Red flags in the European Union press freedom debate

The European Union enjoys waving the banner of press freedom overseas. However, it is sometimes at a loss when it has to define its approach to press freedom among its own member states.

Last year, the EU tried and failed to convince the Hungarian government to radically amend its highly controversial media law. The conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban deflected the pressure by playing on the vagueness of EU treaties and on the fear of Brussels’ intervention in the member states’ “internal affairs.”

Last week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who had mildly criticized Orban and won some tepid plaudits from press freedom groups, put himself in a hot seat when he appeared in Bucharest alongside Romanian Prime Minister Viktor Ponta and endorsed the prime minister’s criticism of the media, citing their “campaigns against the independence of the magistrates.”

Although the Romanian Premier mitigated Barroso’s statement by underlining that “media freedom is a fundamental value,” the EU approach has not gone down well with pro-media freedom groups in Romania, as Nikolaj Nielsen wrote in the EUObserver. The Romanian Helsinki Committee and like-minded organizations such as the Center for Independent Journalism, the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism, and Active Watch “fear that Romanian authorities might mistake the EU intervention as a carte blanche to crack down on government-critical journalists, for instance by making defamation and slander punishable under criminal law,” Nielsen reported.

These groups are all the more concerned since Barroso’s statement was not a slip of the tongue. It reflects the gist of a report on Romania’s rule of law recently published by the European Commission. “The wording of the report is too vague and leaves room for the authorities to take measures against independent media,” said Diana-Olivia Hatneanu of the Romanian Helsinki Watch Committee.

The “wording” is also an issue in a separate report released on January 21 in Brussels by the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism, a group set up by the European Commission in 2011 in the wake of the Hungarian media crisis and chaired by the former president of Latvia, Vaira Vïķe-Freiberga.

The authors of the report push many of the right buttons. First and foremost, they undercut the EU’s own hesitant constitutional lawyers by clearly considering the EU “competent to act to protect media freedom and pluralism at state level in order to guarantee the substance of the rights granted by the treaties to EU citizens.” They are also on the right track when they state that media freedom trumps other rights. And, as highlighted by Mark Thompson, of the Open Society Foundation Media Program, “the High Level Group spells out, with equal trenchancy, the practical sequel to the recommendation: ‘The EU should designate a monitoring role of national-level freedom and pluralism of the media’ at the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the agency responsible for providing the EU and national governments with advice and research on the state of play of human rights across the EU.”

The report also states, positively, that “media freedom and pluralism should play a prominent role in the assessment of accession countries” (read: Turkey!) or that “the EU should act to protect media freedom also beyond its borders.”

Press freedom activists, however, become edgy when they ponder the report’s recommendations on “regulatory frameworks.” Concerned by conflicts of interest and opacity in media ownership, by favoritism in state funding of the media, and even by “some journalists resorting to criminal activity,” the authors propose that “all EU countries should have independent media councils with a politically and culturally balanced and socially diverse membership.” Such councils, they add, “should have real enforcement powers, such as imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status.”  The authors also recommend that these national media councils “should be monitored by the European Commission to ensure that they comply with European values.”

In what appears to be a potential intervention in the media’s editorial independence, the report says that “an editor has the right–if not even a responsibility–to establish a clear editorial line, which should be as explicitly and clearly stated as possible.” It also advocates for “more European news coverage” since “its absence constitutes a lack of pluralism as it affects democracy at both the European and national levels, notably by hindering the political accountability of both state and European political actors.”

The vice-president of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, welcomed the report as “an essential round of evidence-gathering and thought leadership.” She wrote on her blog, “The appropriate next step is a very serious and EU-wide political debate, including public consultation. I want to hear what you think. Send your feedback to [email protected]“.

Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, did just that, in the European Voice. She raised the red flag and hit in particular the pretense of endowing the European Commission with the role of a media super-regulator. “Attempts to define, limit, and take away journalistic status or let political bodies oversee the media will undermine both our media freedom and our democracies,” she wrote. “The High-Level Group should go back to the drawing board.”     

[Reporting from Brussels]