EU underscores support of free expression, but slights access to information

A new document on freedom of expression and opinion, adopted May 12 by the 28 foreign ministers of the European Union, presses nearly all the right buttons. Drawing its inspiration from international human rights norms as well as from the EU’s treaties and its charter of fundamental rights, the document reaffirms the role of freedom of opinion and expression as “an essential foundation for democracy, rule of law, peace, stability, sustainable inclusive development, and participation in public affairs.” It also makes a strong case for free and independent journalism. The ministers committed the EU and member states to the defense of journalists’ freedom and safety, and endorsed watchdog journalism as a decisive factor in “uncovering abuses of power, shining a light on corruption, and questioning received opinion.”

The guidelines, approved in the run-up to the May 22-25 European Parliament elections, are to be used as a key reference in Europe’s relations with non-EU countries.

The guidelines identify “priority areas of action,” the first being “combatting violence, persecution, harassment and intimidation of individuals, including journalists and other media actors, because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression online and offline.” They also make a special reference to the fight against impunity and pledge to defend these principles in multilateral organizations. The guidelines highlight the EU’s active endorsement of two United Nations initiatives: the UN Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

In contrast to other more rhetorical EU documents, these guidelines are meant to provide concrete political and operational guidance to all European foreign policy officials. They will shape actions taken by the EU and its member states, from public statements to economic sanctions, in cases of violations of freedom of expression and opinion. They will direct the allocation of material and financial assistance in support of embattled journalists or human rights defenders. And they will be used as a yardstick, particularly by European civil society organizations and the European Parliament, to assess the effectiveness of the EU’s commitments to freedom of expression. The key challenge for the EU will be implementing these ambitious guidelines in the rough-and-tumble world of global politics and assuring a minimum of coherence among its member states.

Although generally welcoming this EU decision, a number of NGOs, such as the Global Forum for Media Development, have deplored the document’s omission of a right of public access to information held by governments. The guidelines’ reference to information access is indeed hazy, and does not figure among the six priority areas of action identified by the EU.

Access to information has always been a matter of controversy in the EU, due to a culture of opaqueness inside institutions and to the resistance of some member states with strong secrecy laws. However, this position contradicts an emerging political and legal consensus within the EU, especially at the European Court of Human Rights. Aware that the winds are blowing their way, the NGOs will push for more clarity and pursue, according to the Global Forum for Media Development, “a dedicated set of guidelines on the promotion of the right to information as an element of freedom of expression.”

This campaign is particularly significant in the context of the current Transatlantic Free Trade Area negotiations, where suspicions of secret deals feed conspiracy theories and ideological controversies. It is also pertinent for discussions on an important UN initiative called the “Post-2015 Development Agenda,” which aims to define the future global development framework and will succeed goals established after the Millennium Summit of the UN in 2000. Journalists’ organizations and freedom of expression groups indeed are mobilizing to put freedom of the media and the public’s right to information at the heart of that process.

 [Reporting from Brussels]