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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
We are still reeling from the events of last weekend when a series of protesters were arrested in London. The protesters, from the anti-monarchy group Republic, had liaised with the police in advance and been given the green light for their demonstration. Despite this they were arrested as soon as they turned up, with no reason given. They spent the day in jail.
This overreach by the police is, sadly, part of a broader pattern of peaceful protesters and journalists reporting on these protests being arrested, all of which has been exacerbated by the passage last week of the Public Order Act 2023 – which Index has opposed from the get-go.
Commentators have raised the alarm bell. We’re sleep walking into a dictatorship, some have said. Others have warned of the UK turning into an illiberal democracy, like Hungary. So what lessons can we learn from other places that have seen their rights to protest crumble? We asked a series of people – artists, journalists and activists – to share messages with us here.
‘Akrestsina prison wasn’t born in a day’
I read Julian Assange’s letter to King Charles III from HMP Belmarsh. I recognise the prison he describes. 1,768 political prisoners in Belarus recognise it. Thousands of Belarusians who took to the streets for peaceful protests recognise it. The name of the prison is insignificant. When I tell people in so-called “first-world countries” that I spent nine days in prison for a peaceful demonstration in Belarus, they get shocked. We come to these countries for security and protection, because we believe that the rule of law works there. Who will protect their own citizens from their state?
As I followed the news from Coronation day, I questioned: why is the smoothness of the show more important than an individual’s right for freedom of assembly? Why is it so much more important that a bill is passed to make detentions of the organisers legal. They were detained before the protest even began. I remember police in Minsk in 2020 arresting us as we walked from different parts of the city, trying to gather in one spot. I remember the Belarusian oppositional candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu being beaten up and arrested on his way to the protesters on the post-election night on 19 December 2010. I don’t remember it but I read about the opponents of Lukashenka disappearing in the 90s…
Do you think I’m dramatising and it won’t happen in the UK? Not to that extent? Akrestsina prison, this torture chamber where 53 women were kept in a cell for eight, listening to the screams of men raped with a baton on the corridor, wasn’t born in a day. It is the Frankenstein of a society which disregarded the detentions and calls of activists. Don’t let Britain become Belarus.
Hanna Komar, poet and activist from Belarus
‘Authoritarian governments are watching closely’
After Hong Kong finally lifted its last pandemic restrictions in March this year, the first protests were authorised in more than three years. Ever since coronavirus arrived in the city in January 2020, the pandemic had been used as a pretext for banning demonstrations, giving rise to absurd situations where it was legal to gather in a restaurant in a group of 12 but illegal to congregate outside in groups of more than four. Protests still happened during that time, particularly in response to the introduction of the National Security Law in June 2020, but once the Hong Kong government raised the fine for violating the four-person assembly rule to HK$5,000 (£500), many people were deterred. Nonetheless, a blind eye was turned to larger groups who turned out to support the government.
When it became legal to protest again, there were a lot of strings attached, often literally. In March protesters against a proposed land reclamation project and waste-processing facility were forced to wear number tags and walk in a cordoned-off line with heavy police presence, while the organisers had to agree not to exceed the permitted 100 participants. Another march, for women’s rights, was cancelled by organisers after police said there was a risk of violence. Former members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions called off a May Day march after one of the organisers was harassed by police.
The right to protest in Hong Kong is now severely circumscribed, to the point that to do so is to invite police attention designed to deter turning out. The National Security Law has also had a chilling effect on people, who might be fearful of losing their job if they take to the streets. The Hong Kong government continues to claim there is freedom of assembly but, like many freedoms in the city these days, it is highly conditional, even hollow.
Tens of thousands of Hongkongers have moved abroad in the past few years, to Taiwan and Singapore, and also to Western countries, including the UK. For many, it is a refuge away from the deteriorating situation back home. But some are also conscious of how things are not perfect in their new adopted countries. The UK’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, with its emphasis on disruption, has aspects that are similar to restrictions back in Hong Kong, while in France, many have been shocked by the brutality of the police in repressing protests against the government’s pension reform law. Unlike in Hong Kong, there is still the possibility of legal recourse against these measures, but Western countries ought to be aware how their repressive tools undermine their own criticism of governments such as China’s and Hong Kong’s. When British police arrest anti-monarchy protesters, authoritarian governments are watching closely, and are only too happy and eager to use this as a justification, however disingenuously, next time they round up protesters on their own turf.
Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, poet from Hong Kong
‘Continue standing up for your voice’
Hungary has a long history of protests. In March 1848, a group of intellectuals kicked off a demonstration against the Habsburg empire, which led to the creation of the dual monarchy after a year-long fight. In 1956, university students sparked a mass protest against the USSR, in which over 2,000 people were killed, but which ultimately resulted in a softer governance. It was a series of protests that led to the toppling of Hungary’s last socialist PM, Ferenc Gyurcsány, too, following the leaking and broadcasting of a profane and controversial speech in 2006. A young right-wing party, Fidesz, organised multiple protests.
Ultimately, these events and Fidesz’s role contributed to the election of party chair Viktor Orbán in 2010. Since then, he has been leading the country into an increasingly anti-democratic future, including cracking down on protesters’ rights.
The country has witnessed plenty of protests since, despite increasingly strict laws and growing retaliation. In the latest, students marched against the restrictions of freedom of teachers. Two events, held one week apart in April and May, were both ended by the police spraying tear gas, in some cases directly in the faces of minors.
The popularity of these protests shows that the Hungarian youth isn’t keen on standing down and giving in to a future without voice, joining youth around the world, be it protesting against monarchy, for pensions or human rights.
Videos of this protest see visibly young people tearing down the metal fence in the Buda Castle, climbing on buildings and chanting the mantra of protests around the world: we won’t allow this.
“This shows that we got under someone’s skin, we started doing something… And maybe we will get even more under their skin,” one young protester said when asked why she persists, by the independent portal Telex.hu. Perhaps this should be a message for all protesters around the world: to continue standing up for your voice and displease those who are trying to take it away.
Lili Rutai, journalist from Hungary
When the most distinguished former chair of Israel’s Supreme Court, the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Aharon Barak, said that he would go before a “firing squad” if it would help prevent what he sees as an existential threat to his country’s democracy, it’s a safe bet he was talking about something momentous.
Barak’s January denunciation of the attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to neuter the Court was just part of what has brought many tens of thousands of Israeli citizens out in unprecedented protests across the country. An impressive array of judicial, political, ex-military and intelligence leaders have warned that Netanyahu’s programme is leading Israel on a path akin to that of authoritarian governments like Hungary and Poland at best, and dictatorship and “fascism” at worst.
The coalition formed on 29 December is easily the most right wing in Israel’s history and includes in key Cabinet posts two religious and avowedly extreme and anti-Arab supremacists, Bezalal Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, both determined that Israel should annex the occupied West Bank. Their appointment adds a volatile new element to a conflict in which 14 Israelis and 70 Palestinians have been killed this year alone.
But it is the “reforms” to the Supreme Court drawn up by Netanyahu’s justice minister Yariv Levin which, opposed by an Israeli majority in opinion polls, have unleashed a wave of outrage on the streets. These include clauses heavily curbing judicial review, removing the criterion of “reasonableness” by which it can judge government decisions, for appointments of the Court to fall under the direct control of the government, and for judgements ruling that a government decision in unlawful or conflicts with semi-constitutional Basic Laws to be overruled by a simple majority in the Knesset (parliament).
The Court is hardly the “overmighty” bastion of liberalism depicted by its critics. Last year, for example, it approved the planned eviction of 1000 southern West Bank Palestinians from their homes purportedly to make way for an Israeli military firing zone. But it remains the last hope for individuals, Jewish or Arab, fighting against unjust decisions, whether legal or administrative. What’s more in Israel’s single parliamentary chamber system the Court is the only check and balance on the executive and the Knesset majority it invariably commands.
The changes to the Court should not be seen in isolation from other measures planned or already in various stages of enactment or proposal. These include allowing the death penalty – unused since the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s execution in 1962 – for Palestinian terrorists, and the power to deprive Arab—though not Jewish—terrorists of residency as well as citizenship. Fears of secular Israelis have been fuelled by calls from ultra-orthodox parties for an end to the ban on segregation of men and women at publicly funded events, while Smotrich has even called for the banning of Arab political parties, representing nearly 20% of the Israeli population. Already under way is a bill to curb the law officers’ power to declare the prime minister unfit to rule. Many Israelis also see the wider judicial reforms partly as an attempt by Netanyahu to escape the possible consequences of his ongoing trial on three corruption charges.
The Netanyahu coalition agreement provides for prohibitively high taxation of Israeli civil-society organisations, several defending Palestinian human rights, which draw funding from mainly European governments, including Britain’s. The measure will not mostly apply to the many right-wing, pro-government advocacy groups because they are mainly funded by rich individuals, especially in the USA.
There has not yet been any legislative attack on Israel’s still fairly vibrant press, albeit in a market dominated by the pro-Netanyahu freesheet Israel Hayom. But writing after the election last October Aluf Benn, editor of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, pointed out that existing legislation for ordering a state of emergency lays down powers for a press clampdown, and suggested that Netanyahu, Smotrich and Ben Gvir wanted a state “in which criticising the government or replacing it will only be a pipe dream.”
In a sense, however, the changes to the Supreme Court are the programme’s hinge, by severely weakening its right to strike down any of these or other measures because, say, they do not conform with the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. Indeed if so far vain attempts by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog fail to secure a compromise on the changes, and the government passes the Court legislation by the end of March as it intends, a major stand-off between it and the Court is in prospect, leaving much of Israel—perhaps even including senior Army figures—having to choose between its recognition of an elected government and its respect for the law as it has prevailed since the state’s foundation 75 years ago.
Students should be encouraged to challenge ideas and question the world around them. Higher education is meant to teach us how to think freely, and for ourselves. Unsettling new data published by the Academic Freedom Index proves that this freedom is under threat. The report finds that academic freedom is in decline for over 50 percent of the world’s population and that many people on campuses worldwide have significantly less freedom today than they did ten years ago. In the past decade, academic freedom has improved in only a handful of countries, affecting just 0.7% of the world’s population. The most populous of these countries is Uzbekistan, a closed autocracy in which universities and scholars still face severe limitations, such as the government’s control over contacts between universities or scholars and foreign entities.
AFI’s data signals a decline across all regions and all region types. Our own ranking, the recently published Index Index, a project that uses innovative machine learning techniques to map the free expression landscape across the globe, shows just how this plays out on a country-by-country basis. Some obvious patterns can be drawn. Dwindling academic freedom clearly correlates to the deterioration of democracy in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Russia and Belarus. Political developments, including military coups in countries such as Myanmar and Afghanistan, have coincided with severe declines in academic freedom. In December 2022, the latter saw a ban by the Taliban on women and girls attending universities, a ruling that illustrates how academic freedom extends beyond what is taught on campuses and delineates one’s freedom to simply exist within academic spaces.
That said, the data shows that declines in academic freedom worldwide have occurred in different political settings and do not always follow the same pattern. Liberal democracies such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom are among the countries under which freedom is proven to be under threat. The AFI attributes this to ‘differences between individual and institutional dimensions of academic freedom’. This demarcates the difference between the freedom of an individual to teach, research and communicate freely and an institution’s autonomy and freedom to operate without government regulation. The AFI report gives a number of examples showing how disaggregation has occurred.
China, for instance, has witnessed a decrease in institutional academic freedom since 2010, when the State Council launched a ten-year strategy for education reform. Chinese universities have since remained in a subordinate position to the party-state, with universities that maintain leadership and management systems controlled by the university’s party committee. The party sets the boundaries of permissible research, exchange, and academics’ public speech. This system facilitated a serious decline in the freedoms enjoyed by academics under President Xi Jinping who has consolidated and centralised power, reestablished the party’s control over information, education and media, and made censorship in China a fact of life. Moreover, the draconian National Security Law enacted in Beijing in 2020 has exacerbated pressure on academic freedom.
The United States, however, presents an altogether different picture. Despite being lauded as a bastion of free expression, the US has seen a visible decline in academic freedom since 2021. This is because educational matters in the USA are largely regulated by individual states, which have increasingly used their authority to interfere in academic affairs. Several Republican-led states have adopted bills that ban the teaching of concepts related to “critical race theory” in universities. Conservative groups have lobbied state legislatures in attempts to withdraw funding from subjects such as gender, minority studies, and environmental science. Some institutions have introduced self-censoring measures following abortion bans to avoid persecution by state governments. In September 2022, Idaho’s flagship university curtailed individual academic freedom by blocking staff from discussing abortion or emergency contraception on campus.
Mexico’s government, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has weakened institutional autonomy by regularly appointing university directors, often resulting in student protests. Attacks on (predominantly female) students, protests against these harassments, and a drug war fought on university campuses has also fuelled a decline in campus integrity, university safety and academic freedom.
The underwhelming glimpse of hope that emerges from this year’s findings (compared with 2022) is that the number of countries with improvements in academic freedom grew from two to five. Overall, the data signals a shift toward a less free world, in a worse state than it was 10 years ago. It’s a tough pill to swallow.