• Although German journalists are regularly insulted, mainly by right-wing activists, for being “state media”, most people here have no idea how a state media really functions.

    Three years ago, I spent two months working for a genuine example of such a press: Vaticannews – an online portal owned by the Vatican that disseminates information about the Pope’s activities, the Vatican, and Catholic teaching worldwide.

    As a journalism student looking for an internship, I thought Vaticannews would be an interesting place to learn my craft. It was certainly interesting. However, I didn’t learn so much about journalistic techniques, but more about the boundaries which journalists can face.

    Not surprisingly, my own report into the workings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not get very far. This is the successor authority to the Inquisition, responsible for keeping Catholic doctrine pure. A background discussion with one priest working for the congregation did take place, but led to little actual information.

    When afterwards, I sent a question about a pending case concerning the verification of an apparition of the Virgin Mary, I received a rebuke, more or less indicating me that I — as an intern of a Vatican media — should have been instructed by my colleagues not to report on such controversial issues.

    What I found surprising was that there were tangible diplomatic interests of the Holy See that we had to take into account in our reporting. Human rights violations in China? Difficult.

    The Pope has been trying to negotiate with China for best protection for Catholics in China who are recognised as being members of a sort of “official” Church by the Chinese state.

    In order not to jeopardise these negotiations, the bosses at the press told us to avoid criticism of China. This seemed to me to be grounded in a rather worldly consideration.

    Back in Germany, I felt relieved that finally again, I was allowed to devote myself to the sacred goals of critical journalism.

    What can a journalist do when a prime minister hasn’t given an interview to the independent press in 13 years? Approach him in front of a church. And what does a prime minister say when he sees such a reporter moving up to him?

    “Man, don’t you see I’m coming from church?”

    This was the answer by Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán to a well-known journalist, which became an instant meme, mocking everything from corruption to press freedom.

    Approaching someone after mass may seem rude, but Hungarian journalists have no other option. Being excluded from press conferences and not receiving replies is everyday reality for reporters who are not aligned with the ruling party, Fidesz. Some have been targeted with the surveillance software Pegasus.

    As to why this is necessary, the political director of the prime minister once argued: the one who controls the media is the one who controls the country. But there is one thing they cannot control: jokes.

    A moment after this picture was taken, the woman held in an embrace in the centre broke into tears. Her legs gave way, and she collapsed, swallowed by grief.

    This is Alina Mykhailova, a fiancé of the Ukrainian military Dmytro Kotsyubailo. Known by the call sign Da Vinci, he was one of the most talented and respected young officers in the army. Recently, he was killed in a battle near Bakhmut.

    At his funeral on 10 March, the President of Ukraine, the Commander-in-Chief, the Minister of Defence and thousands of other Ukrainians stood down on one knee ― a mark of the highest respect.

    Photographers kept taking pictures, and images of the heartbroken woman went viral. This caused a debate in Ukrainian society: how ethical is the broadcasting of psychically and emotionally challenging moments of someone in such a position as Alina?

    One side says that Alina is a victim, and her right for privacy is sacred. The other side, which often includes journalists, insists this is war, and such expressions of grief are a significant part of it. To show this to the world is just and even necessary.

    “I watch this ― and in my guts I feel that Ukrainians exist and I’m among them. The woman in the photo turns all of us into a living, pulsating social body,” wrote art curator Olena Chervonyk in a widely read article.

    “It’s possible to nurture your Ukrainianness by other means. A person has the right to life and to death, which has to be respected even in such circumstances,” replied lawyer Larysa Denysenko. “This is not my pain, not my trauma, not my private space.”

    Alina Mykhailova is also a politician and a soldier, and probably has her own thoughts on this issue. But she has not yet shared them, as she has been spending long hours every day at Dmytro’s grave.

    On 3 March, the police arrived at Domani’s newsroom, with the unusual aim of seizing an article that related to Claudio Durigon, an undersecretary in PM Giorgia Meloni’s government.

    The authors, Giovanni Tizian and Nello Trocchia, are authoritative reporters who cover the collusion between politics and organized crime. They are both under state police protection. One would expect the Italian authorities to safeguard their work. They came to seize it, instead.

    “It was so surreal,” says Mattia Ferraresi, managing editor of Domani, where I also work as a reporter. He had to print the article for the police. Durigon had sued us because of that article, which he didn’t even attach to his lawsuit. The piece was publicly available online.

    “There was no need for the raid, this is intimidation!” says Ricardo Gutiérrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists. This is the second alert that Gutiérrez has written related to Domani in a few months: last autumn Giorgia Meloni sued my editor-in-chief Stefano Feltri and my colleague Emiliano Fittipaldi.

    These are “governmental SLAPPs” (Strategic lawsuits against public participation), with an aim to silence journalists. “Every time we write about Durigon, he sues us,” Trocchia says. “He has done this eight times.”

    When the police came, Tizian was on his way to the newsroom. Trocchia informed his colleague by phone: “Come, the police are here!” Tizian’s first thought was to protect sources: “Don’t let them touch our computers!”

    Following the raid, a coalition of media freedom organisations launched an alert at a European level. Progressive groups in the European Parliament (S&D, Greens, Left, Renew) expressed their support, and MEP Sophie in’t Veld asked questions to the EU Commission about the case.

    On 15 March, Rome’s attorney stated that seizing the article was improper and invalid. This made me realise how important it was to have a huge European mobilisation to condemn this act.

    French journalist Olivier Dubois, who works with our newspaper Libération, was released on 20 March after 711 long days in captivity.

    711 days since he was kidnapped by the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM, in Arabic) while he was reporting from Gao, in northern Mali.

    711 days that he was held hostage somewhere in the Sahel region. 711 days that he was the only known French hostage in the world. 711 days that this father of two missed his family, his friends, and his colleagues. 711 days that journalism missed him.

    711 days of silence, fear and hope. 711 days too many.

    In the run-up to Montenegro’s presidential elections on 19 March, the mantra of EU membership is once again a major campaign promise in the country. All candidates are pledging to speed up reforms, so that the country can become an EU member before 2028. Despite these bold promises, EU membership may remain unattainable for this small country on the Adriatic Sea with 620,000 citizens – as it is for others in the Balkan region where EU promises have fallen short.

    Montenegro launched its EU negotiation process in June 2012, but so far only three of the 33 negotiating chapters have been closed. The process has already taken longer than for the other former Yugoslav republic Croatia, which completed negotiations in six years, and was the last country to join the EU in 2013.

    While the country struggles with political interference in state institutions, the European Commission repeatedly warns in its annual progress reports that parties are failing to reach consensus on important issues of national interest.

    The most recent example was that the parliament finally appointed new constitutional court judges after six months of strong pressure from the EU. These appointments require a two-thirds majority of parliament, and MPs could not agree on the judges for months, so that the court had no decision-making quorum. But there is still no agreement on who should be the new Attorney General or the head of the Supreme Court.

    Under the Constitution, the president has no power to propose laws or appoint officials. However, this weak position could be turned into a strength: Whoever comes first in the elections should promote dialogue between the ruling parties and the opposition in order to speed up the reforms needed for accession.

    With more than 80 percent of the population in favour of becoming an EU member, it is now high time to accelerate the reform process necessary for accession – so that the 2028 deadline doesn’t become an empty electoral slogan again.

    How many years does it take to repeal a law that forces NGOs to register as foreign agents? In Hungary: four years and a court ruling.

    In 2017, the Hungarian Parliament passed a bill that obliged organisations receiving at least 7.2 million HUF (18,500 EUR) annually from abroad to register with the courts or face a fine.

    Civil society protests went unheard, but not by the European Union. Following a ruling by the European Court of Justice and pressure from the European Commission, the law was revoked in 2021. No NGO has ever been fined. But Georgia, which followed in Hungary’s footsteps with a similarly controversial bill, lacks the EU’s legal umbrella. The Hungarian case proves the rule of law can be upheld in the EU, even if one country does not like the decision.

    Last summer, Georgia hoped to be accepted as an EU candidate country along with Ukraine and Moldova, but fell short. Estonia’s outgoing two-term foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu explains why that happened, why Georgians might be disappointed again and why a historically supportive Estonia is now disillusioned with Georgia’s progress towards EU accession.

    Why are some countries in the EU not supporting Georgia’s candidacy?

    Leaving more technocratic aspects aside, the main problem is the functioning of the rule of law and democracy in Georgia. We do not see any determined efforts by the Georgian government. The people of Georgia are very much in favour of integration with the West. Therefore, the government supports it rhetorically, but its practical approach is one of regression.

    Great hopes were placed in Georgia’s accession process in 2008. How has it changed from an Estonian perspective?

    Estonia’s instinctive sympathy for Georgia was the cornerstone of our relations after the country fell victim to Russia’s invasion in 2008. We have supported them despite various political developments since that time.

    However, the events of the last few years have disturbed us. We have repeatedly expressed our disappointment at the suppression of the opposition. Estonia cannot remain silent on this.

    Symbolic of this is the deterioration of the former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s health in prison. I have personally campaigned for him to be given the opportunity to receive medical treatment abroad. We have also offered medical assistance on our own behalf. These requests have not been met with a positive response.

    One of these disappointments could be the Georgian reaction to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine?

    Considering that Georgia itself is a victim of [a Russian] invasion, the attitude of the government in Tbilisi has been far too lenient. Politically, it is still a like-minded country, but we have not seen a firm attitude towards the hundreds of thousands of Russians being allowed to pour into Georgia. The same goes for Georgia’s approach towards sanctions against Russia.

    “Incredible Georgian people who understand that friends need to be supported! There are, indeed, times when citizens are not the government, but better than the government.”

    Volodymyr Zelenskyy

    Since 2005, Ukraine and Georgia had considered each other the closest allies in the region. But that changed once Russia launched a full-scale invasion on Ukraine’s soil. On 26 February 2022, Ukrainian president Zelenskyy began a statement war between Ukrainian and Georgian officials, which continues today.

    While Georgians poured onto the streets of their cities to protest against Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Georgian government refused to impose sanctions against the Kremlin.

    Over the following year, top Ukrainian officials accused Tbilisi of being too indecisive, duplicitous or even pro-Russian, while Georgian ministers and MPs replied that the Ukrainian side was “provocative” and “arrogant”.

    In the last week, history repeated itself: Zelenskyy supported the recent pro-EU Georgian protesters and wished them “democratic success”, while Georgian prime minister Irakli Gabriashvili said that Ukrainian officials “should take care of their own country”.

    A year after the trio of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova applied for EU membership, Georgia was hoping to be granted candidate status by the end of 2023. But then the ruling Georgian Dream party proposed a law on “foreign agents”. The draft proposal triggered fierce protests, with critics claiming it was “dictated by Moscow”, and some comparing the citizens’ reaction to the Euromaidan in Ukraine in 2014.

    Although the government has never openly rejected the country’s European aspirations, it has displayed anti-Western rhetoric since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. It has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia or to provide military assistance to Ukraine. Tbilisi justifies this on the grounds of neutrality, in order to prevent another Russian invasion of Georgia. Moreover, the government has accused the opposition, “some Western powers,” and the Ukrainian authorities of acting as “war parties” that are “trying to drag Georgia into the war and open a second front against Russia.”

    After the government was forced to backtrack on passing the bill, its rhetoric has only become harsher, suggesting the retreat might only be tactical.

    As the country awaits a decision on candidate status, the government continues to blame the “war party” for its potential failure. Meanwhile, civil society and the media are eager to debunk the pro-Russian narratives. A second disappointment could lead to greater unrest and damage Georgian Dream’s chances in the 2024 parliamentary election.

    A majority of Georgians believe that economic development and the country’s security depend on Euro-Atlantic integration and that turning towards Russia is not an option. People have proven that they are ready to defend Georgia’s European future, as shown by the iconic image of a woman waving the EU flag against a water cannon on 7 March in Tbilisi.