Action needed as press freedom under attack in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Press freedom is under threat from a variety of factors. Vague regulation is just one. [VirginMoney/Flickr]

Free speech is a fundamental value for our democratic society in Europe, yet still it is under threat across Europe as restrictions on press freedom creep into our lives, writes Max von Abendroth.

Max von Abendroth is Executive Director of the European Magazine Media Association (EMMA).

The factors that undermine free speech are rather complex: changing government priorities, anti-terror laws, defamation and “hate speech” laws, intimidating action of non-state actors, content related policies of social media platforms, governments mining content, tracking users and blocking content, and self-censorship.

In most cases it is not the one-off event indicating in an eye-opening moment that there is a fundamental issue. Like a frog in boiling water, no-one is taking notice of these gradual changes happening around us.

On 4 June, The Economist titled its weekly issue “Free Speech Under Attack”. It said that Europe is full of archaic laws that criminalise certain kinds of political speech. According to the publication, it is a crime to insult the “honour” of the state in nine EU countries; insulting state symbols and flags is criminal in 16 EU members; say offensive things about government bodies is criminal in 13 more; and libel can be criminal in 23 EU states.

Not only “archaic laws” but also very recent laws create a situation of uncertainty for journalists and press publishers across Europe. The Trade Secrets Directive, for example, adopted by the European Parliament in April 2016, still raises doubts as to whether journalists and in particular their sources – whistleblowers – are appropriately protected.

Exceptions foreseen under Article 5 of this directive for the exercise of freedom of expression and information are not clear enough, which means that safeguards for freedom of the media will largely depend on how national governments implement the directive.

Furthermore, looking beyond laws to tech innovations and their impact on press freedom, one comes across social media: the positive role of social media is that it allows every single voice to be heard across the globe and give citizens access to all different kinds of content.

Its flip side is that social media companies are in control of the audiences of journalistic press content with two potential consequences: governments may put pressure on platforms to use today’s technology to mine content and to track users for them.

Also governments are not shying away from asking social media companies to block content. But also the platforms have their own policies about “hate speech” and obscenity and therefore might impact the choice of content for citizens and make it harder for some voices to be heard.

The risk for press freedom is evident: journalists are less and less protected in the digital world. Self-censorship is one consequence with dramatic effects for free speech.

It is therefore high time to refocus the press freedom debate at EU level. Limiting the debate to changing political priorities of national governments is not sufficient. We need to have a more inclusive approach to structure and prioritise the debate about how to defend the independence of journalists from governments and how to use tech innovation to support free speech rather than threaten it.

Such a debate needs to involve all relevant actors: politicians, tech companies, journalists, press publishers, NGOs and civil society.

I expect that the conference (R)EVOLUTION OF EUROPE’s PRESS on 1 July 2016 in Europe’s Cultural Capital of Wroclaw will kick-off this urgently needed discussion to refocus Europe’s press freedom debate. EURACTIV is a Media Partner of this event.

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