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.