint-Denis camp a few days earlier – were violently driven out a few hours after their installation. Beatings, tear gassing, humiliation and manhunts lasted late into the night. Journalists were also violently attacked.
A cycle of violence that has been going on for five years…
As of 2015, non-profits are mobilizing to highlight the violent treatment of exiled people following the example of Calais Migrant Solidarity, which in May of the same year, put a video online showing the violent behavior of CRS (Republican Security Companies) towards migrants. They were trying to get into trucks on the ring road leading to the port of Calais to take the ferry to England. The IGPN (Inspectorate General of the National Police) was seized.
In December 2018, a report by four associations (Utopia 56, the Migrants’ Hostel, Refugee Info Bus, and the Cabane Juridique) counted “244 acts of police violence” against migrants over the year. The report also referred to “389 cases of abuse of power by law enforcement officials, 52 of which were accompanied by violence”.
Violence – verbal and physical – as well as tracking, are two methods commonly used by the police in recent years, noted the associations.
François Gemenne, a researcher specialized in migration governance, considers that violence against migrants has become “a norm insofar as each of these evacuations is turned into a communication operation above all”. And to affirm the words of our colleagues at Info migrants: the government wishes to “dispel the impression that it is pursuing a lax policy of letting migrants do their own thing“.
The strategy of tracking, for its part, consists of invisibilizing people, denying their existence by constantly pushing them “out of our cities, out of our borders, out of our fields of vision with the objective of making them invisible“, affirms the researcher, a professor at Sciences Po, in the same interview.
As for the people concerned themselves, they have sounded the alarm on several occasions. Notably in an open letter sent on November 16, 2020, to the Prefect of Pas-de-Calais. In it, Eritrean exiled men from Calais denounced the repeated and gratuitous violence they suffered: “The CRS is making our lives a living hell!”. The violence is said to have intensified since the beginning of the second confinement and this group of 150 people who occupy an area named ‘BMX’ in Calais castigate: “a democratic country cannot be considered as such if it uses physical force in this way.”
Also in Calais, on November 11th, an Eritrean national was seriously injured in the face, following a shot from an LBD40 (40mm defensive ball launcher).
Neither the use of this war material, widely criticized by human rights organizations, nor the tear-gassing or beatings were commented on by the executive.
…where the cameras do not see
On November 23rd, in Paris, the images of the evacuation of the 300 migrants who had settled in Place de la République shocked and revolted many. It is a new awareness for a large part of the population. However, in the north of France, and particularly in Calais, the associations observed almost daily brutality.
The communication from the Interior Minister and in particular the tweet below show the ambivalence of the State on this subject.
Journalists hindered in their work: obstruction and intimidation
On Tuesday, January 5, 2021, two French journalists, Simon Hamy and Louis Witter, had their request for “référé-liberté” rejected by the administrative court of Lille. Since then The National Union of Journalists (SNJ) referred the case to the Human Rights Defender.
Their objective? To denounce the impediment to the freedom of information, which results in the impossibility of covering the evacuations of migrant camps, as access to them is forbidden. At the origin of this procedure were refusals to access the dismantled sites in Grande-Synthe, Calais, and Coquelle in five different instances on December 29th and 30th, 2020. Their application to the court was therefore aimed at obtaining authorization to access the sites to carry out their reporting.
At the time of the decision, the judge considered that “the claimants had not reported any new evacuation interventions in progress or to come, which they would consider attending, and that it was indicated in the defense by the representatives of the prefectures of the Nord and Pas-de-Calais that the evacuations had been completed“.
This was a way of not answering the basic question about the impediment to freedom of information, when on December 29th, Louis Witter had published photos showing security teams lacerating the tents of migrants with knives on the morning of an evacuation on his social media platform.
In a context of authoritarian drift
At the same time, the concern is growing in France about the “Global Security” Law and its infamous Article 24, which foresees one year in prison and a 45,000 euro fine for “disseminating the image of the face or any other element of identification” of a police officer or gendarme on duty when it aims to “harm their physical or psychological integrity“.
The Council of Europe called on the Senate to amend the text, considering that the law “infringes on freedom of expression” while the United Nations, seized by the League of Human Rights, called on France to review its copy. In the meantime, the French have been strongly mobilized in a climate of increasingly violent demonstrations since the beginning of 2021. On March 18, the Senate adopted the so-called “global security” proposal after completely rewriting Article 24 creating a new crime of “provocation to identification”.
As a reminder, in the 2020 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, France is ranked 34th (two places lower than in 2019). The NGO notes “a very worrying increase in attacks and pressure against journalists. Many of them have been injured by bullets from LBDs (defensive ball launchers ) or tear gas shots from the police“.
Correlatively, French confidence in the media is at its lowest according to the Reuters Institute report: “Trust in the news in France is now the lowest (24%) in Europe – hit by coverage of the Yellow Vest protests. Trust in the 24-hour channel BFM has fallen from 5.9 to 4.9 (on a ten-point scale) over the past year and is now the least trusted brand in our list“.
Germany: Racial profiling within the police
The German issue is a lack of information on policemen and women’s behavior and their actions towards migrants and people of color. Single cases and individual reports suggest that there is a severe problem. But due to restricted access for journalists and researchers, it is hard to find evidence. For Reporters without Borders this is a threat to press freedom.
When the US citizen George Floyd was killed by a policeman, “black lives matter” protests also took place in Germany. They triggered a discussion about police behavior regarding people of color and about racial profiling. In the course of the debate, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) suggested a scientific study within the police to investigate the current situation regarding racist structures. The national minister for the interior Horst Seehofer (from the party CSU) prevented the conduct of the study because he did not want to see all policemen and -women under general suspicion. He said that racial profiling is forbidden by law and thus does not exist within the police. What is forbidden does not need to be researched, was his argument.
More events fueled the debate: several incidents of right-wing extremism among policemen became public. They spread hate speech against migrants, refugees, and Muslims in chat groups. Also, videos of violent police officers appeared on the internet. A current example of racist police practices is the case of the Black teacher Philip Oprong Spenner. On the 22nd of November 2020, he almost got arrested in his school “Am Heidberg” in Hamburg. He was working late and someone saw him walk through the building. The police arrived with 15 highly armed officers. They did not believe that he was employed at the school – even though he had the keys to the building – but took him for an intruder, presumably due to his skin color.
Still, minister Seehofer does not see any need for a racism study within the police and called the incidents “individual cases”. Other politicians, especially from the party SPD (social democratic party) stressed the necessity of the study. They were supported by the Head of the Association of German Criminal Police Officers who said that the prevention of the study was wrong because it caused the impression that the police had “something to hide”. Ultimately, Seehofer agreed to conduct a study on everyday police life and practices – a general topic without racism playing a central role anymore.
Lack of evidence on police violence due to restricted access
As a consequence, there is a lack of facts and figures. A report by the Federal Agency for Civic Education shows that since the early 1990s there have been studies of racial profiling including collections of single cases and observation studies, surveys on attitudes towards “strangers” among policemen and -women as well as surveys among adolescents with Turkish family history. They all suggest that racism is an issue within the police. But, as the authors of the report conclude, there are large gaps with regard to the manifestation and spread of discriminatory attitudes and practices, which is also due to the difficult access to research and the lack of or inaccessible information base, especially in largely unexplored areas of police work such as investigations, surveillance, and interrogations. Anne Renzenbrink, the press officer of Reporters without Borders explains: “Bureaucratic processes slow research in this field down.”
Freedom of information laws are meant to provide journalists access to this kind of data, yet there are still federal states which up to now have no guidelines to standardize these operations. Even in states where regulations have been implemented, miscellaneous exceptions hinder media representatives from successfully obtaining detailed reports. “The issue is that so far there’s no nationwide law ensuring access to information about government offices and authorities like the police“, Renzenbrink elucidates.
For Reporters Without Borders “this is a threat of the freedom of press” – hence they urge the government to create more transparency in this area. What we know is that only two percent of the complaints that are filed concerning violent police behavior go to court, mostly due to lack of evidence. The reason often is a one-word against another situation. This number suggests that police officers often cover each other and would not testify against their own colleagues. As a comparison: The total number of all complaints that go to court is 24 percent on average.
Reporting on migration and criticizing right-wing actions
In 2020 there has been an extreme increase in the numbers of violence directed at media representatives, especially at demonstrations against covid restrictions. This violence occurs more often when demonstrations of the right-wing populist spectrum are being covered. In the course of this, it is the duty of the police to enable a safe procedure for the media. “Media representatives are meant to report on these demonstrations. It is of public interest – it’s why they should be able to work freely“, Renzenbrink criticizes. Yet reports confirmed by Reporters Without Borders show that in many cases the police not only fails to protect journalists from violent protesters but they also actively obstruct journalistic work.
“Although it has improved in recent years, unfortunately again and again some police officers seem to be unaware of the rights of media representatives“, Renzenbrink says. These situations range from not letting reporters pass through barriers, issuing restraining orders during demonstrations to threatening them with custody. As a result, a growing number of journalists associations watch these developments with concern as they restrict “journalistic freedom greatly.“ With the aim of improving interactions between police officers and journalists, the principles of conduct for media and police from the year 1993 have been updated.
Still, Reporters Without Borders calls for more action: “There needs to be an emphasis on media law during police training in Germany. Policemen and -women need to know how to treat media representatives in these scenarios“, Renzenbrink highlights. Hitherto journalists associations and police schools have only selectively worked together when reality indicates a “structural deficiency”. Thus nationwide initiatives that educate comprehensively on this matter could initiate progress that preserves the freedom of the press throughout Germany. However, Renzenbrink emphasizes that education only is not enough: „Authorities have to ensure that these principles are exerted correctly in reality.”
Germany does not have a Calais or Lesvos, mainly because fewer people on the move manage to reach the country because they are stopped at other European borders. But that does not mean that we do not face issues of problematic police behavior, racism and restrictions inflicted on journalists.
Greece: Restriction of press coverage follows Moria’s destruction
When Moria, Europe’s largest refugee camp was destroyed, restrictions to the journalists reporting on the situation with over 9,000 asylum seekers were imposed by the Greek police. The restrictions were presented as temporary; but they are still in effect.
On February 2, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a report warning that the just implied national guidelines for policing demonstrations “are likely to restrict the media’s reporting and access to information”, and called “the Greek authorities to review the guidelines in consultation with representatives of the country’s journalists”, which had been absent from the draft of them.
What was the case? Based on a presidential decree, a few days earlier the Greek Police had presented the new manual for its operational tactics during demonstrations, according to which journalists covering protests would now have to work from an area specified by the authorities.
While concerns for their safety were cited as the official reason, journalists across the country questioned the true motives seeing an effort to control information. Marios Lolos, former head of the photo-journalists union, said that “in 99% of the cases the attacks towards us have been by the Police themselves”.
Although this might be a new measure, critics have seen in the past one and a half years that New Democracy is in power, in a number of occasions, an effort to restrict coverage on crucial issues. One of them has been the reception of the asylum seekers arriving in the country.
Limiting access to Lesvos island
On September 8th, multiple fires raised down Moria camp, Europe’s largest and most infamous camp until that moment.
In the following days, a large number of reporters representing different publications from around the world were present in Lesvos island, reporting from the coastal road in which more than 9,000 asylum seekers had been sleeping rough.
Progressively, after the first days, the Police started barring journalists from entering the area in which people on the move were restricted. While the official explanation provided was that an operation was underway, it was later proved that this was not the case. In at least one incident, a journalist, Iason Athanasiadis, who was on the island on assignment from the German daily Die Welt, was prosecuted, and in other cases, journalists spotted on the area were made to leave by officers without uniform.
Multiple journalists highlighted these practices among them Katy Fallon (reporting for English-speaking media), Marina Rafenberg (correspondent of French media) — and six press freedom organizations, besides RSF: the International Press Institute (IPI), the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECMPF), the Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), and Article 19.
As Solomon reported, a month after the fire access to the new camp was still restricted, with the authorities citing COVID-19 or personal data protection as a reason for responding negatively to media inquiries.
On a move that might bring memories to the aforementioned practice for the protests, a spot just in front of the gate of the new facility, which has been built next to the sea, was preserved for the journalists.
An unfriendly environment in the Aegean islands
As of March 31, 6,326 asylum seekers live in the new temporary facility substituting Moria camp.
A total of 4,939 more people are living in the four other Aegean islands (Leros, Kos, Samos, Chios), a big number of which in equally dire conditions, and exposed to cold, rain, and wind. Likewise Lesvos, reporting on issues related to these conditions remains largely restricted.
Furthermore, in 2020 different cases were reported. On October 19, a German documentary crew was arbitrarily arrested in Samos, and a couple of weeks later three German freelance reporters were detained without charge for several hours by the Hellenic Coastguard in Lesvos.
As the Greek government has been citing safety concerns related to COVID-19 to limit media access to refugee camps, the camps’ populations have also been living in a constantly expanding lockdown with their access out of it limited for a year.
This has resulted in asylum seekers documenting themselves the conditions in which they live; from teenage girl Parwana Amiri, in Ritsona camp in the Greek mainland, to Twitter accounts broadcasting the results of flooded tents in the new camp in Lesvos, in a different number of cases.
Just a few weeks before the publication of this article, 50 pictures from camps were shared widely on social media, based on disturbing photos taken by residents themselves as media access to them remains limited.
Greece is ranked 65th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.