It all started with a simple question. Janos Karpati, then Brussels correspondent for the Hungarian national newswire, didn’t think it would terminate his longtime career when he addressed the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban at a press conference at the fringes of the European Parliament’s plenary meeting in Strasbourg. Orban had come to Strasbourg to speak about migration – and his widely-criticized comment on reinstating the death penalty. Karpati, an experienced correspondent who has worked in Prague and Washington, DC, asked Orban about Fidesz’ position within the European People’s Party, a question he hadn’t cleared with anyone beforehand. He received a rather trivial answer from the prime minister and all was good – or so it seemed.
“Soon after I got banned from covering press conferences and then I was withdrawn from Brussels,” he recounts. When the next round of collective layoffs took place, he found himself among those journalists fired from the news service.
“I don’t feel like a victim,” Karpati says today, “I feel liberated!” He explains that the media landscape in Hungary is highly centralized and that censorship takes places at different stages of the reporting process. “I was rarely confronted with a situation that I shouldn’t report on,” Karpati explains, but people in key positions advise journalists how to emphasize certain aspects of a story and which questions to ask. Looking back at his own experience Karparti states “if you don’t have self-censorship in the back of your mind, you will be confronted with hard censorship at some point.”
When eight journalists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by radical Islamists last January, France witnessed a wave of solidarity and vocal support for the principle of freedom of expression. One and a half years later, nothing much is left of it says Dominique Pradalié, chief editor at France 2. “In the past, France was known to be the country of human rights, now it is merely the country where they once passed the human rights declaration.” In fact, the country that adopted the Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen, a quintessential document codifying the principles of freedom and democracy, is experiencing a strong legal backlash against freedom of expression these days.
The new Information Law, passed in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacres, gives the government sweeping surveillance powers. Pradalié explains that the government can now easily listen into citizens’ conversations online and offline, the secret service monitors electronic devices, including the geolocation of people, and can readily extend its surveillance activities to family and friends of suspects. This is a worrying development for all citizens, but especially for groups in society dealing with sensitive information, like lawyers, doctors or journalists. Pradalié and her colleagues feel the impact of this new law: “Sources are abandoning us,” she says, “they don’t want to find themselves on the list of the secret service.”
She and her colleagues unsuccessfully challenged the law before the French constitutional court. They are now waiting for a verdict of the European Court of Human Rights, hoping it will force the French government to adapt the law.
“I myself am not a victim of prosecution,” says Sezin Öney, pointing at the 2000 cases currently pending against Turkish citizens for insulting President Erdogan. But being a journalist in Turkey feels like having a “guillotine hanging over you,” warns the young woman, who works in academia and writes a regular column on politics for a Turkish newspaper. While hard censorship is part of everyday life by now, a lot of intimidation also comes in disguise via online trolls. These people follow journalists’ activities online; they threaten them or casually hint at their government affiliation. “It’s an uncomfortable feeling to be followed like that in a charged environment like that in Turkey,” explains Öney. In addition to the many measures of hard censorship, including the blocking of websites, the ban of social media, judicial proceedings against journalists and physical attacks, subliminal harassment might do the rest to silence journalists in Turkey.
“Germany must seem like paradise in comparison to what colleagues experience in other parts of the world, including life-threatening working conditions” says Wolfgang Grebenhof of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV) of the working environment for journalists in the Federal Republic. He warns, though, that journalists here live in an “endangered paradise.”
Grebenhof sees a big challenge emanating from publishers and media companies in Germany: “They have failed to build a successful business model for online publishing, and their traditional business model suffers from losses in advertisement and sales.” As a consequence, editorial teams all over the country are shrinking; newsrooms are closed down or merged. Dispatching journalists to cover the news, dig into complex topics, and follow long-term developments is becoming a question of ‘Can we afford covering this topic?’ instead of ‘Should we be covering this topic?’– a new kind of self-censorship, assesses Grebenhof.
Naturally, investigative reporting takes up a lot of resources, and while communication with the reader has become easier than ever with the advent of social media, responding to readers’ comments online and offline takes time. Combined with shrinking staff, the result is obvious: not all stories worth pursuing can be covered. Plus, journalism happens more and more at the desk and on the telephone, rather than in the streets and in direct contact with people.
It doesn’t come as a surprise then that a small but vocal share of German society has become estranged from the media, distrusts journalists and accuses them of lying in their reporting (”Lügenpresse”). Reaching out to these people will be paramount to save journalism in Germany – and its participatory democracy.