Sofia Mandilara really likes her job. As a reporter for the Greek news agency Amna, she is “often at the forefront of important events”, she said. “Through us, people find out what is going on in our country.” But not all that goes on in Greece is reported. This is because Amna belongs to the Greek state and is subject to the office of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Anyone who reports critically on his conservative government is censored, the 38-year-old said.
A similar situation exists at the Italian state broadcaster, Rai, which plays a major role in shaping public opinion. It is increasingly under the influence of Italy’s right-wing populist government. Immediately after taking office in October 2022, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni filled all management positions with her followers. The two previous governments did the same, but none as radically as Meloni. Prominent reporters left and even high-profile journalist and anti-Mafia author Roberto Saviano’s show was cancelled after he tangled with Meloni. Positive reports about Meloni’s government, meanwhile, account for around 70% of all political news on Rai stations, according to the media research institute Osservatorio di Pavia.
Journalists at the Journal du Dimanche, France’s leading Sunday newspaper, have also suffered a radical change of regime. In the spring, Vivendi, owned by billionaire Vincent Bolloré, got the go-ahead to buy the publishing giant Lagardère, including the JDD. Bolloré publicly denies any political interest. But as with his acquisitions of CNews in 2016 and the magazine Paris Match last year, the buy-out was followed by a sharp turn in the editorial orientation of the JDD towards the far right.
State officials who demand censorship, party functionaries who misuse public broadcasters for their propaganda and billionaires who buy media to propagate their own political interests – what was long known only in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary – is spreading across Europe. The creeping decline in media freedom and pluralism has been documented for years by the Centre for Media Freedom at the European University of Florence, an EU-funded project. There is now “an alarming level of risk to media pluralism in all European countries”, researchers wrote in their annual report in June.
This puts Europe in a “desperate situation”, said Věra Jourová, the EU Commission vice-president for values and transparency. The Czech Commissioner has personal experience of life without a free press. “I lived under communism, that was uncontrolled power – and unchallengeable power. This should not happen in any EU member state,” she said in an interview with Investigate Europe, a co-operative of journalists from different European countries. Media are “the ones who keep politicians under control. If we want the media to fulfil its important role in democracy, we have to introduce a European safety net.” That is why she is pushing to implement a landmark EU law “to protect media pluralism and independence”, which would set legally binding standards to preserve press freedom in all EU member states.
She and her colleagues introduced the bill in September 2022. Among other things, it provides that: public service media must report “impartially” and their leadership positions must be “determined in a transparent, open and non-discriminatory procedure”; the allocation of state funds to media for advertising and other purposes must be made “according to transparent, objective, proportionate and non-discriminatory criteria”; governments and media companies must ensure that the responsible “editors are free to make individual editorial decisions”; owners and managers of media companies must disclose “actual or potential conflicts of interest” that could affect reporting; and the enforcement of journalists to reveal their sources, including through the use of spyware, must be prohibited.
All of this seems self-evident for democratic states and yet it met with massive resistance from not only Hungary and Poland, but also Austria and Germany. They argued the proposal is overreaching, “with reference to the cultural sovereignty of the member states”, according to minutes from the legislative negotiations in the EU Council, obtained by Investigate Europe. The four governments wanted a directive rather than a legally binding regulation, which would allow the governments to undermine the bill.
In Germany, media supervision is the task of regional states. On their behalf, Heike Raab from the state government of Rhineland-Palatinate, led the negotiations in the EU Council. The EU was acting as a “competence hoover in an area that was expressly reserved for the member states in the treaties”, Raab argued, saying the law would be an “encroachment on publishers’ freedom” in line with the respective lobby. If publishers are no longer allowed to dictate the content of their media alone, this would “destroy the freedom of the press”, the Federal Association of Newspaper Publishers declared. The European Publishers Association claimed that the EU proposal was in fact a “media unfreedom act”. However, Raab and the publishers’ lobby failed to present any practical proposals on how to stop the attacks on editorial freedom.
Such opposition has so far proved largely unsuccessful. Although several controversial amendments to the law have been put forward (most notably when a majority of EU governments backed a change to allow the possible use of spyware in the name of national security), the key proposals of Jourová and her colleagues were adopted in June by most EU governments. If, as expected, the parliament also gives its approval at the beginning of October, the law could come into force early next year – and trigger a small revolution in the European media system. At least that is what Jourová hopes.
The direct influence on public service media by way of appointment of politically affiliated managers, as seen in Greece and Italy, for example, would not be compatible with the new law. “The state must not interfere in editorial decisions,” Jourová said. If a member state does not comply, the Commission could open proceedings against the government for violation of the EU treaties. And if the violations continue, this could “lead to very serious financial penalties from the European Court of Justice.”
Journalists themselves could also sue governments or private media owners in national courts against censorship or surveillance on their part, the Commissioner explained.
It is questionable, however, whether this can help reverse the decline of media diversity in the right-wing populist-ruled countries. The Hungarian and Polish government are already accepting the blocking of billions in payments from EU funds because they violate the principles of the rule of law with their political control of the courts. So why should they fear further rulings by EU judges?
Viktor Orbán’s regime has for years engineered a “creeping economic strangulation” of independent media in Hungary, says journalist Zsolt Kerner of the online magazine 24.hu. The government withdrew all state advertising contracts for independent media and then pressured commercial advertisers to do the same. Today, advertising revenues only go to media loyal to the government. 24.hu survived only thanks to an economically strong and independent investor. The rest either had to close or were taken over by those connected to Orbán. This would all become illegal with the planned regulation because EU law trumps national legislation. But Kerner and his colleagues “doubt whether it will do any good in our country.” After all, the government has “many good lawyers”.
“Maybe Hungary is a bit immune now,” said Commissioner Jourová. But there, too, the government will “sooner or later feel the political impact”. An “independent European media board”, including media experts from all 27 EU states, is planned under the new regulation. While the board can decide by majority vote only on assessments without legal consequences, Jourová expects that countries “which the board certifies as restricting media freedom” will “lose their international reputation, for which most governments are very sensitive.”
This could well put pressure on the right-wing nationalists in Poland, thinks Roman Imielski, deputy head of Gazeta Wyborcza, the country’s last major independent newspaper. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government has also turned public television and the national news agency into “a Russian-style propaganda machine” that brands all critics as “traitors to the nation and conspirators”, Imielski said. But if Poland looks bad to the US government, for example, “that puts pressure on it”, as happened when the government tried to sell the government-critical TVN station, owned by a US group, to a Polish buyer. Under pressure from Washington, the Polish president vetoed the corresponding law in 2021.
When or even if Jourová’s grand plan actually becomes law is still unknown. After the parliamentary adoption scheduled for the beginning of October, its representatives still have to agree on a common text with the Council. As mentioned, most EU governments want to reverse the planned ban on the use of surveillance software against journalists and explicitly allow it in cases of danger “to national security”. Article six, which obliges media owners to respect “editorial freedom”, is also highly controversial. Member states, including Germany, want to weaken this provision considerably by only granting this freedom “within the editorial line” set by media owners. If successful, the law would fail at a crucial point.
“The problem is not media concentration in itself, the problem is that it gets into the wrong hands,” said Gad Lerner, a columnist at the still independent Il Fatto Quotidiano, who worked for La Repubblica until it was sold. “More and more entrepreneurs with a core business in other industries are buying newspapers, TV or radio to give visibility to the politicians on whom they depend for their real business.”
“Of course, we don’t want rich people to buy media to influence politics. But we are not here to micromanage how the newsrooms should be organised,” Jourová said, pointing to the need for civil society and journalists to help push for stronger editorial freedoms.
The Greek journalist Sofia Mandilara, who works at the state news agency, has already given a starting signal for this. With the help of the trade union, she filed a public complaint against the censorship of statements critical of the government in one of her articles and – to her surprise – was allowed to write another article on the subject. Since then, “at least they always ask me when they want to change my texts,” she said with a laugh.
This is a modified version of an article that first appeared on Investigate Europe here
The prominent Soviet-era Russian dissident Viktor Fainberg died this week at the age of 91. Fainberg, who was a philologist, was one of the eight people who protested in Red Square, Moscow on 25 August 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, alongside Pavel Litvinov and the late poet Natalya Gorbanyevskaya, among others. Despite the protest lasting only five minutes, all were arrested by the Soviet authorities.
All these people were instrumental in the founding of Index, as Jo-Ann Mort’s interview with Pavel Litvinov, published here, shows.
On Fainberg specifically, after his arrest he was brutally assaulted by the police to the point where he could not physically stand trial. Fainberg was examined, then sent to a Leningrad psychiatric hospital for over four years with no evidence of mental illness – details of which he shared with the translator Richard McKane who he met at an Index on Censorship party in the 1970s. He was then diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was a common tactic during the Khrushchev era to repress dissenters and silence voices of criticism in the Soviet Union, which continued into the Brezhnev era.
In the spring of 1971, Fainberg staged an 81-day hunger strike against conditions in the psychiatric hospital, and was eventually released in February 1973.
Fainberg founded the Campaign Against Psychiatric Abuse in April 1975, an organisation which campaigned against the abuse of human rights through misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. The country withdrew from the World Psychiatric Association in 1983.
After his release, Fainberg, born into a Jewish family in Kharkiv, Ukraine on 26 November 1931, initially moved to Israel before settling in France in later life.
In 2014, Fainberg received the Medal of the President of the Slovak Republic for his actions in 1968, and in 2018 received the Gratias Agit award from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic.
He kept up his activism to the end, shifting his focus to Ukraine. Years before the recent invasion, Fainberg spoke out against the Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners. He also warned of the “shadow of Munich hanging over Europe”.
In his 2015 letter to abducted Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was on hunger strike in a Russian prison, he wrote “I was born in Ukraine, in Kharkiv. The first nature that I saw, the first songs that I heard, were the nature and the songs of Mother Ukraine”. At the end of the letter, Fainberg told Savchenko that he was joining her hunger strike (which she later agreed to end). Fainberg also attended many protests in Paris, demanding the release of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov.
On news of his death Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian businessmen who was himself jailed for falling foul of the Putin regime, said:
“He was an amazing, remarkable man who felt other people’s pain as if it were his own. The world is a different place without him – even less human, even colder.”
“We will not be intimidated or pushed off the world stage by people who do not like what we stand for, and that is, freedom, democracy and the fight against disease, poverty and terrorism.” — Madeleine Albright (1937-2022)
This week one of those special people passed away. A woman who broke glass ceilings, whose leadership inspired so many others, a woman who knew what she stood for and was determined to fight for what she knew to be right. She had a life well lived and has left her mark on the world. The reality is our society is lessened by her passing, but we were lucky to have her, and we so nearly didn’t.
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Photo: Fiona Hanson/PA Images
Madeleine Albright was born Marie Jana Korbelová, in Prague in 1937, to a Jewish family. Her family fled to London in 1939 when the Nazis invaded. They converted to Roman Catholicism and hid their true identity for decades. The first female US Secretary of State only discovered the truth and the fact that 26 members of her family had been murdered in the Holocaust as an adult. At the end of the war her family chose to return to Czechoslovakia, but this proved short-lived and they were forced to flee the Communist regime in 1949 and seek asylum in the States.
As traumatic as her early life was, Marie Jana Korbelová did more than most to shape the future, to find hope and to cherish the democratic values that were stolen from her and her family. Her personal story and her impact were exceptional. But reflecting on her life has caused me to think a lot about the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum.
There is a single candle surrounded by mirrors. The reflection of each flame represents a life not born – a story not told. It highlights, in simply imagery, the lives that were extinguished, the families that were destroyed and, heartbreakingly, the children never born because their parents had been murdered. We have no idea of what the world lost because of the Shoah. The poetry and books not written, the art not created, the scientific discoveries not made.
Which brings me to the horrors we see every day on our news. The images of the death and destruction in Ukraine. Lives of every Ukrainian citizen have been turned upside down. We see daily reports of war crimes. Of children being killed, of journalists being kidnapped, of humanitarian aid being blocked.
In Ukraine today, the daily horrors shock and upset us all but for me it is also the devastation of the lives not lived. The talent that is being brutally removed from our world. Our collective society is being lessened because of their deaths and those that will now never be born. We will never know what we have lost. We can only hope that among those that survive there will be someone as inspirational as Madeleine Albright.
England fans during Euro 2020. Kieran Cleeves/PA Wire/PA Images
In celebration of one of football’s biggest international tournaments, here is Index’s guide to the free speech Euros. Who comes out on top as the nation with the worst record on free speech?
It’s simple, the worst is ranked first.
We continue today with Group D, which plays the deciding matches of the group stages today.
1st Czech Republic
Thomas Schick’s stunner against Scotland may prove a useful distraction, but praising the Czech Republic’s record on freedom of expression is also something of a long shot.
One of their most revered figures, Václav Havel was a dissident writer and playwright turned president.
Grievances over free speech in the country exist with the smearing of journalists, as well as the influence of foreign powers within universities.
Chinese influence in western countries is growing and it is well known that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are trying to change the narrative both in their own state and abroad. It means that the cornerstones of free speech in any country, universities and academic freedom, are the first ports of call.
They do so either through the funding of projects or by setting up what is known as a “Confucius Institute”. These are in place, in theory, to build bridges between universities around the world and China, but are much criticised due to accusations of attempts to censor the teaching of Chinese ideals in a certain way. There are currently two Confucius Institutes in the Czech Republic.
Associate editor Sally Gimson noted one particular case in the latest edition of the magazine: “In the Czech Republic, the head of the King Charles University’s Centre for Security Policy was sacked after the media revealed he billed the Chinese embassy (as well as the university) to run conferences on China.”
The relationship between the current government and journalists is frayed, with President Miloš Zeman sewing seeds of Trump-like distrust of the media among his people. Zeman’s government has also cracked down on independent media. For example, no press accreditation has been given to Forum 24 since 2020, who were critical of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.
In 2018, Zeman was reported to have joked about the killing of journalists after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying “I love journalists, that’s why I may organise a special banquet for them this evening at the Saudi embassy.”
Taylor is a former lawyer working for the Monaco-based Dutch oil company SBM Offshore and revealed allegations of corruption in 2013. Bribes were exchanged in return for lucrative contracts.
He faces extradition to Monaco to be “interrogated”, from Croatia, where he has been detained since July 2020 after visiting on a family holiday.
In May, the Supreme Court of Croatia issued a judgement confirming the extradition. 40 NGOs, legal experts and campaigners signed an open letter to Croatian justice minister Ivan Malenica for the extradition to be stopped, with whom the decision now rests.
His treatment by the Croatian authorities has been poor. When Taylor raised concerns over his mental health with British diplomats, he was forcibly detained and forced to spend the night in a psychiatric hospital, where he was forcibly injected.
Though the media is considered to be highly polarised and severely reduced due to cut backs that arose because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is some hope for journalists and media in the country.
As the Croatia Journalists’ Association (HND) reported, nearly 1, 000 people protested in support of what was deemed to be by them as the unfair dismissal of the journalists Danijela Bašić Palković, Borka Petrović, and Zoran Angeleski from Croatian daily newspaper Glas Istre earlier this month, due to disagreeing with editorial policy.
Not exactly the tournament favourites, their head-to-head with England on the pitch proved to be close. Off the pitch, the two have similar records.
Despite close ties, criminal justice legislation is more of a devolved matter, but the recent Scottish Hate Crime Bill is cause for concern and its implementation just edges Scotland out over their friends a little further south.
The law was introduced, and passed in March 2021, with the intention of cracking down on hate speech. However, it was derided from the start by free speech groups who believe it would have a chilling effect on free speech. Perhaps most significantly, there is a threshold now in Scottish law that exists for charging people for “stirring up hatred”, but intent must be shown. Incitement in this regard is difficult to prove.
The original bill also spoke of a need to protect people from hate speech within their own homes. In The Times in November 2020, Ruth Smeeth said: “Common sense seems to have gone out of the window with regards to the Scottish hate crime bill. Let’s be clear, hate speech is appalling and if it’s inciting violence and illegal behaviour it should be banned. But this is now trying to regulate what people say to each other over dinner — it’s absurd.”
Despite acknowledgement of concerns regarding the threshold for what is accepted to be hate speech, amendments to the law did not go far enough.
It read, “When the bill was published last year, the police, the legal profession, academics, civil liberties groups and others cautioned that the offences could catch legitimate debate on a range of issues. The vague wording of the offences and a lack of adequate free speech protections could, they warned, place a chill on free expression in the arts, the media and the public square when it comes to discussions about contentious issues such as religion and trans rights.”
As well as this, during the Covid-19 pandemic and according to the Press and Journal, Scotland became the “first country in the world” to implement restrictions to freedom of information (FOI) access to journalists and keen public citizens.
FOI’s are a vital tool for journalists receiving data that is in the public interest to report, particularly in times of crisis, such as in a pandemic.
The plans came into effect as a result of emergency votes put through the Scottish Parliament by MSPs, arguing that the changes were necessary to ease the burden on public bodies.
The atmosphere around free speech and the media in the UK is deteriorating and there have been several alarming incidents in the past few years.
Attitudes around the media have worsened while populist politics has grown. Frequently, there have been arguments surrounding free speech and the so-called “culture war” where people have claimed they are being denied a platform to speak. In response, several government figures have responded with actions defending free speech.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has put forward proposals to protect free speech on academic campuses, by making universities liable for any breaches of free speech.
However, there are several other bills that are raising alarm.
Protests are integral to upholding democracy, but the proposed Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill aims to impose a start and finish time on protests and set noise limits on them. Not accounting for one of the basic principles of protests, that they are intentionally (and peacefully) disruptive. Those who partake in the desecration of memorials could receive up to ten years in prison. Essentially, the bill lowers the threshold for the police to intervene heavily with protests to break them up, even after accusations of heavy-handedness regarding recent protests, such as the Sarah Everard vigil in March 2021.
Police heavy handedness is of genuine concern. In February, photographer Andy Aitchison was arrested and his fingerprints taken after working at a protest outside the refugee camp at Napier Barracks, in Kent.
Index’s CEO Ruth Smeeth said at the time: “The British Government talks a good game on media freedom. They are launching a National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists. They are proposing legislation to protect free speech on campus. They have spoken out about Putin’s show trial of Navalny. Of Lukashenko’s repressive regime. Of the military coup in Myanmar. But what credibility do they have if they are enabling British journalists to be arrested on UK soil – for doing their job?”
Further problematic legislation lies with the proposed Online Safety Bill (also known as ‘online harms’), currently in its white paper stage.
Due to particular language included in the bill, namely “legal but harmful”, there would be inconsistency between what is illegal online, versus what would be legal offline and thus a lack of clarity in the law regarding free speech.
England (and Wales) is very much a country that feels as though it is standing on the precipice when it comes to freedom of expression. There is hope that problematic bills such as these will be reconsidered.