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11/12/2016

Journalists ask EU to create a ‘rule of law’ mechanism

Digital

Journalists ask EU to create a ‘rule of law’ mechanism

Hungarians protest against Viktor Orbán. Budapest, 1 February 2015.

[Reuters]

A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recommends that the EU establishes a Rule of Law mechanism, to keep member states responsible for upholding fundamental values and freedom of expression, and that Article 7 be used to punish countries that curtail media freedoms.

Founded in 1981, the Committee to Protect Journalists responds to attacks on the press worldwide. Entitled “Press freedom at risk as EU struggles to match action with values”, the CPJ report published today (29 September) analyses the media situation in the Union.

The major EU institutions—the European Commission, the Council, the European Parliament, the Court of Justice—appear poorly equipped to address press violations of press freedom, the report says. It notes that the EU is more successful dealing with candidate countries than with its own members. According to the report, the EU wrongly assumed that once admitted, member states would never backtrack. So the Commission, as guardian of the treaties, found itself underequipped to deal the crisis in Hungary.

Indeed, media freedom deteriorated in several EU countries after their accession. When Hungary joined the EU in 2004, it was ranked 28th, according to the Reporters Without Borders World Freedom Index, while in 2014, Hungary ranked 64th. Similarly, Bulgaria ranked 51st when it joined the EU in 2007, while it ranks 100th in the 2014 Index.

Orbán’s challenge ‘not met with resolute action’

In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, the CPJ has documented how the state media have been turned into pro-government mouthpiece, state advertising has been used to reward friends and punish dissenters, independent journalists have been marginalized, and limits have been imposed on the country’s Freedom of Information Act law, making it hard for journalists to investigate allegations of corruption.

The report says that 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.

In member states, the issue of media ownership has raised questions. In several of them, corporations, whose business depend largely on government decisions (public works, arms trade, telecommunications) have taken majority stakes in media outlets, at the risk of creating conflicts of interest and of acting as private proxy censors on behalf of the state. In France, where some leading outlets are owned by industrialists, fears of self-censorship have been particularly strong.

Cronyism, partisanship, and a lack of transparency in governmental allocation of subsidies, licenses, and state advertising often creates what is known as soft censorship: state use of financial incentives to manipulate and constrain news coverage.

Various inconsistencies are singled out with respect to the outside world. When the EU deals with repressive nations outside the union, strong economic or strategic partners are less likely to be reprimanded than less important countries, the report says, regretting that reaction to Russia has been “too little too late”.

A European External Action Service official, who preferred to remain anonymous, candidly told CPJ, “Human rights are not really central to EU foreign policy.”

“The inconsistent approach risks damaging the EU’s reputation as a global leader”, the report reads.

The accession process for potential member states is the point at which the EU has its greatest leverage. Without a strong mechanism to tackle member states that backtrack, the EU needs to be tougher on accession countries.

The present Commission’s complicated chain of command is described as follows:

“Within the commission, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans is in charge of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, and must ensure that its decisions and initiatives comply with the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Practically, however, the European Commission Directorate General for Communications, Networks, Content and Technology (DG Connect) is the most directly concerned with the press. Its Converging Media and Content unit deals with media policies and has been on the front line, for instance, with Hungary over its media laws. It works closely with other directorates involved in press freedom, including the Directorate-General for Justice; the Directorate-General for Competition, which guards against unfair market policies; the DirectorateGeneral for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), which negotiates with candidate countries; and the European External Action Service.”

CPJ recommends that EU institutions swiftly establish a clear, objective, and legally enforceable Rule of Law mechanism, in consultation with multiple stakeholders, to hold member states responsible for keeping to their commitments under the EU treaties, in particular under Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union on fundamental values, and under Article 11, on freedom of expression, and media freedom, in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

PPJ also recommends the monitoring of the conformity of member states with the EU Charter, as well as the use of Article 7, and the suspension of voting rights against member states that break press freedom commitments.

Under Article 7 of TEU, serious breaches to the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights by a member state can result in a suspension or loss of voting rights in the EU Council of Ministers.

CPJ reccomends that member states revise or repeal laws that infringe on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, in particular those pertaining to criminal libel, insult, lèse majesté, and blasphemy.

The CPJ also asks that mass surveillance be prohibited, and targeted surveillance be regulated, in order to ensure that it does not compromise journalists’ rights to privacy or the confidentiality of their sources.

Asked to comment on the reports’ general critical tone of the report with respect to the EU executive, Commission spokesperson Mina Andreeva reminded that member states are responsible for legislation regulating media.

“Politically, of course, we do whatever we can to promote media freedom”, said Andreeva.

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