MEPs and prominent professionals in the media world warned yesterday (3 March) that press freedom had deteriorated badly in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, but also Italy and France, and called on the EU institutions to spearhead a wide-ranging "reconquest" of basic rights across the European Union.
Speaking at a European Parliament conference entitled 'Media freedom under threat: National problems, European solutions', organised by the Socialists & Democrats group, MEPs described the media freedom situation in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy and France as "extremely dangerous".
According to a recent ranking by Reporters Without Borders, a specialised NGO, other EU countries also face a difficult media freedom situation – namely Greece, Cyprus and Slovenia (see 'Background').
Xavier Vidal-Folch, associate director of Spanish daily El Pais, said the situation was even more alarming, because the deterioration had occurred since the entry into force of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, and since it made legally binding the bloc's bill of rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
In his view, attacks against media freedom have taken different forms: through internal restructuring of public media and through new legislation, as well as simply by the countries' authorities spying on journalists.
In what could be seen as an allusion to recent developments in France, he said that governments start by chasing down Roma immigrants but very soon end up muzzling the press.
He called for the introduction of an early-warning system for infringements of press freedom as well as for a more active role of the European Commission, which would be called upon to probe such cases.
Aidan White, secretary-general of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), said that the EU would not have any global credibility if it did not practice at home what it preaches worldwide in terms of media freedom standards.
He strongly advocated putting in place an EU think-tank for media policies, capable of putting forward solutions to press freedom problems.
Lorenzo Consoli, former president of the International Press Association (API), said that pressure should be put on the Commission to act as a political body, so that the member countries would respect the same criteria for media freedom as those set for the accession countries.
He also appealed on the S&D group not to come up with partisan proposals, but to gather cross-party support so that the European Parliament would act as one in putting pressure on the EU executive.
Several speakers argued that the Commission should take the lead in regulating the press, and keeping apart editorial activities and advertising. Language is national, but advertising is part of the EU market, Consoli argued.
Journalists also called for a stronger response at all levels when attempts to curtail media freedoms become evident. The controversial Hungarian media law had been brewing for months, but there was no reaction at first, one observed.
The conference was attended by Commission representatives, who did not take the floor but said they were in a listening mood.
Romania: Journalists told to pass psychiatry tests
Several speakers outlined the media situation in their countries and their statements often astonished the audience. Ioana Avadani, executive director of the Centre of Independent Journalism in Romania, said that a new draft law in her country would require journalists to pass psychiatry examinations every year.
Six amendments to Romanian broadcasting law, very similar in nature to those in the controversial Hungarian media law, had been tabled recently, she said, as well as changes to state procurement law, which would impact upon advertising, she explained, allowing the government "to give money to whoever it wants".
Avadani told the packed conference room that the new Defence Strategy of Romania identified the media as a threat and a factor of "vulnerability" for the state. The strategy, which is likely to be approved by parliament, is expected to be followed by other legal provisions to deal with the media "threat".
"The weak Commission reaction to the controversial Hungarian media law leaves me defenseless in Romania," Avadani said, refereeing to various amendments that the Romanian government was pushing through parliament.
She added that a media law similar to the Hungarian one was being prepared by EU hopeful Macedonia.
"We have a petition [against the attempts of the Romanian government to curtail media freedom] in the European Parliament and we need your help," she said.
Avadani's statements were confirmed by Romanian MEP Victor Boştinaru (Socialists & Democrats), who said that Romanian investigative journalism was "the most prized target" of the country's authorities.
Italy: Berlusconi to purchase more newspapers
Roberto Natale, president of the FNSI, the Italian press association, said there was a risk that new legislation would allow Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who already owns a media empire and controls the public media, to purchase more newspapers.
Natale lamented that there were no independent editors in Italy, as in his words they all had business interests, which led him to say that Belusconi was not the only problem regarding media freedom in Italy.
He also complained of legislation legalising wiretapping of journalists and a libel law which in his words could claim tens of thousands of euros from journalists. In addition, he denounced the public media in Italy, which he said presented a degrading image of women.
Natale also said that the common denominator in countries when the media freedom was under threat was the populism of the ruling governments.
Bulgaria: Bank controls media
MEP Iliana Yotova (Bulgaria; S&D) said that in her country one bank (the Corporate Commercial Bank) was for obscure reasons given the privilege of running all financial transactions on behalf of the state. The same bank, she said, controlled a large number of media firms which in exchange were giving lip service to the government, she explained.
Her statement was confirmed by Borislav Vsekov, a former MP from the ALDE-affiliated NDSV party of former Prime Minsiter Simeon Saxe-Cobourg Gotha. He said that under the present government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, "a climate of fear" had been instigated by the authorities against the media and citizens.
Tsekov also told the audience about the eavesdropping scandals in Bulgaria and the fact that over the last year the government had increased three times the number of private communications listened to by the authorities. Journalists have also been targeted, he said.
Tsekov used the term "reconquista", calling on civil society to stand up to attempts by the authorities to erode basic rights and freedoms and calling for human rights to become part of the Commission's monitoring of Bulgaria trough the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.
France: Pressure on investigative journalism
Jean-Marie Charon, a sociologist from CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, said that under President Nicolas Sarkozy, the French media system had been "completely mutated".
He too gave examples of banks controlling the media, such as Le Crédit Mutuel controlling in his words all the local press in the eastern part of the country. He spoke of practices such as press personnel management by the bank, as well as the bank ordering features and press reports.
Charon denounced recent legislation allowing the president to appoint and dismiss public media bosses, what he described as their total dependence on the state budget and pressure on critical and investigative media outlets.
There is a crisis of confidence among the French with regard to their media, he said, a phenomenon unheard of previously.
Hungary: Media law 'only tip of the iceberg’
Gábor Horváth, deputy chief editor of daily Népszabadság, said that the controversial Hungarian media law which Budapest recently decided to amend was only the "tip of the iceberg". He said the media law was only a symptom of the general malaise under which Hungarian society was living under the new Fidesz government, and that it could not be cured by itself.
Horváth said that while it was the media law that has attracted international attention, other developments such as the curtailment of the powers of the country's Constitutional Court, the replacement of people in key positions with Fidesz activists and limitations on the right to strike were no less significant blows to democracy.
He also argued that the four amendments Hungary said it would make would not change the law in its essence, as the most important issue of the one-party media authority was still to be addressed.
According to Lorenzo Consoli, the Commission had dropped its earlier objections to the provisions for the media authority because it judged that it had no competence in this field.