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Journalists throughout Europe, both east and west, are faced with a growing pattern of censorship and pressure including physical violence and intimidation, according to a survey by the Association of European Journalists (AEJ). What’s more, the EU is failing to stand up for them, the AEJ adds.
Responding to growing concerns over media concentration, in 1992 the Commission launched a wide consultation (Green Paper) on pluralism and media concentration in the EU. Two years later, the consultation concluded that it is primarily up to the member states to maintain media pluralism and diversity. A directive was proposed at a later stage by then Internal Market Commissioner Mario Monti but his initiative was rejected twice by the College of Commissioners, last time in 1997.
A new approach to media pluralism, based on monitoring, was launched by current Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding. Initial results are expected in 2009 with the publication of an independent study that will seek to define indicators for assessing media pluralism in the EU member states.
The Association of European Journalists (AEJ) presented its first survey of media freedom across Europe in November 2007. Entitled “Goodbye to Freedom?”, the survey was updated and presented at an event in Brussels on 28 February 2008. It covers 20 countries across Western and Eastern Europe.
The survey, presented on 28 February in Brussels, found media freedom “in retreat across much of Europe” and pointed to a number of abuses by governments, including interference in editorial policies and even threats and intimidation.
The AEJ survey, which covers 20 countries, listed a number of abuses including:
- Violence and intimidation (Russia, Armenia);
- assault against media independence by governments (Slovenia);
- political abuses, particularly in public broadcasting (Croatia, Slovakia, Poland), and;
- commercial pressure and over-concentration in mainstream media (France, Italy).
William Horsley, the survey’s editor, said: “Governments across Europe are showing a marked trend to use harsher methods, including heavy official ‘spin’ and tighter controls on journalists’ access to information in order to block media criticism.”
And according to Horsley, the trend is not confined to the younger democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. “The open confrontation between government and the media in Slovenia is mirrored in various ways in the UK, Ireland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, among others.”
In Ireland, two senior journalists from The Irish Times are facing jail sentences for refusing to reveal their sources, the AEJ heard at a recent workshop in Dublin. In Slovakia, journalist Martin Klein was condemned for publishing a satirical article about a church leader, a ruling which was subsequently upheld by Slovakia’s Supreme Court despite a judgement by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which backed the journalist.
EU and media organisations slow to react
What’s more, Horsley says media organisations themselves have to share part of the blame. “European media have been too slow to comprehend and report the pattern of censorship, pressure and sometimes physical violence faced by journalists in every corner of Europe,” Horsley told EurActiv.
As for the European institutions – the Council, Commission and Parliament – Horsley said they had so far failed to stand up for media freedom.
“EU leaders have too often failed to live up to their rhetoric about upholding ‘European values’ like media freedom,” Horsley told EurActiv. “The EU’s main institutions have failed to stand up to Russia over the strangulation of its independent media.”
“If the EU neglects its own doubtful record in protecting media freedoms at home it is obvious that governments elsewhere will not take very seriously its appeals to allow media freedom and independence there.”
OSCE forum on media freedom
Meanwhile, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) called on its member states to respect their media commitments at a forum on 29 February in Vienna.
The forum discussion marked the tenth anniversary of the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFOM), now held by Miklos Haraszti. The office provides early warning on violations of freedom of expression and assists participating states in fulfilling their commitments.
“The 56 OSCE nations committed themselves to the highest standards of human rights, freedom of expression included. Today, we sometimes have to defend not only press freedom standards but also the very notion of international co-operation on human rights,” Haraszti said in a statement.
William Horsley, the AEJ survey’s editor and an ex-BBC foreign correspondent, told the Brussels event on 28 February: “Media freedom is not an optional extra. Without it, governments cannot be held to account and there can be no rule of law.”
European journalists attending the survey presentation in Brussels identified further threats such as the lowering of standards due to commercial pressure and cost reductions. This includes the rise of ‘churnalism’, a practice where news production is considered as “a factory-like process simply to fill space.”
Lorenzo Consoli, president of the International Press Association (IPA), said it was important to improve conditions for transparency and denounced the growing tendency among Brussels institutions to try and control the questions asked by the press.
Some participants also recommended thinking about new revenue models brought about by new Internet technologies. Recent successful attempts at renewing journalism have included websites such as: http://www.mediapart.fr , http://www.rue89.com and http://www.opendemocracy.net
Christophe Leclercq, founder and publisher of EurActiv.com, stated after these events: “The internet is not without issues of quality and independence, but the new technology also makes it more difficult for governments to suppress news entirely.”
Leclercq pointed to the EurActiv network itself as a “small step” towards greater media pluralism. “Set up initially as a contribution to transparency, media diversity and multilingualism, the EurActiv network started with a pilot project administered by the European Centre for Journalism, which was then expanded to Central Europe, in co-operation notably with the International Federation of Journalists. The EurActiv CrossLingual network now connects around 30 journalists, working in nine languages in nine countries.”