The EU is frequently winning laurels for its high standards of press freedom. But do we deserve the praise? Are our journalists free to do the job they are assigned to do?
– Not always, reasons our panel of experts.
We asked them to outline some of the challenges journalists are facing in today’s Europe and how the European Union could help overcome some of these hurdles.
„One of the major concerns of journalists in Europe is the threat of being sued,” explains Jean-Paul Marthoz, EU correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists and author of the report “Balancing Act: Press Freedom at Risk as EU Struggles to Match Action with Values”.
Law suits can be extremely costly and time-consuming; the “sue city” of London is especially feared. Indeed, if an article can be accessed in the UK, it falls under British libel laws, a condition easily met since the dawn of the world wide web. But not only the UK, 22 other Member States also criminalize defamation; 19 countries have blasphemy laws on their books – and they find application, for example in Greece where the right-wing parties Golden Dawn and ANEL have used them to file lawsuits against journalists.
Astonishingly, in its external action, the EU lobbies for countries to cut such laws from their criminal codes. Internally, these laws remain part of the criminal code of a majority of Member States. Ensuring consistency in the internal and external action of the EU would be a major step towards strengthening journalists’ position in Europe, assesses Jean-Paul Marthoz.
In Hungary, media professionals are facing further restrictions under the media law passed by the Fidesz government, which profited from a super-majority and changed the constitution as well as other important legislation. György Petöcz, a Hungarian journalist, explains that the new media law contains several “Rubber Paragraphs,” or paragraphs which leave much room for interpretation and put journalists’ activities in a grey zone, for example when it comes to protecting their sources.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris, the French state implemented a new anti-terror law – which often negatively impacts the work of journalists in the country. “In France, we see an obsessive focus on security at the expense of liberty,” says Jean-Paul Marthoz. Even worse, he says, surveillance is accepted by a majority of citizens.
Another Member State which has recently made headlines is Spain, where a highly controversial security law, known as the “Gag Law,” evokes fears that journalists can no longer freely report from demonstrations.
Journalists fall victim to these new laws as they find it harder to report freely, guarantee their sources confidentiality and get access to important information. In fact, journalists’ approach is ambiguous in this regard, says Marthoz: they want access to data but of course they want their own data to be protected.
The three journalists Marthoz, Petöcz and Lorenzo Consoli, a longtime EU correspondent and former chair of the Association de la Presse Internationale, deplore low levels of quality in today’s media coverage.
During the economic crisis, media outlets often replaced experienced professionals with young journalists and hired them on the base of precarious contracts, explains Lorenzo Consoli. As a result, some thematic issues have entirely vanished from the media’s EU coverage. Consoli brings up the example of climate change, where important headway has been made ahead of this year’s COP21 Conference in Paris. He argues that in spite of the centrality of climate change, a Brussels press corp mainly trained in economic journalism means coverage of the lead-up to COP21 has suffered. This, he claims, is a result of correspondents’ heavy focus on the economic crisis in recent years.
He is weary of this development, emphasizing the harmful effect of European citizens not being able to form an opinion and make informed decisions because they are simply not exposed to the entire pallet of EU political questions. Consoli adds that in his home country, Italy, journalism has undergone major change during the Berlusconi era, “we still see an exaggerated personification; who is talking becomes more important than what’s at stake,” he says.
Petöcz agrees with him and speaks about the “meaninglessness” of Hungarian media. Faced with the threats of a powerful government, “they do not create a public sphere anymore,” he adds.
Is the EU the right actor to address these challenges? “Expectations towards the Commission are very high,” explains Krisztina Stump, Deputy Head of Unit at the Directorate General (DG) Connect, only to emphasize that the Commission has a limited scope of action and Member States carry the main responsibility. She sees the Commission rather as a facilitator who finances projects in support of media freedom and fosters best-practice exchange.
It’s true, says Lorenzo Consoli, the Commission doesn’t always have the legal grounds to become active. In fact, right now the Commission can only act if an infringement on the media violates EU law. Hungary, for example, could be prosecuted on the basis of the EU’s Audiovisual Media Service Directive, which aims to safeguard media pluralism, combat racial and religious hatred and guarantee the independence of national media regulators. In the future, the Directorate General for Competition could also play a more prominent role seeing the consolidation of media markets across the EU.
But in the end, the only way forward is to lift the restrictions currently inhibiting the Commission, says Consoli, so the EU can become a potent guarantor of media freedom.
New actors are leaving their mark on the debate too, for example the ECJ, which with its current verdict on the Safe Harbour Agreement has strengthened the protection of Europeans’ data, including journalists and their sources.
Lastly, Consoli suggest, the concept of the Euro’s Stability and Growth Pact should be transferred to the media sphere. It is not enough that Member States guarantee media freedom when they join the European Union. There should be permanent criteria countries have to adhere to, in order to make sure they do not backtrack.
Overall, while journalists in the EU must not fear for their lives or worry about arbitrary detention, high ratings in press freedom indexes need to be taken with a grain of salt. A careful re-evaluation of those laws with the potential to further self-censorship is necessary in the Member States. Additionally, bills passed in the context of anti-terror legislation need to be scrutinized for potential chilling effects on media freedom.
Lastly, citizens themselves need to speak up when journalists’ rights are infringed on. In turn, they can demand from “their media” multifaceted news covering the diversity of topics of importance to the European Union and its countries.
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