Next to the rule of law dilemma, growing assaults on media freedom are posing another test for the EU’s resolve and unity. The question is whether yet another ‘toolbox’ can solve the problem.
Do you remember the then European Commissioner for Rule of Law, Frans Timmermans, locked in a fierce public row with Poland and Hungary over two Article 7 procedures just a few years ago?
It ended up with the EU drawing up a toolbox for the rule of law, but its effects have been limited. In short, Orban and Co. broke the EU’s rule of law and got away with it.
Now Hungary and Poland, just as they promised, have launched legal action at the European Court of Justice (EJC) against the regulation tying the disbursement of EU funds to the rule of law situation in EU countries.
The Commission – the guardian of the Treaties – for its part, has promised not to use this newest and shiniest tool in the rule of law toolbox until it draws up guidelines and the judges come back with a verdict.
EU lawmakers debated this week the state of press freedom in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia and the Commissioner for Values, Vera Jourová, signalled deep concern about recent developments.
Hungary’s liberal-leaning radio station Klubrádio, which had been critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government, has gone off air.
Poland’s non-state independent outlets are facing an advertising tax they say would restrict pluralism.
And in Slovenia, Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s government is trying to undermine the sustainable funding and independence of the national press agency, STA, while the prime minister himself is launching frequent verbal attacks against journalists, domestic and foreign.
Ahead of the debate, the International Press Institute (IPI), together with 18 other groups, called upon the EU to take decisive action to defend independent journalism and media freedom in those countries.
“The reality is that the competences of the Commission when it comes to media are very limited,” Jourová told EU lawmakers on Wednesday.
“Whilst we will use those competencies in a very diligent manner, I want us to identify how we can widen and strengthen the toolbox that the Commission has, from financial support to regulation and enforcement actions,” she added.
“We need a tool which recognizes the role of media as the key players in the democratic society,” Jourová said, adding that “at this moment, we only have the rules which recognise the role of the media as the actors on the European Single Market, and this is what is limiting our ability to act.”
However, critics say that, when it comes to media, the Commission is reluctant to use even the tools it does have or properly address media-related complaints.
Remember Klubrádió? The Commission is still assessing a 2016 complaint – filed by former MEP Benedek Jávor, Klubrádió, and the Budapest media policy think tank Mérték – alleging excessive funding of pro-government public broadcast media in Hungary.
Unlikely that yet another toolbox will provide a tangible solution.
“Tool-box fetishism is limitless in Europe. After the rule of law toolbox, the time has come for the media freedom toolbox. Won’t make any difference? Who cares, we got a toolbox…,” tweeted Alberto Alemanno, EU law professor at HEC Paris Business School.
At the same time, there’s a lot of far subtler moves that are not becoming overly politicised cases: France has banned video recordings of security officers during police operations. A German interior minister approved of investigating journalists’ laptops, and in several countries, like Austria, tabloids received national COVID-subsidies while quality-papers were neglected.
Looking across the borders, the situation looks fairly grim too:
In Belarus, more than 400 journalists reporting on the demonstrations against the electoral fraud of long-term strongman Alexander Lukashenko have already been detained, while Russian journalists covering the Navalny case have also faced oppression.
The only thing is, it is more difficult to preach media freedom to third countries when your own backyard is far from spotless.
Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz accused the EU of unfairly distributing COVID-19 vaccines among member states, highlighting that certain EU countries have several times more vaccines than others.
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Look out for…
- EU foreign and home affairs ministers meet on Monday to discuss migration
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]