by Kai Prager, Media Relations Specialist – Frankfurt
When we hear the words “press freedom,” we think about remote countries where journalists are killed or imprisoned and newspapers & magazines are closed for not reporting in favor of the ruling party. Though we read about reporters being threatened in Europe and North America as well, we usually forget about it very quickly, casting these aside as minor incidents. But what are these minor incidents? And how minor are they?
To find out more about what is happening in Europe and North America, regions that usually are not associated with restrictions of the press, I contacted the Committee to Protect Journalists – an organization that operates worldwide to promote press freedom and takes action when journalists are threatened or restricted in their work.
The Belgian journalist and CPJ Senior Advisor Jean-Paul Marthoz gave me an overview on the situation in Europe:
Western Europe is undoubtedly one of the safest zones for the press in the world. Some journalists, however, have faced threats and attacks related to their coverage of criminal organizations (leading Italian journalist Roberto Saviano who wrote on Naples’ mafia is under constant police protection), of religion (the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were fire-bombed after the publication of an special issue on Sharia) and of extremist political groups (the Greek neo-Nazi Party Golden Dawn has directly threatened journalists).
Journalists, especially photographers, have also been roughed up by the police when covering social protests in Spain and Greece.
In countries like France, Italy and Spain, public service media have been submitted to various forms of control and influence by governments, especially through the power of the ruling parties to appoint presidents, directors and editors in chief of public radio and TV channels. In some countries the protection of sources remains weak, libel laws are used as punitive weapons against inquisitive media.
In the “New Europe” (former members of the Communist bloc) several countries have frontally attacked fundamental principles of press freedom. Hungary in particular adopted a new media law and a new constitution that have undermined press freedom and pluralism, in particular by concentrating excessive power in the hands of the government. In Romania and Bulgaria the media have been confronted by political pressures and the interference of criminal groups.
These national “bad examples” threaten the EU as a whole since they undermine the principles of human rights and democracy on which the European project has been built.
Media policies in specific countries often depend on the electoral politics. President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Berlusconi’s defeats have undoubtedly cleared the air in France and Italy but press freedom should be considered an “untouchable principle” irrespective of who is in government.
On the positive side these “cracks” in the pillars of press freedom have mobilized journalists at the European level and have forced the European Union to seriously consider its role in the protection of fundamental freedoms in each and all of its member states. While the powerful European Commission is slowly waking up to its responsibilities as the guardian of the EU’s Treaties the European Parliament is increasingly seeing its role as that of a guarantor of press freedom within the EU.