Balancing Act


The European Union describes itself as a model for press freedom and an exemplary global power. Although many of its 28 member states feature at the top of international press freedom rankings, there are significant challenges that undermine press freedom and new threats are emerging.

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Criminal defamation and blasphemy laws, which have a chilling effect on journalism, are still on the books in several member states; large-scale surveillance threatens the confidentiality of journalists’ sources; access to information remains limited; and counter-terrorism measures have led to legislation and practices that limit a journalist’s rights and ability to work. Although violence is rare, journalists have been targeted by criminal organizations in Italy and Bulgaria, bullied by police in Spain, and murdered by religious extremists in France.

The EU’s failure to address these challenges not only affects journalists inside member states, it undermines the EU’s capacity to defend press freedom outside its borders by providing authoritarian states with ready-made alibis for their own repressive policies. As Amnesty International Belgium director Philippe Hensmans told CPJ: “How can the EU hope of convincing other governments, from Turkey to China, to improve their press freedom record if it is itself at fault?”

Journalists and press freedom advocates who spoke with CPJ for this report said the EU’s priority should be ensuring member states uphold the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which lays out the values and standards to which EU policy must adhere. This report reflects their concerns and highlights instances where, by not holding member states to account, the EU has failed to forcefully and consistently defend press freedom.

The EU’s commitment to its founding principles is being undermined as some member states backslide on their democratic commitments. In Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán for example, CPJ has documented how the state media have been turned into pro-government mouthpieces, state advertising has been used to reward friends and punish dissenters, independent journalists have been marginalized, and limits have been imposed on its Freedom of Information Act law, making it hard for journalists to investigate allegations of corruption. Although Orbán’s challenge was viewed as a direct attack against journalists and a fundamental EU value, it was not met with resolute action. Aside from limited infringement proceedings and parliamentary resolutions, the EU procrastinated. “I’d like the EU to be as imaginative on fundamental rights [as] it has been on austerity programs,” Rui Tavares, a former Portuguese Green MEP and author of a 2013 report on Hungary, said at a conference on illiberal democracies this year.

A sign reads 'Press freedom is a fundamental right' at a Berlin protest in support of, which was accused of disclosing a state secret. Germany suspended the investigation. (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)
A sign reads ‘Press freedom is a fundamental right’ at a Berlin protest in support of, which was accused of disclosing a state secret. Germany suspended the investigation. (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)

Under pressure from member states determined to protect their sovereignty, the EU failed to activate its rule of law mechanism, which is supposed to penalize member states that backtrack on responsibilities, and which might have prevented the situation in Hungary from deteriorating further. “Viktor Orbán’s growingly illiberal governance is in itself a denial of European democratic values,” Miklos Haraszti told CPJ. The Hungarian academic and former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media said he found the EU’s patience toward Hungary “perplexing.” 

The major EU institutions—the European Commission, the Council, the European Parliament, the Court of Justice—appear poorly equipped to address press freedom violations. They cannot quash national defamation laws or protect journalists’ sources. Instead, it is often left to member states or European intergovernmental institutions such as the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights to enforce action to defend press freedom.

However, the EU’s power to issue directives on, for instance, public service broadcasting, the digital agenda, trade secrets, or framework decisions on racism and xenophobia, has a direct impact on journalists by determining the conditions under which they work. As does its role in coordinating member states over issues such as counter-terrorism measures and the funding of research and academic institutions. This reach, as Françine Cunningham, executive director of the European Newspaper Publishers Association, told CPJ, means, “everything the EU does may have an impact on journalism and media freedom.” And journalists have to be constantly on alert to ensure that initiatives, such as a proposed trade secrets directive defining what journalists can reveal on corporations, do not compromise their freedom to report.

Despite producing mountains of information and maintaining an impressive communications machine, EU institutions are not models of transparency. Although, as Ethical Journalism Network director Aidan White told CPJ, the EU is “less closed than 20 years ago,” access to key documents and meetings that would allow journalists to exercise their role as watchdog is unduly limited. “When you ask for information or documents which might contradict the official narrative, the gates fall and spokespersons do not really help you,” Le Monde correspondent Jean-Pierre Stroobants complained. Protection and support for whistleblowers is also considered weak. Only two out of nine EU institutions have implemented the required whistleblower internal rules, and disunity on the policy across member states has further hampered EU efforts in this area.

When it comes to negotiating with prospective member states, the EU appears to have made press freedom imperative. “We learnt from previous accession processes that the EU should put more emphasis on rule of law and freedoms,” Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, told CPJ. It is during these negotiations that the EU has the most leverage and can require substantive changes in a candidate country’s laws and penal code, for example. For journalists struggling to work in a repressive climate, like in Turkey or Serbia, such leverage can provide vital support. During these negotiations press freedom is seen not only as a value in itself, but also as an enabler to reach other objectives crucial to the country’s sustainability as a future member of the EU, such as fighting corruption or amending repressive legislation. However, the risk persists that the EU eventually sidelines press freedom in the name of political expediency or economic and strategic interests.

The EU’s press freedom diplomacy is anchored in treaty provisions stating that its international actions should be guided by the principles on which it was founded. To promote these principles—democracy, rule of law, human rights—the EU has a variety of instruments and policies at its disposal. It has assumed a positive role in international arenas where it supported the United Nations Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, opposed the adoption of a U.N. resolution on the defamation of religion, and defeated attempts, led mostly by authoritarian states, to put Internet governance under U.N. control. The EU also has numerous partnerships that establish human rights, and therefore press freedom, as an essential element of agreements.

However, hard-nosed realpolitik often trumps lofty rhetoric. According to a September 2014 review by the Leuven Center for Global Governance Studies in Belgium, the monitoring and enforcement of human rights policies are often erratic, which can lead to double standards. Press freedom and human rights activists who spoke with CPJ said that when it comes to diplomacy in repressive countries that are important trade partners or strategic allies, the EU is inconsistent. This approach allows for situations where a country such as Burundi, with little strategic value, can be more severely reprimanded for its actions than China. For instance, the EU has said it plans to pursue a closer economic and political relationship with Azerbaijan. However, CPJ has found that this crucial energy provider is a leading jailer of journalists and human rights activists. 

Although human rights is brandished as the silver thread running through all its policies, the capacity of the EU to act is limited to how much power member states are ready to concede to Brussels. “The powers that the EU has are attributed powers, in other words powers that the member states have chosen to grant to the EU,” said EU Ombudsman and former Irish journalist Emily O’Reilly in a speech to the Law Society of Ireland. “[Member states] are often unwilling to grant supranational control bodies such strong powers, especially where the exercise of such control impacts upon their own actions or vital interests.”

Although these legal and political discussions are legitimate concerns for member states, they cannot be used as alibis to let the EU’s commitment to press freedom falter. The long-term viability of the EU depends on it firmly defending fundamental values. The future of its global influence will largely be determined by its credibility and consistency, not only in righting wrongs among member states, but by following a press freedom diplomacy based on principles and free from double standards. As human rights expert Andrea Subhan told CPJ: “The EU should consider human rights and press freedom not as a subsidiary issue or just a soft-power instrument but as a strategic asset that not only helps the EU project its values but also protects its hardcore interests abroad.” 

Steps that the EU and member states can take are included in CPJ’s recommendations accompanying this report. Among these are calls for the EU to show its commitment to press freedom by using powers such as the suspension of voting rights when member states are in violation of commitments in the charter of fundamental rights. It should ensure that member states as well as those countries applying to be in the EU don’t backtrack on their responsibilities, which include allowing access to information and having a free and robust press.

By improving access to documents and information across all its institutions and member states, the EU could demonstrate its commitment to being an open and transparent body; and by supporting strong encryption, it would offer greater protection to journalists and sources. EU member states could also demonstrate their commitment to the founding principles by overturning laws that criminalize defamation, libel, and blasphemy, and by ensuring laws on hate speech and anti-extremism are not used as a way to restrict critical reporting.