Until his last days in office, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi pursued restrictive legislation known as the 'gag law.' (Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo)

In the EU, some countries appear more immune than others to scrutiny and reproach. Anti-terror laws, political and economic concerns, and a lack of common standards all challenge the credibility of the EU’s diplomacy. By Jean-Paul Marthoz


Cracks in the Pillar
Of European Press Freedom

By Jean-Paul Marthoz

European officials tend to be proud of the state of press freedom in the European Union. Most EU member states sit at the top of international freedom of expression rankings, and the adoption in December 2009 of the Lisbon Treaty, the constitutional basis of the EU, has enshrined freedom of the press as legally binding. Physical attacks against journalists are rare, and in intergovernmental forums, EU member states usually stand up for freedom of expression.

Until his last days in office, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi pursued restrictive legislation known as the 'gag law.' (Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo)

But while the reality in Europe is light-years away from that of the most repressive countries, the gap is widening between “model countries” such as Finland or Sweden and others such as Hungary, Romania, Greece, or Bulgaria that are on the wrong side of the press freedom rankings. France, which has a vibrant and inquisitive media, has also registered a worrying slide in its press freedom record.

“We are quite concerned by the deteriorating conditions of press freedom in a number of EU countries, in particular in some of the new member states like Hungary or Bulgaria,” said Tanja Fajon, a Slovenian member of the European Parliament. “In recent years, we have recorded growing political pressures, harassment, and even attacks against journalists. The lack of transparency in the ownership of the media, the economic crisis, and the rise of right-wing populist movements have created a worrying environment for the exercise of independent journalism,” said Fajon, who is a member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the second largest group in the European Parliament, and vice chairwoman of its Media Intergroup.

“Despite the European Union’s commitment to the values of press freedom and human rights as set out in numerous treaties and declarations, its institutions–Council, Parliament, and Commission–are often restrained by member states who jealously guard their jurisdiction over media policy,” said Aidan White, a media analyst and former general secretary of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. “There has been little effort to create a single, harmonized culture of press freedom across the region. The Council and the Commission often remain silent in the face of press freedom violations and concerns.”

In recent years, some European governments have shown a propensity to tighten control on the media. Post-9/11 anti-terror laws have created a more chilling environment for press freedom and access to information. There is widespread concern, writes Sheffield University Professor William Horsley, “that some anti-terrorism legislation restricting freedom of expression is too broad, fails to define clear limits to authorities’ interference, or lacks sufficient procedural guarantees to prevent abuses.”

The EU Data Retention directive, in particular, has been denounced by free speech advocates as a threat to independent watchdog journalism. It obliges telecommunications companies to store citizens’ telecommunications data for six to 24 months and allows police and security agencies armed with a court order to request access to IP addresses and time of use of emails, phone calls, and text messages.

The protection of sources is the major battleground of press freedom in Europe. Although they celebrate the role of a free press as the pillar of a vibrant democracy, some governments are particularly eager to defang investigative journalism and do not refrain from using the resources of the state and dirty tricks to silence whistleblowers or intimidate muckrakers.

In France, for example, the secret services, under direct orders from President Nicolas Sarkozy’s office, required telecommunications companies to provide the phone records of a Le Monde journalist, Gérard Davet, as the interior minister eventually admitted. Davet had published incriminating documents on the Bettencourt saga, a highly publicized case involving, in part, allegations of illegal contributions to Sarkozy’s 2007 presidential campaign by the richest woman in France, Liliane Bettencourt. In October 2011, this affair led to the indictment of the director of the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence, Bernard Squarcini, on charges of “illegally collecting data and violating the confidentiality of sources of a journalist.”

In Portugal, senior members of the Strategic Defence and Intelligence Services (SIED) illegally secured access to journalist Nuno Simas’ mobile phone calls and messages. Acting on their own initiative and without any judicial warrant, according to the weekly Expresso, the agents were trying to identify Simas’ sources for an article published in the newspaper Publico about alleged tensions between SIED, Portugal’s foreign intelligence agency, and SIS, its domestic agency.

In September 2011, U.K. police questioned Guardian reporter Amelia Hill over her investigation into the hacking of the voicemail of celebrities and private citizens by Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World. Scotland Yard also invoked the Official Secrets Act to try to force the reporter to reveal her confidential sources. The police eventually withdrew their bid.

Governments confronted with economic downturn and social malaise have shown signs of nervousness and intolerance. Embattled political leaders continually on the lookout for electoral support tend to see independent and critical journalism as a potential threat to their ability to retain office. In France, Sarkozy granted himself the prerogative of directly appointing the directors of the influential public television channels, a measure seen by journalist associations as an attempt to influence political coverage in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections.

Before being forced from office in November, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had tried to domesticate the RAI public service system, leaving most of the independent watchdog function to a few newspapers and the blogosphere. Eager to stop leaks on corruption investigations and his sex scandals, Berlusconi had also proposed a gag law that would impose heavy fines and prison terms on journalists publishing police wiretapped material before the opening of a trial.

Governments have also sometimes lost nerve when confronted with demonstrators and rioters. In August 2011, at least six photojournalists were verbally abused, assaulted, or beaten by the Spanish police while covering social protests and demonstrations against Pope Benedict’s visit to the country. Reporters have been subject to police violence in Greece as well.

After the disturbances that rocked British cities in August 2011, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to shut down social media if there were further street protests, under the pretext that the riots had been coordinated on Twitter and Facebook. He backed down under pressure from press freedom groups and civil libertarians. But the BBC, Sky News, and ITN were forced to hand over to the police hundreds of hours of un-broadcast footage of the riots after being served with court orders by Scotland Yard. “We are there to report news for the public, not to be used as a source of evidence for the police to prosecute people,” protested Barry Fitzpatrick of the National Union of Journalists.

In such contexts, journalists are also targeted by rioters who see them as political adversaries or police auxiliaries. Attacks or threats against journalists were reported during the English disturbances in August and the Greek protests in October.

Tensions over religious issues also affect freedom of expression, with some media apparently exercising self-censorship to avoid being accused of inciting hatred or being the target of violent reprisals. On November 2, 2011, the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly, were firebombed and its website was hacked after it published a “Charia Hebdo” issue “guest-edited by Prophet Muhammad” that took potshots at radical Islam. The attack triggered a rowdy debate on the limits of freedom of expression and responsibility of the press regarding sensitive issues such as religion and ethnicity.

A blasphemy law was enacted in Ireland in 2010, and similarly vague legislation on “religious insults” or “religious vilification” is still on the books in a number of European countries, including Austria, Greece, Malta, the Netherlands, and Poland.

Press freedom can also be threatened by violent groups. In Spain, although the ETA separatist armed group declared a “permanent truce” in January 2011, at least 19 media professionals working in the Basque country were still under police protection in late 2011, according to the Spanish Federation of Journalists Associations. In countries such as Italy, powerful criminal groups are major threats to journalists, forcing reporters to self-censor or go underground. The Neapolitan journalist and writer Roberto Saviano, the best-selling author of Gomorrah, a book that exposed the Camorra’s (local mafia) business and connections, has been given permanent police protection.

The state of press freedom is also shaped by the economics of the media. “Concentration of ownership and the buying up of media groups by pro-government players are worrisome trends across Europe, and particularly in countries like Italy or Bulgaria,” said Edward Pittman, program coordinator at the Open Society Media Program. “These trends limit the plurality of views, threaten truly independent journalism, and foster self-censorship in the coverage of important public interest issues.”

Still, the crudest attempts at controlling or intimidating the media have usually been met with sharp resistance. In France, journalists are vying to unveil political corruption or influence-peddling whatever political party is on the firing line. In Portugal’s Simas case, the daily Publico counterattacked by filing a complaint for violation of privacy. In the United Kingdom, the police action against Hill, a reporter for the center-left Guardian, was roundly rebuked even by pro-Conservative media outlets such as The Daily Mail and The Times.

In matters of press freedom, the European Union is largely a two-tier or two-speed community. In many of the Eastern European countries that joined the EU, as well as in accession countries such as Croatia or Turkey, press freedom is far from being firmly established.

“The EU enlargement process over the past 15 years has seen countries with a weak tradition of press freedom welcomed into the Brussels family,” the analyst White said. “In all of these countries problems remain, particularly over a lack of transparency in media ownership, a tendency among politicians of all colors to interfere in journalism, and flawed systems of media regulation, particularly covering public broadcasting.”

In the Western Balkans, in particular, politicization of the media corrodes public debate and an atmosphere of intimidation is fostered by strong populist and nationalistic movements either in government or in the opposition. Criminal organizations also constitute a major threat. Journalists have been threatened, violently assaulted, and murdered in Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Kosovo, Serbia, and Turkey.

The most direct political attack against the letter and the spirit of a free press within the EU has come from Hungary. Viktor Orban’s conservative government rammed through Parliament a new press law in late 2010 and a new constitution in April 2011 that were denounced as starkly illiberal by civil rights and press freedom groups. “As a candidate country, Hungary would have been obliged to reform its media law before it would have been allowed in,” said former Belgian minister Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, the third largest group at the European Parliament.

The Hungarian case indicates that the EU remains wary of putting in place the mechanisms that would force recalcitrant member states to respect the values and standards laid out in the Lisbon Treaty. “The European Commission has requested only cosmetic changes in the Hungarian legislation,” said Fajon, the European Parliament member. “The digital agenda commissioner, Neelie Kroes, has addressed only technical aspects of the law although the Hungarian government was directly challenging the fundamental values of the EU.”

The Hungarian media law, parts of which were struck down by the country’s Constitutional Court in late year, has also highlighted the need to be more forceful in negotiations with candidate countries. A key test of the EU’s commitment to these principles is how seriously it considers press freedom as a yardstick to judge candidate countries’ compliance with the so-called Copenhagen criteria, the list of requirements–a functioning democracy, market economics, and implementation of EU law–with which nations have to comply before joining the Union.

Recently, however, the European Union has looked past press freedom violations when this suited its “other and more substantive interests,” in the words of one EU official. In 2006, EU officials eager to complete the accession of Romania and Bulgaria played down the failings of these aspiring countries in the fields of press freedom and good governance. This complacency has come back to haunt the EU. As the European Federation of Journalists put it in May 2011: “In Romania, journalists have to challenge a national security strategy that considers journalists a threat to the state, and in Bulgaria, investigative journalists are threatened and sometimes physically assaulted.” The victims have included Bulgarian crime writer Georgi Stoev, who was shot dead in 2008, and television journalist Sasho Dikov, whose car was blown up outside his Sofia apartment on October 13, 2011.

The European Commission promises to be tougher in its negotiations with the remaining candidate countries. Although it has given the green light to Croatia, a country plagued with violence against investigative journalists, “the enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, is thinking of singling out press freedom as a more explicit benchmark for accession,” said Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

“Press freedom is becoming a priority for the EU and in particular for the European Parliament,” Fajon said. “Two committees of the European Parliament are preparing reports on press freedom and freedom of expression in EU member states and in the rest of the world.”

Concern for press freedom is guiding the assessment of Turkey’s conformity with EU standards. The latest progress reports published by the European Commission, backed by stern appraisals of Turkey’s press freedom record by Thomas Hammarberg, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, have been more critical than in years past. (Turkey, which has reinforced its economic power and is playing an increasingly active role on the international scene, still does not appear ready to take its cue from Brussels.) The more severe approach might also be applied to Macedonia, where the ruling nationalist government has bullied opposition and dissident media and, according to press freedom groups, used taxation laws to silence political rivals in the press.

On the positive side, emblematic cases like anti-terror legislation, the Hungarian press law, or the French secret services’ spying on journalists have energized press freedom groups around pan-European campaigns, boosting their clout with European institutions and national governments. The increased cross-border cooperation has helped raise local issues of press freedom to the level of the European Union. The European Parliament held a succession of hearings on the state of media in the region at the behest of press freedom groups. And in late November, delegations of international and national press freedom groups visited Hungary and Macedonia to support embattled local journalists.

“Press freedom groups across Europe are keenly aware that everything is interconnected: If Hungary gets away with cherry-picking the worst pieces of EU legislation to draft its press law, it will inevitably lead other countries to follow this bad example,” said the Open Society’s Pittman.

Indeed, something positive has emerged from these controversies, suggests Renate Schroeder, co-director of the European Federation of Journalists. “While [in] years past no one seemed to care about press freedom within the EU, Neelie Kroes, the EU digital agenda commissioner, at least reacted a little bit on the Hungarian case and the European Parliament acted,” Schroeder said. The announcement by the European Commission in early October that it was opening a high-level inquiry into press freedom might “just be for show,” as the EUObserver reported, but it demonstrates that the commission has been forced to listen to the warnings of journalists’ groups and concerned members of the European Parliament.

EU journalists can also refer cases to the European Court of Human Rights, an institution linked to the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, whose rulings apply to all EU member states. The Court has often ruled in favor of press freedom and freedom of expression and has developed EU-wide norms and jurisprudence.

Still, the lack of common standards and initiatives between the various European institutions that deal with press freedom is a challenge. “The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner as well as the representative on freedom of the media” at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe “are doing great work,” Schroeder said, “but there is not enough coordination with the European Union, which has the
tools–the Lisbon Treaty, the Charter of Fundamental Rights–to effectively defend freedom of the press in its member states.”

Further, fighting legal battles as they arise will not be enough to contain or roll back negative trends. “A proactive strategy is needed in order to protect media pluralism and independence,” Pittman said. “In Eastern Europe, in particular, ways have to be found to assure the sustainability of truly independent media that are able to resist massive pressures from the state, large corporations, and criminal organizations.”

The state of press freedom inside the European Union is crucial to the EU’s credibility in public diplomacy. In its external relations, the EU tries to present itself as a beacon of democracy and as a world leader in respect to freedom of speech. This commitment is generally respected by the EU in the context of intergovernmental institutions such as the U.N. Human Rights Council or UNESCO; European countries usually battle attempts to impose resolutions on the “defamation of religion” and fight maneuvers to establish prizes in the name of dictators, such as the proposed UNESCO/Teodoro Obiang Prize, named for and funded by the president of Equatorial Guinea.

Still, many European countries have also shown a readiness to put aside press freedom in their external relations. Few European governments openly protested when authoritarian Arab rulers appeared solidly installed in their presidential palaces. France, the United Kingdom, and Italy waited until the last moment before jettisoning Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi. Cozy relationships with African strongmen are still the rule between Paris and its former colonies, despite promises to support good governance and civil liberties. Until recently, the United Kingdom has also refrained from openly criticizing allied countries such as Rwanda or Ethiopia for their very poor records on press freedom. And Spain’s socialist government has remained soft in its assessment of Cuba’s dire press freedom conditions, though it did work to win the release of imprisoned Cuban journalists in 2010 and 2011.

Press freedom is often excised from the human rights dialogues that the EU holds with powerful and prickly countries like Russia or China. During bilateral summits, some committed officials are sometimes able to raise objections behind closed doors and inquire about the fate of imprisoned journalists, but such touchy subjects are not allowed to emerge in public events or to hamper trade deals.

The EU and its member states, like other democracies, appear torn between principles and realpolitik. Even as EU-funded human rights experts train journalists to secure their Internet communications against state-sponsored hacking or denial-of-service attacks, European trade officials allow the export to authoritarian countries of technology to monitor, track, and repress these very dissidents and independent writers. While the European Commission proclaims its commitment to press freedom, many European countries have been toughening their asylum procedures, at the risk of compromising the safety and the rights of foreign journalists under threat.

Two December 2011 initiatives should bring more consistency to EU foreign and trade policy by incorporating Internet freedom as a key objective. The European Parliament approved an Internet Freedom Fund aimed at empowering online journalists to circumvent censorship, while Kroes launched a “No-Disconnect” strategy designed to help human rights defenders communicate safely and anonymously. The challenge for advocates is to constantly monitor EU initiatives, linking the Union’s internal performance to its foreign policy.

Press freedom advocates rely on the commitment of the European Parliament, an institution that has been endowed with new prerogatives by the Lisbon Treaty, to bridge the gap between rhetoric and policy. The parliament has consistently awarded its prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to independent journalists and writers in authoritarian states. The parliament and its major political groups have also held frequent hearings on attacks against press freedom and adopted many resolutions condemning abuses, like the Eritrean government’s jailing of journalists, the harassment of dissidents in China, or impunity in Russia.

“How can the EU be credible if it allows Hungary to undermine freedom of expression and tolerates encroachments on the press in countries like France or Italy?” said Schroeder of the European Federation of Journalists. “The best way for the EU to help independent journalists abroad is also to fully respect inside its own borders the principles of freedom of expression, which it is so keen to preach abroad.”

Norway, which is not an EU member state, is seen by many press freedom groups as an inspiration. After the Utoya Island massacre carried out in July by far-right militant Anders Behring Breivik, the country’s authorities solemnly reaffirmed their belief in freedom of expression as a pillar of democratic society.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg sent a strong message to governments tempted to exploit dramatic events in order to muzzle independent journalism and restrict freedom of expression, stating, “Our country will stake its course with the strongest weapons in the world: freedom of speech and democracy.”

CPJ Senior Adviser Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist and writer. He is a foreign affairs columnist for Le Soir and journalism professor at the Université de Louvain-la-Neuve.

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