The solution for Brussels, she argues, is not Article 7 but for the EU to use European competition law to challenge the monopoly on media ownership the government and government-backed companies have in Hungary.
Kinkel says that this would be a warning to other countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, which are trying to control the media in similar ways and in the case of Bulgaria giving EU funds only to government-friendly media.
“Governments try to get hold of public service media: this is one step,” he said. “And the other step is to throw out investors and media they don’t like and to give media outlets to oligarchs who are government-friendly and so on and so on, and to start new campaigns against independent investigative journalists.”
In Poland, the European Commission invoked Article 7 because of the government’s threats to the independence of the judiciary. The government so far controls only the state media but, as journalist Bartosz Wieliński , head of foreign news at the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, points out, the government used that state media to hound the mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, for months before he was assassinated in January this year.
Wieliński believes it was only after Britain voted to leave the EU that countries realised they would face little sanction if they chipped away at freedom of expression. Although the EU did not collapse as they expected, the initial disarray gave them an opportunity to test European mechanisms and find them wanting.
Maria Dahle is chief executive of the international Human Rights House Foundation. She believes financial sanctions could be the way to stop countries from crossing the line, as Poland and Hungary have.
“When allocating funding, it should be conditional,” she said. “If [member states] do violate the rule of law, it has to have consequences … and the consequences should be around financial support.”
But Mortera-Martinez warns if the EU starts punishing countries too much financially, it will encourage anti-EU feeling which could be counter-productive, leading to election wins for populist, nationalist parties. The effect of any populist gains in the May elections concerns Kinkel, also: “What is clear is that when the populist faction grows, they have the right to have their people on certain positions on committees and so on. And this will be a problem… especially for press and media freedom,” he said.
Back at the European Parliament, Sargentini is impatient. “It’s about political will, and the EU doesn’t have it at the moment,” she said. “It’s like joining a sorority [with] very strict rules for entering, but when you are there you can misbehave and it’s covered up by the group.”