April 26, 2020

Freedom of Press in Europe: Democracy at Risk

By Alena Poilova

Press freedom, which includes the freedom and pluralism of the media as well as the right to freedom of expression, is an acknowledged human right protected by law in Europe. The right to freedom of expression applies to all Member States of the European Union. It mirrors in Article 11 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Press freedom, being one of ‘key indicators of potential Member State’s readiness to become part of the EU,’ plays a significant role in the enlargement policy of the European Union.

Although Europe is regarded as a ‘safe harbor’ for free and independent media, it faces an overall decline in press freedom. The World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders and the 2019 Annual Report prepared by the Partner Organizations to the Council of Europe Platform to Promote the Protection of Journalists and Safety of Journalism show that the European Union and Balkans have suffered deterioration in the level of press freedom constraints and violations for at least last seven years.

The World Press Freedom Index is based on the evaluation (scores ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 being the best possible score) of the following seven criteria: pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.

According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, the European Union and Balkans registered the second most significant deterioration (1.7 percent) in its score measuring the level of press freedom violations.

In Hungary (in 2019: down 14 at 87th), the government attempts to take control over the country’s media since Prime Minister Victor Orbán came to power in 2010. Hungarian media faced obstacles, including public campaigns to discredit independent journalists: verbal attacks on social media of government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs against Politico correspondent Lili Bayer; refusals of officials related to Orbán’s party Fidesz to speak to journalists who are not from media that are friendly to Fidesz; a case against investigative journalist András Dezső possibly linked to his independent reporting. The 2018 Hungarian parliamentary elections campaign, lacked pluralism and critical debate, was marked ‘by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis’. The fact that the Media Council threatened to close two radio stations amid allegations of discrimination against outlets that are critical of the ruling Fidesz party has undermined media freedom in the country. In 2020, Hungary’s World Press Freedom Index declined again, and the drift towards authoritarianism has strengthened. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán assumed full powers using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext. A new ‘fake news’ provision has passed, according to which anyone who participates in spreading fake news, might face a prison term of up to 5 years.

In Malta (in 2019: down 12 at 77th) and Slovakia (in 2019: down eight at 35th), the murders of journalists and a lack of proof that the authorities are in control of a diligent investigation (in Caruana Galizia’s case) have raised the awareness of the deterioration of journalist safety and impunity.

In Poland (in 2019: down one at 59th) and Bulgaria, journalists’ investigation activities may result in imprisonment. In Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza’s journalists were arrested when they lifted the veil on a questionable construction project linked to the ruling party. While in Bulgaria, two journalists were arrested for investigation of corrupt activities related to the EU funds.

Italy is among the countries where the number of press freedom violations has increased dramatically, especially in 2018. In 2018, two journalists faced death threats by criminal groups, and 21 reporters have been under police protection due to the threats. Deputy Prime Ministers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini regularly expressed hostile rhetoric to journalists through social media, including threats to withdraw police protection for journalist Roberto Saviano, threatened by criminal organizations, after he criticized Salvini, and Di Maio’s policy of abolition of public subsidies to the press. In 2019 and 2020, Italy’s World Press Freedom score improved slightly, reflecting the government change.

In France, reporters, who covered the Yellow Vest protests, faced an unprecedented level of violence and had to be escorted by bodyguards. According to the World Freedom Press Index, France continues losing points in 2019 and 2020. Spain also dropped in the ranking where journalists were attacked by the far-right VOX party and pro-independence Catalan demonstrators.

Online harassment is growing in the following countries: Norway, Finland, Estonia, Sweden and the Netherlands. In these countries, journalists are being attacked online, mostly by Chinse, Iranian, and Russian trolls that led to a slight drop in the rankings.

During the last seven years, Europe faced the press freedom violations, such as murders, verbal and physical attacks on journalists, legal harassment, discrimination against media outlets, online harassment and surveillance, and the concentration of media ownership due to the financial crisis.

Even though various governmental and non-governmental organizations advocate for media freedom within the European Union by monitoring, and giving legal and financial support to journalists and media organizations, the European Union still experience the overall decline of press freedom. The Copenhagen Dilemma, when EU institutions have a limited possibility to enforce fundamental rights once a state entered the EU, indicates the weakness of the EU institutes to safeguard compliance with the press freedom framework. Most proposals to better protect press freedom in Europe reflect the need for more cooperation among all member states: sanctions against predators of press freedom, the appointment of a European Commissioner in charge of representing the freedom of the press, ensuring reliable information prevails over manipulation and strengthening the role of the European Parliament in reviewing compliance with press freedom framework in all member states.

A free and independent media, going hand in hand with high GDP per capita and living conditions, except a few countries, is one of the most valuable features of modern democracy. ‘No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information,’ says Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, ‘It is the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.’ The failure to preserve and protect press freedom puts democracies under threat, and it may result in misinformation that might lead to unexpected circumstances, such as the facilitation of the spread of a virus in the world.

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