Press freedom: How the EU struggles to match action with values

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

Under Silvio Berlusconi, the distinction between state and private media in Italy became particularly blurred. [Luciano/Flickr]

Press freedom is a reliable barometer of the state of democracy. But the EU’s failure to live up to its own standards undermines its influence on the rest of the world, argues Jean-Paul Marthoz.

CPJ EU Correspondent Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist and longtime press freedom and human rights activist. He teaches international journalism at the Université Catholique de Louvain, and is a columnist for Belgian daily Le Soir.

The European Union likes to present itself on the international scene as a model of press freedom. Indeed a respectable number of EU countries top the international press freedom rankings, and at the UN, the EU and its member states have generally adopted a freedom agenda, and confronted authoritarian states bent on restricting free speech and disciplining critical journalists.

However as documented in a report published today by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the EU record is far from immaculate, and too often shows a nagging lack of consistency between ideals and actions. “The real nature of human rights diplomacy can be judged on the determination to confront countries that have a real importance for the EU,” Portuguese Socialist MEP Ana Gomes told us. “The EU does not really pass the test.”

In fact, the EU’s defence of press freedom has mainly been tailored to traditional foreign policy criteria, such as security interests or trade relations. Key economic or geopolitical actors, like China or Egypt, do not have much to fear from Brussels.

This inconsistency is fed by the EU’s own internal contradictions. The EU has issued elaborate guidelines on freedom of expression, which reprove criminal defamation and blasphemy laws abroad, but a majority of its member states still keep such laws in their judicial arsenal. The EU has expressed its outrage at the US National Security Agency’s mass surveillance binge, but its member states’ security services do just the same with as little democratic oversight or judicial review. The EU touts its high levels of privacy protection, but it attempts to ban encryption at the risk of nullifying the confidentiality of sources, a crucial element of independent journalism. The EU has been brandishing its attachment to good governance and transparency, but it is drafting a trade secrets directive which may deter investigative journalists, due to their fear of being sued for revealing corporate information.

As the European Union has proclaimed human rights as a “silver thread” of its foreign relations, this credibility gap directly affects its capacity to act as an exemplary global power.

Authoritarian governments across the world rejoice at pointing at the EU’s own checkered record to justify their misdeeds. Russia has been particularly adept at this game. Its foreign ministry has issued reports scrutinising the EU’s human rights record, and brushed away Brussels’ attempts to upbraid other countries. The Russian foreign ministry was particularly sardonic in blasting the EU’s passivity towards one of its member states, Hungary. “The investigation of undemocratic reforms in Hungary has been virtually soft-pedalled”, it wrote in a 2012 report. 

Hungary has indeed exposed the EU to embarrassing accusations of complacency. Since their electoral victory in 2010, Viktor Orbán and his centre-right Fidesz party have remodelled the constitution along illiberal lines, and adopted a number of laws aimed at assuring the government’s domination over the media. Corseted by a narrow interpretation of EU law, the European Commission triggered a number of infringement proceedings which led to some amendments of the media laws. Although former Dutch Commissioner Neelie Kroes did not mince her words about Hungary’s policies, such limited measures did not address what was in fact a full-blown attack on the fundamental values underpinning the European Union.

At the European Parliament, the EPP, of which Fidesz is a member, blunted any meaningful condemnation and the Council, wary of providing more power to “Brussels”, refused to take the real measure of the threat. Such inaction has come to haunt the EU in recent weeks, as Hungary adamantly played the spoiler in the search for a common, rational and dignified response to the refugee crisis.

The Hungarian scenario should remind EU leaders that press freedom is not a luxury. It is one of the most reliable barometers of the state of democracy, rule of law and human rights. The EU institutions, together with the other relevant European organisations, such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE, should see violations of press freedom as a warning sign of an impending wholesale attack against democratic governance.

In fact in recent years, while member states were adopting controversial laws and policies under the pretence of fighting terrorism or civil disorder, the EU has behaved as if fundamental values were an afterthought, or a punchline for after-banquet speeches. “I’d like the EU to be as imaginative on fundamental rights as on austerity programmes,” former Portuguese Green MEP Rui Tavares said at a June 2015 conference in Brussels.

Its priority should indeed be to act as a beacon of freedom for member states. By advocating the scrapping of old and new laws that unduly restrict the freedom of expression, by making sure its directives do not affect independent journalism and, above all, by adopting an effective, impartial and indisputable rule of law mechanism aimed at preventing member states from backsliding and violating those fundamental rights which, in Commissioner Frans Timmermans’ words, “are the essence of what the EU stands for”.

Committee to Protect Journalists

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