Press Freedom in Europe and North America, Part 3

by Kai Prager, Media Relations Specialist – Frankfurt
Kai Prager

Kai Prager, Media Relations Specialist, BW Frankfurt

After looking at the situation of press freedom in Europe in Part 1 and North America in Part 2 , we spoke with Jean-Paul Marthoz of the Committee to Protect Journalists again to find out more about some specific issues journalists are facing :

Business Wire – Taking a look at the member states of the European Union, it is noticeable that press freedom plays a bigger role in some countries than in others. Why are there so many differences?   What do some countries do right and others do wrong?

Jean-Paul Marthoz – There are historical reasons behind this two-tier Europe. Press freedom is a reflection of society and of its institutions as a whole. Blasphemy laws for instance are still in the books in some European countries reflecting the varying status of religion and the various degrees of secularization on the continent. 

There will always be differences among member states regarding the nature and forms of journalism but the fundamentals of freedom of expression, rule of law, media pluralism, etc. should be shared and respected by all member states in order to really create a common and equal “freedom space” across the EU for all EU citizens.

The key point therefore is to review the role that the EU should play in order to assure that each member state respects the European Charter of Human Rights and the other Treaties and conventions ruling the Union, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights, which unequivocally defends freedom of expression and press freedom.

BW – The work of the press is usually restricted by governments, but also by companies. Which are the main problems and are there tendencies to a better or worse situation?

JPM – Private companies may exert their influence through the placing of advertising or media ownership, especially in a time characterized by declining circulation or audiences and increased multimedia competition. Although it is often difficult to document cases of direct corporate interference on the media’s reporting or editorial decisions the increased concentration of ownership and the purchase of major media companies by corporations close to the political Establishment are worrisome trends across Europe since they risk limiting the plurality of views and of fostering self-censorship in the coverage of major issues of public interest, especially in the crucial fields of financial and economic issues.

On the legal front some companies have also vigorously used libel laws or injunctions in order to discourage the reporting of their activities. 

For an interesting take on this see our recent blog on the Spanish media and controls there:

The long shadow of Spanish politics over public media

BW – The journalist has the control function in a democratic state and therefore plays an important part. What does it mean when this role is cut down?

JPM – In many EU countries the media still have the capacity and the space to act as watchdogs, as illustrated by the British media’s exposé of the members of Parliament’s abusive expenses of public money as well as the hacking scandal vigorously reported on by the Guardian (UK) as well as by the French media’s dogged investigations of alleged political influence-peddling under President Sarkozy.

Journalism is in crisis indeed due to economic, technological and societal factors but also as a result of the rise of citizen journalists that question its role and legitimacy. There is a growing awareness however that European society needs, to paraphrase Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, “an uninhibited, robust, and wide-open free press for a new century”, especially in the context of the deep economic and ontological crisis that Europe is going through.

BW – What kind of influence has the sinking media circulation and the move to digital media (Internet, mobile devices, social media, etc.) on press freedom?

JPM – The financial crisis facing legacy media has been weakening their power to effectively provide critical coverage of public and private institutions. In some countries like France, Germany or in Scandinavia the public service channels have been able to provide a counter-weight to these trends but their reach has been fragmented and diminished by a profusion of other media voices. The alternative provided by online media and bloggers is still in its infancy but many media analysts and journalists are confident that new models will emerge that will confirm the role of journalism, even if newly defined, as a key pillar of democratic societies. 

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