Pier Luigi Parcu: More work to be done on press freedom in Europe

Professor Pier Luigi Parcu [European University Institute]

This article is part of our special report Media freedom and innovations.

SPECIAL REPORT / Much of Europe may be in a privileged position when it comes to media freedom, but we must not become complacent, says Professor Luigi Parcu on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.

Professor Pier Luigi Parcu is the Director of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute in Florence.

Could we perhaps start with why you think press freedom is important?

Freedom of the press means the freedom to communicate and express through published papers and electronic media. Press freedom as part of freedom of expression is fundamental, because it enables people in making informed choices based on the free flow of information. It represents one of the main pillars of a democracy.

In 1948, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

How would you judge the state of press freedom in the EU at the moment?

Let’s first say that we, as Europe, are somehow privileged concerning democracy and freedoms, among them press freedom. But, in Europe there still exist difficult situations for press freedom and the journalistic profession, such as in Hungary or Bulgaria. We also shouldn’t forget the Western Balkans, where journalists are often assaulted and, sometimes, also killed because of their job.

In some countries defamation is still punished with jail. Of course there were three days of horror in Paris last January with the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, but we hope that such unbearable violence will never again be part of our life.

Could you go into a bit more detail about the situation in Hungary and Bulgaria?

Concerning Bulgaria, in July 2013, several journalists and reporters were victims of police violence while covering demonstrations outside the Parliament in Sofia. Many of them were exposed to harassment and attacks on their cars. The 2014 World Press Freedom Index ranked Bulgaria as the worst Country in Europe for press freedom.

In Hungary, everything started in 2011 when the government lead by Victor Orbán introduced a very restrictive media law, introducing high, and not balanced, fines for advertising revenues. In that case, we have witnessed a strong political interference in the media, and more specifically in information content. That has been even clearer with what happened to Klubradio, the radio station which was a symbol of the right to be informed. Hungary’s New Media Council refused to renew their licence, to silence this dissenting voice. Only after a strong campaign and the involvement of the European Commission was Klubradio granted a licence.

What are the solutions?

It is a difficult question. I suppose that an increasing awareness on problems like press freedom and freedom of expression could be an important first step. Secondly, I think that in case of negative member state interventions, action must be taken at a European level to be effective.

How does it compare to other regions of the world?

Europe, in general, lives in a more positive situation with regard to the respect of fundamental rights and thus also press freedom. During the last year, we have unfortunately witnessed outside Europe serious menaces to the journalistic profession. Let’s think about serious and unacceptable cases in Turkey, Egypt or Russia, where journalists were imprisoned, or even killed, only because they were doing their job. These episodes represent examples of what has to be avoided and Europe cannot accept.

I want to stress one point. Very often barriers to press freedom are associated with Internet foreclosures. The Internet today is more and more central in our everyday lives. Social networks, blogs and any other platform can be perceived as “dangerous” to power as traditional media.

Are there problems associated with the Internet in relation to press freedom?

Generally speaking, I agree that the Internet played, and still plays an important role, not just for press freedom but of course for freedom of expression. The Arab Spring of 2011 has clearly shown it, even though many people do not agree on this vision. Without that interconnection, through social media, nothing would have happened. The Internet is more pervasive and without borders. This is why the Internet is perceived as a menace in authoritarian regimes. Through the web, people can get information, be aware of reality and probably become more inclined towards protest. So, in the end I believe that the Internet enhances press freedom.

What are the biggest threats to press freedom?

Generally speaking, the biggest threat to press freedom is represented by authoritarian regimes, dictatorships and any other situation where the power does not want people to be informed correctly and aware of what is going on. Look what happened during Nazism in Germany, or in Italy with Mussolini, or in the USSR with Stalin.

Very often, in non-democratic countries, journalists are perceived as a threat, as a menace to Power, because they can disclosure “secrets” or just waking up population’s conscience inviting them to react.

How do we safeguard it against these threats?

In Europe, Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights provides the right to freedom of expression and information as necessary in a democratic society. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas. In non-democratic countries, safeguarding these rights appear much more difficult.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of press freedom both globally and in the EU?

I’m always an optimist. Thus I believe in a positive future also for freedom of expression and press freedom. As you probably know, we – as a Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute – are currently running, for the second year, a very challenging project, the MPM – Media Pluralism Monitor – for the European Parliament and Commission. The Monitor is not a therapy, but is a sort of Watch Dog instrument that, through an accurate analysis based on different indicators (legal, economic and socio-political), offers a photograph of the situation of Media Pluralism in each Member State. We hope that a repeated use of the MPM will help, in time, to improve our common conscience of the risks and the potential threats to this essential instrument of democracy.?

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