The European Union on World Press Freedom Day should be celebrating continuing press freedom across its member states and championing press freedom abroad. But instead today there is less to celebrate and more cause for deep concern that the EU is failing to protect this core element of its democracies, Index on Censorship CEO Kirsty Hughes writes.
Across too many EU member states, press freedom is weak, faltering or in decline with little comment and less action from the EU’s leaders or the European Commission. And in neighbouring member states, including applicant countries like Turkey, the EU is failing to tackle substantive attacks on the media.
In Hungary, the independence from political interference of the country’s central bank, judicial system, media regulation and more has been called into question as its government drew up a new constitution and regulatory approaches. This is now so bad that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Europe’s human rights watchdog – quite separate from the EU) is proposing putting Hungary on its monitoring list. If it does, Hungary will joning Bulgaria as the two EU member states on this list of shame. Yet where are the EU’s leaders? More concerned on the whole with whether Hungary’s central bank is genuinely independent than whether a core element of political and economic accountability, a free media, is under attack.
A similar picture can be seen in Greece. As the ferocity of the economic crisis, and the measures imposed by the EU’s Troika, tear at the fabric of Greek society, media freedom is deteriorating – from a position that was already weak by EU standards. Journalist Kostas Vaxevanis, winner of this year’s Index Press Freedom Award, was prosecuted in 2012 for publishing the so-called Lagarde list of Greeks who have Swiss bank accounts, and may be evading tax as a result. Having won his case, Greek prosecutors rapidly announced a retrial, due this June – which if he loses will see Vaxevanis jailed. This case is ignored in Brussels. When Index and its international partners wrote to Commission president Barroso, he delegated the reply to a junior official who wrote in a letter to Index this January that the case had been positively resolved but the Commission would keep a careful watching brief. This dismissive ignorance would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.
Meanwhile, across the EU’s border, Turkey’s government is attacking media freedom with ever more brazen impunity, something Index recognised by putting Turkey’s imprisoned journalists on its press freedom Award shortlist this year.Turkey now stands ahead of China and Iran in the number of journalists it has jailed, while other journalists week by week lose their columns, their jobs, are censored by editors or owners or have learnt to self-censor. The EU is in – slow and lengthy – membership negotiations with Turkey. Any such candidate state is meant to meet basic standards of democracy including a free and fair press before talks start. So where is the EU and why has it not suspended talks until Turkey stops attacking the cornerstone of its democracy – the media?
Going North to the UK, there is chaotic disarray as British politicians attempt to establish a new system of press regulation in response to the phone-hacking scandal. The cross-party consensus on the proposed new regulator oversteps a crucial press freedom red line, with MPs voting on detailed characteristics of a new regulatory system. The bulk of the press has rejected this new approach – one that would impose exemplary damages for those not joining its ‘voluntary’ regulator – something the European Court of Human Rights will doubtless be called to judge on if the new regulator goes ahead. The Telegraph, Daily Mail, News International and others have proposed a different form of ‘independent’ regulator – one that gives them a veto on core appointments, an industry own-goal where genuine backing for a truly independent regulator would have given them the moral highground. It’s a shambolic mess – parliament showing itself careless on press freedom, and the UK apparently incapable of designing a tough, new regulator that is genuinely independent both of politicians and the press.
Where is the EU in all this? Mostly still ever-focused on the euro crisis. Senior EU leaders are starting to worry about the vertiginous loss of political trust in the EU across most member states, but showing little concern for a key element of European political systems, a free press. European Commission Vice-President Nellie Kroes did establish a High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism. But while its report had some welcome recommendations, the Group, rather anachronistically failed to begin to address and embrace the freedoms of the digital age where we are potentially all reporters and publishers.
On this World Press Freedom Day, it is time that the EU remembers its roots in democracy and freedom of expression and starts to hold its members – and candidate countries – seriously to account wherever press freedom is under attack.