In these uncertain times, World Press Freedom Day is a chance for the EU to guarantee publishers and journalists the freedom they need to carry out their jobs, writes Christian Van Thillo.
Christian Van Thillo is CEO of de Persgroep and chairman of the European Publishers Council.
Here’s an alarming statistic for World Press Freedom Day: according to a Council of Europe study published last week entitled Journalists under pressure, 53% of the 1,000 European journalists polled have suffered violence, intimidation or self-censorship whist attempting to do their job. As a newspaper publisher, I find this particularly offensive. Publishing companies are commercial entities, but we have integrity at our core and our raison d’être is to seek the facts, to hold our leaders to account, to investigate and to inform as well as to entertain – our journalists are the lifeblood of our newspapers and magazines, and the newsrooms of our TV channels. We fund, train, equip and legally protect our journalists so that they can ask the difficult questions and sort the truth from the noise or propaganda. In this era of “fake news”, it is worth remembering that our journalists and editors are the ultimate fact-finders and fact-checkers. As the publishers, we take the risks, we pay the journalists, and, most importantly, we go on the record and defend what we publish in court if necessary.
We are living in uncertain and sometimes frightening times when the need for clear and reliable information is more important than ever. We want to know who and what is behind the growing number of despicable terror attacks in many of our European cities, how our politicians will solve the refugee crisis, the Syrian Civil War, and what to expect from elections and referendums during a period of political uncertainty in Europe. We should value more than ever a free press and the freedom of our journalists to do their jobs without intimidation or obstruction. Yet, according to Reporters Without Borders, over the past two years, there has been a progressive erosion of media freedom in Europe. Counter-espionage and counter-terrorist measures have been misused. Laws have been passed allowing mass surveillance, and authorities have tightened their grip on state media and sometimes privately-owned media as well.
Along with increasing and worrying government restrictions, publishers also face the growing challenge of funding professional journalism in the digital age. We know what we publish is popular as we see audiences grow and expand through multiple outlets and devices. Yet our potential to continue to invest in professional journalism is undermined by a situation whereby publishers bear all the costs and responsibilities of producing what our readers enjoy, while other commercial operators help themselves by systematically scraping our websites and reaping the financial rewards with little or no return to publishers or the journalists. The European Commission has recognised the unfairness of this situation and proposed to add press publishers to the list of rights holders that can benefit from European copyright protection through a new neighbouring right, to sit alongside the rights held by our journalists.
On this day – World Press Freedom Day – I would ask members of the European Parliament and national governments to think about our shared, European values of openness, tolerance and cultural diversity and to celebrate the role that the press can play in upholding these values as part of the democratic society we enjoy. A neighbouring right will not bring an end to the new freedoms we all enjoy through the internet. On the contrary, it will simply help publishing and professional journalism continue to play a valuable role in upholding our precious democracy in Europe by recognising that the investment publishers make in the future of a free press, which you can enjoy via own platforms or distributed by others, is worth protecting.
Publishers and journalists are facing many challenges, but in a democratic society a free and independent press is a necessity, not a luxury, and our elected politicians and regulators have the opportunity, and indeed the responsibility, to help safeguard its future.