Council of Europe blasts moves to turn public TV into state broadcasting

Donald Tusk speaks to the press. Brussels, 8 March. [European Union]

Public service broadcasting in Europe is under threat, the Council of Europe said yesterday, ahead of the World Press Freedom Day (3 May), a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom.

In comments published on its website, the Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, pointed to the problem of “government efforts to influence the independence and pluralism of public service broadcasting”. Muižnieks said, “Countries that have popular, well-funded public service broadcasters encounter less right-wing extremism and corruption and have more press freedom.”

The Commissioner, who is a Latvian-American human rights activist and political scientist, explained that “the situation on the ground gives rise to concerns: an analysis of the alerts submitted to the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, since its launch in 2015, shows an emerging trend of threats to the independence of public broadcasters or of their regulatory bodies”.

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In Poland, he cited the 2016 reform of public service media, which placed public television and radio under the direct control of the government and restricted the constitutional role of the existing media regulator, as having had “adverse effects on media freedom, notably on journalists themselves”. Muižnieks pointed to a list compiled by the Society of Journalists, an independent Polish association, which revealed that since the beginning of the year, a total of 228 public media journalists have been dismissed, demoted or reassigned, or resigned in protest.

Muižnieks also pointed to: government efforts in Croatia to influence the independence and pluralism of public service broadcasting; Romania’s October 2016 law eliminating over 100 non-fiscal taxes, including the TV and radio licence fee, which was the main source of funding for public broadcasters; and Greece’s June 2013 decision to shut down the public broadcaster ERT (it reopened in 2015), which dealt a (temporary) heavy blow to media pluralism in the country.

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More widely, Muižnieks highlighted several alerts registered by the Council of Europe, from political appointments in the leadership of public TV channels in Spain to pressure by a political party to replace a member of the Public Broadcaster’s Supervisory Board in Ukraine.

These examples “demonstrate that governments’ attempts to turn public broadcasting into government broadcasting remain widespread”. In some circumstances, “a shift is still needed from being the state broadcaster – with strong links to the government, and weaker accountability to the wider audience or civil society – to becoming genuine public service media, with editorial and operational independence from the state”, added Muižnieks.

Strangely, Muižnieks makes no mention of Hungary.

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A number of recommendations included in the online comments were aimed at helping member states reinforce public service broadcasting organisations:

  • Legal measures to guarantee their editorial independence and institutional autonomy, and avoid their politicisation;
  • sustainable funding;
  • appointing members of management and supervisory bodies through a transparent process, taking into account their qualifications and professional skills and their duties related to working for the public service;
  • provision of the resources necessary to produce quality programmes which reflect cultural and linguistic diversity, paying attention to minority languages.

Muižnieks concluded by pointing out that “public service broadcasting…is an essential factor of pluralistic communication, one of the main characteristics of a democratic society”.

 

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