Portugal: Low wages and job insecurity threaten media freedom
09 Jan 2017

Although not exposed to the perils that press freedom encounters in places such as Turkey or Hungary, experts in Portugal tell Mapping Media Freedom that journalists in the country live under a “subliminal” type of pressure that can lead to the deterioration of their work and their fundamental rights as media workers.

Most of this pressure, they say, is caused by low wages and endemic job insecurity.

“I can’t say that there’s a threat to freedom of the press such as the interference of political authorities or in the sense that a certain information is silenced, the risk of an attack like that happening is small,” says Carla Baptista, a professor at the communication sciences department of FCSH-UNL. “But there are factors that weaken journalism and journalists and which undermine their capacity to resist if and when those attacks strike.”

According to a study conducted between 2007 and 2014 by Observatório da Comunicação, more than 1,200 journalists — about 20% of the total of media workers — have either lost or left their jobs. This tendency has only but grown ever since, with layoffs taking place in newspapers such as Diário Económico (which later shutdown its paper and online edition at different stages in the early in 2016), Diário de Notícias, i, and Sol. Besides, all in 2016, newspapers Público and Expresso, and magazines Visão and Sábado, put forth voluntary redundancy programmes for journalists and other professionals.

In another study by João Miranda, a journalism researcher at Universidade de Coimbra, that was answered by 806 journalists, 56.3% earned less than €1,000 per month and 14.8% declared they were paid below minimum wage (€505) or nothing at all.

“The fact that so many journalists have no job security affects the way they regard their own activity. In some ways, this restricts the conditions under which freedom of the press exists in Portugal,” João Miranda tells Index.

Sofia Branco, president of the Portuguese Union of Journalists and a journalist at Lusa news agency, seconds his words. “This is not an average job, it has very concrete responsibilities. It’s hard to demand independence and autonomy from a journalist when he or she is working under such circumstances,” she adds.

Is pressure under-perceived?

In Miranda’s research, a total of 23.8% journalists said they felt pressured by their outlet’s board of directors and 26.2% said they felt the same coming from their editorial superiors. However, when asked whether this pressure was exerted with a commercial motivation or rather for political gain of third agents, Miranda recognised that his data “doesn’t go deep enough to assess that.”

“To be honest I think those numbers are too low”, Branco said of the approximately one quarter of journalists who complained of being pressured. “A lot of people are under pressure but don’t realise it. It’s a matter of perception. The pressure does exist and is there constantly, even it most of the times it’s just at a subliminal level.”

Although sensible to the challenges most Portuguese journalists deal with in their daily lives, Carla Baptista argues that “journalists also have to take responsibility”.

For this Lisbon-based researcher, the Portuguese media have failed to investigate the country’s authorities, to set the agenda, and also to serve their audience. “There are asymmetries in the way our society is reflected in the media. They are distanced from the problems of those who they should be talking to: young people, women, families, voters,” Baptista said.

In her view, the average Portuguese journalist looks as though he or she is “a factory worker in the assembly line who is feeding a stream of ready made news like the 19th century coalman would feed an industrial oven.”

First journalists’ congress in 19 years to be held in January

It is to look inside all of the above mentioned problems and to seek their solutions that the Portuguese Union of Journalists, alongside two other non-union journalistic associations, will hold the 4th Conference of Journalists from January 12th to the 15th — a much anticipated event since it last took place, in 1998. Its first edition dates back to 1982 and the second happened in 1986. In this year’s edition, a total of seven panels will discuss topics like the ethics of journalism, the working conditions of media professionals and the economical viability of the news media.

“The fact that the last time we all sat down to discuss our work as 19 years ago is unbelievable,” Branco points out. “This time, we can’t close the doors without having reached conclusions both to ourselves, to the the institutions we work for and to the government, too.”

Baptista feels less optimistic. “My fear is that this conference will reflect the anemia of most Portuguese journalists,” she says. “I think 2017 will be a very bad year for journalism in Portugal.”

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