Media freedom to be focus of Czech EU Council presidency

Media freedom and pluralism has been the subject of a number of recent EU initiatives and is set to guide more scheduled for release in 2022. [Shutterstock / kaprik]

Media freedom, particularly in Hungary and Poland, will be a key focus of the upcoming Czech EU Council presidency, according to the country’s minister for European affairs. 

Speaking on Czech television, Mikuláš Bek said that when Prague assumes the six-month Council presidency in July, the country will place media freedom among its top priorities, alongside the rule of law. 

Attention will be paid in particular, he added, to Poland and Hungary, where concerns over the state of media freedom and pluralism have grown in recent years. 

“Poland and Hungary are having a relatively complicated debate with other countries on these issues”, Bek said. “In my opinion, this should not discourage the Czech government from raising such issues.” 

However, he added, “this does not mean that we will preach to our Polish and Hungarian colleagues”.

EU media freedom 

Media freedom and pluralism have been the subject of a number of recent EU initiatives, with more expected to come in 2022. Later this year, the Commission will adopt its promised European Media Freedom Act, on which a public consultation was opened earlier this month. 

Commission to propose a European Media Freedom Act, Breton says

In a speech delivered to the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education on Monday (19 April), the EU Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton raised for the first time a proposal for a European Media Freedom Act. 

Building on the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the EU-level legal framework that guides national media legislation, the media freedom bill is set to establish a mechanism designed to monitor media independence and pluralism across the EU.

Through the removal of barriers internal to the EU’s media market, the Commission says, the legislation will tackle the issues of differing national media rules and a lack of transparency in terms of media ownership.

SLAPPs (or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), litigation used to silence journalists and activists, have also attracted significant attention as key obstacles to media freedom in Europe. 

An “anti-SLAPP initiative” is expected from the Commission in upcoming months, following a resolution calling for greater EU-level action to combat the tool that was overwhelmingly supported in a Parliamentary vote in November. 

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“If the European Commission proposes the Media Freedom Act as planned, the Czech EU Presidency can indeed play a key role in delivering fast and ambitious and strong legislation in protecting pluralism and media independence,” Pavol Szalai, head of the EU and Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told EURACTIV.

A focus on media and the rule of law, he said, would be in line with the priorities of the new Czech government that took office in December. The new centre-right coalition is led by Petr Fiala, whose predecessor Andrej Babiš drew criticism during his tenure for his treatment of the press. 

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“After the Babiš years, marked by a conflict of interest between politics and media, attempts to undermine the independence of the public media, and political attacks on journalists, Fiala’s cabinet pledges a legislation remedying these issues and an openness vis-a-vis the media,” said Szalai. 

“Yet, words must be followed by deeds and we will be there to remind the government of its promises at home and in Brussels”, Szalai said, adding that press freedom in the EU is currently “in dire straits”.

Hungary and Poland 

Hungary and Poland, singled out as places of particular concern when it comes to media freedom, have both been the subject of growing worry in recent years over the decline of media independence and pluralism, as well as the rule of law in general.

Hungary, ranked 92nd on RSF’s 2021 Press Freedom Index, has come under increasing scrutiny for its treatment of the media and for the growing concentration of media ownership in the hands of a small number of businesspeople seen as close to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

In 2021, Orbán became the first EU leader to be added to RSF’s “press freedom predators” list. He has been accused of using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for restricting journalists’ already limited access to official information and of obstructing the operation of media outlets. 

“The press freedom predator in Hungary, Viktor Orbán, inspires ruling parties in Poland and Slovenia in methodologically reducing media freedom, which has also deteriorated in Greece,” RSF’s Szalai said.

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In Poland, 64th on the RSF index, the ruling Law and Justice party has come under the international spotlight for its attempts to pass a bill that would have prevented foreign companies from obtaining broadcasting licenses. 

Dubbed “LexTVN”, the legislation was widely seen as targeting critical channel TVN owned by US company Discovery, leading officials in Brussels and Washington to speak out against it. The law was eventually vetoed by President Andrzej Duda in December.  

Polish president vetoes media law slammed by US

Polish President Andrzej Duda on Monday vetoed a controversial media ownership law that critics said was aimed at silencing the US-owned news channel TVN24.

The push for the legislation came as part of the government’s campaign for the “repolonisation” of the country’s media, which journalists and opposition politicians have said is an attempt to silence critical voices and restrict independent media’s capacity to operate. 

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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