Press freedom: is the EU on the wrong track?

29 February 2012

“As soon as you censor somewhere, you’re censoring everywhere, because information is global,” said Jean-Paul Marthoz, foreign affairs columnist at Belgian newspaper Le Soir and senior advisor at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Stable democracies are models for the rest of the world. A free press is a measure of this,” said Marthoz, presenting the findings of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ latest report on press freedom worldwide.

“Europe has seen killings of journalists in recent years, for example in Bulgaria. State security services have been overly aggressive in chasing journalists’ sources. So it’s not a haven for journalists,” said Marthoz, who is also professor of international journalism at the University of Louvain.

“Democracy is a permanent tussle between different centres of power. But things can go too far,” he said, citing excessive media concentration in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi as an example.

“State intrusion in public service broadcasting is growing in some countries,” he added, referring to France under Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as Portugal.

“We should react to every attack on press freedom, however slight,” the Le Soir columnist argued.

Hungary is another major issue in the European Union. “It’s currently the defining focus of attention regarding press freedom in Europe,” Marthoz said.

“Hungary has taken a step back from the fundamental values of the EU enshrined in the Treaties, so the European Commission’s reaction is crucial. But so far, it’s been rather technical and cosmetic, based on details of law,” the Le Soir columnist lamented.

“We’re at risk of seeing a degradation of press freedom in Europe, because others can see that Hungary is not being dealt with. So you can get away with it,” he warned.

“Our report contains dozens of examples of killings, harassment and censorship of journalists all over the world. These cases offer the EU the chance to make a global impact by defending those colleagues,” said Nina Ognianova, programme coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“But unless the EU upholds fundamental rights within its own boundaries, it won’t be effective in spreading them beyond,” she warned.

The EU tries to raise the issue of press freedom as much as possible in all its external relations. We try to pursue this line in the best possible way, but realpolitik does come into it, said Anthony Whelan, head of cabinet for EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes.

“Our previous official policy of engagement in the South Mediterranean wasn’t the most honourable, or even the most effective in realpolitik terms,” Whelan admitted.

“The old perceived trade-off between important values and stability was a false trade-off. [EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine] Ashton recognises this,” he declared.

“We need to strengthen our engagement with non-official bodies like NGOs,” he argued, explaining that the EU was pursuing a “no disconnect” strategy in all its external relations.

“We need to master the right tools. Sanctions imposed on Syria include action related to electronic surveillance equipment, for example,” the Commission official said.

“The EU accession process with our neighbours is an important lever that can most certainly be used,” Whelan said, for example to raise the prominence of protecting fundamental human rights.

He described the migration from EU candidate member to member state as “a significant challenge”.

“Fundamental rights are in the Copenhagen criteria as part of the accession package. But once you’re in, it’s all about the Treaties and the division of competences between the EU and member states,” Whelan said.