The press in Europe: Freedom and pluralism at risk


The European Union has long been hailed as one of the areas of the world with the greatest press freedom. However, NGOs and international organisations warn that this may be under threat as the media becomes increasingly concentrated in ever fewer hands and some governments engage in politically-motivated lawsuits and outright censorship.

While Europe remains one of the freest continents in the world for media overall, many international civil rights NGOs and journalists' groups have warned that it is losing its status as a model.

Reporters Without Borders recently warned that Europe is "falling from its pedestal" and that the European Union was "losing its leadership status".

These difficulties are due to a mixture of state and private influence in news-making and dissemination in Europe. Concentration of media ownership – very developed in many countries in both Eastern and Western Europe – has been heightened by the difficulties of media in remaining economically viable in the face of the economic recession and competition from online media.

Even more disturbing has been a new wave of censorship and politically-motivated attempts to intimidate media through lawsuits. This trend spans the continent: the passage of a controversial media law in Hungary, perhaps the gravest case in the EU in this respect, was also an opportunity for MEPs to highlight the need to "reconquer" press freedom in other countries such as France, Italy, Romania and Bulgaria.

There have also been negative developments in EU candidate countries such as Turkey and Macedonia, where governments have taken measures such as imprisoning journalists and attacking independent media's sources of income. The respect of these countries for what the EU considers fundamental rights and European values will be critical to their possible accession.

A difficult business climate for newspapers

The rise of the Internet and new media, coupled with the recession, has hit print media particularly hard across the developed world. While some newspaper websites – such as those of the Guardian or Le Monde – have millions of unique visitors per month, other newspapers are struggling to monetise their success online.

Consumers have less incentive to subscribe to newspapers now that aggregators such as Google News provide newspaper content from all over the world for free online. 

Experiments by newspapers to require subscriptions for access have brought mixed results. But some publications – such as the Financial Times – have been markedly successful at this, finding in the Internet a means of increasing subscriptions and internationalising their readership.

Traditional sources of revenue for newspapers have markedly declined, including for example fees for print subscriptions and classified advertisements.

An OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) report estimates that between 2007 and 2009 the market for newspapers shrank in most developed countries: including by 21% in the United Kingdom, 18% in Italy, 11% in Poland, 10% in Germany and 4% in France.

In addition, The Economist has argued that Craigslist, an American website providing free classified adverts, "has probably done more than anything to destroy newspapers' income".

The result has been declining employment in the newspaper industry, more concentrated media ownership and a corresponding decline in media pluralism. The OECD notes that employment decline in the newspaper industry "have been ongoing since 1997" and has "intensified since 2008 in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Spain".

Many newspapers, particularly in the regional and local press, have shut down and even the national press has had to cut back on staff, often by reducing the number of journalists for investigative and original reporting.

The Brussels international press corps, at one time the largest in the world, shrank massively between 2005 and 2010. Some have suggested that the quality of coverage of EU affairs has declined partly as a result.

Media concentration

This loss of media pluralism has exacerbated a pre-existing tendency towards severe media concentration across Europe. In the United Kingdom, France, Italy and many Central and Eastern European countries, media moguls are often tightly bound with the political leadership when they are not politicians themselves.

Media concentration and lack of pluralism presents difficult problems for the political independence of private media and the production and dissemination of news in the public interest.

Such problems rose to prominence recently in the United Kingdom, where the News of the World phone-hacking scandal triggered fresh scrutiny of Rupert Murdoch's vast international media empire and the influence it has over British politics and the justice system.

However, regulation of media concentration raises problematic issues. Firstly, it is unlikely to occur at national level, where media groups are already influential. Second, at EU level there have been several attempts to regulate, but the matter has generally been deemed too "sensitive" to allow for clear policies. Finally, any regulation risks also breaching media independence itself. Journalists often prefer self-regulation.

Public vs. private funding

As a public good, the question of granting public subsidies to media has often been raised. State television and radio were long the rule in Europe, although privately held broadcasters became increasingly common after World War II. The BBC earned Europeans' respect and gratitude for providing trusted news during the Nazi occupation and for opening its airwaves to governments in exile.

Today, state-owned broadcasters in Europe tend to be outnumbered by private TV and radio stations. In Britain, this has even led some to call into question the necessity of retaining a publicly-funded media service.

In most countries, though, public-funded television is generally seen as a guarantee that quality programmes will continue to be aired in the public's interest. Guided by an editorial independence charter, such stations are meant to offer programmes that would not normally attract sufficient advertising revenue or large enough audiences. Arte, a cultural TV channel funded by France and Germany, is a good example of this.

At EU level, multilingual TV channel Euronews is known for benefiting from European Commission funding, giving a European angle to its coverage. Smaller media, including and its network of national affiliates, have also won funding under specific EU projects to cover topics considered of public interest (never exceeding 30% of annual turnover).

But while some MEPs have pushed for EU intervention to help make European media more profitable, some fear that this could hamper the independence of the press.

Online and social media: A new pluralism?

At the same time, the media landscape has been transformed by the emergence of online-only 'pure player' publications and of social media. While the number of print publications may be declining, never before has the citizen had access to such a wide variety of sources from around the world.

New online-only publications have been created, experimenting with a variety of journalistic and business models. In France, major news sites Rue89 and Mediapart have successfully established themselves, with the latter attracting attention for breaking a number of public scandals.

Others rely on user-generated content, allowing them to operate at low cost by employing minimal staff. One particularly successful example of this is America's Huffington Post, which recently launched a British version.

More generally, professional journalists have lost their monopoly on reporting as they face increased competition from user-generated content published online via blogs or micro-blogging sites such as Twitter. Developments 'on the ground' are often first reported on Twitter, although it can be difficult to determine the reliability of the information provided.

It is perhaps more difficult than ever for governments to control information. This was starkly illustrated earlier this year when English courts issued so-called 'super-injunctions', banning as libellous the publication of certain allegations made against various celebrities. This resulted in many of these allegations being published online via Twitter and the websites of Scottish and Irish newspapers.

The question of censoring social media like Twitter and Facebook rose again in England more recently, where these were partly blamed for the summer 2011 riots in the country.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in the House of Commons saying his government was "working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder, and criminality".

A number of Britons were jailed for incendiary comments made on social media during the riots.

Western Europe: Italy and France

Western Europe, long the bastion of press freedom on the continent, has not been immune to recent trends. While many Northern European countries are among the freest in the world in terms of media, the situation has worsened in many countries, chief among which are Italy and France.

While outright censorship is relatively rare, recent years have highlighted problems with the concentration of media ownership by moguls and political influence over both public and private media.

The situation in Italy is unique in that the country's leading media magnate, Silvio Berlusconi, is also its prime minister. The overwhelming majority of Italian broadcast media are directly or indirectly controlled by Berlusconi through state-owned media, his private business empire, or his associates.

Berlusconi owns broadcaster Mediaset, which manages three national television channels, leading Italian advertising agency Publitalia and the country's biggest publishing house, Mondadori. His brother Paolo owns the Milanese daily Il Giornale and his wife Veronica Lario holds the biggest share of the centre-right newspaper Il Foglio.

The Economist Intelligence Unit rates Italy as a "flawed democracy", in part due to pressure on public broadcaster RAI which has caused it to have "repeatedly chosen to limit coverage, or completely ignore, negative news about Mr. Berlusconi or his close associates". It also cites "political pressure on RAI to cancel or curtail several popular left-leaning programmes for their criticism of Berlusconi".

Similarly, US-based civil and political rights NGO Freedom House considers Italy to be the only "partly free" country in Western Europe in terms of press freedom. It even identified a decline in press freedom in 2010 due to "increased government attempts to interfere with editorial policy at state-run broadcast outlets, particularly regarding coverage of scandals surrounding Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi".

Berlusconi has used his political power to attempt to legislate to protect himself from media scrutiny. In 2010, in the words of Reporters Without Borders, "only an unprecedented national media mobilisation's tenacity helped to defeat a bill aimed at prohibiting the publication of the content of telephone call intercepts, one of the main sources used in judicial and investigative journalism".

The EU has often been involved in arbitrating between Berlusconi's companies and other media, usually in the name of competition.

In July 2010 the European Commission ruled in favour of allowing Sky Italia, owned by Rupert Murdoch, to bid for a digital terrestrial frequency and so compete with RAI and Mediaset. Last July the European Court of Justice decided that Mediaset's switchover from analogue to digital between 2004 and 2005 had been illegally subsidised, paving the way for a mammoth multi-million euro reimbursement.

The border between organised crime and some political parties has been called into question in Italy, and some journalists reporting on the mafia have had to live under police protection for fear of reprisals.

Among the most prominent of these is the journalist Roberto Saviano for his ground-breaking reporting on the Camorra, a southern Italian criminal organisation that is partly responsible for the periodic 'garbage crises' in Naples.

France is also a country where the health of media freedom has been a cause for concern to some. As with Italy, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded France to a "flawed democracy" last year, saying that "[p]ressure on journalists and the electronic media have led to a decline in media freedoms".

Relations between the French government and the media became especially difficult during the Woerth-Bettencourt affair in 2010.

The website Mediapart, which had taken a leading role in bringing to light new evidence on the scandal, was the target of verbal attacks by French ministers. They called it "a site of malicious gossip" and accused it of having "fascist methods". In November 2010, the government sued the website for defamation.

Both Mediapart and Le Monde subsequently suffered from burglaries, during which laptops and CDs belonging to journalists covering the scandal disappeared. The offices of websites Rue89 and MyEurop were also burgled. The presidency was accused by Le Monde of using intelligence services to identify sources of its coverage of the Woerth-Bettencourt scandal, particularly via the seizure by police of journalists' phone records.

Central and Eastern Europe: Censorship and political influence

International NGOs have singled out Central and Eastern Europe as a region of particularly sharp declines in media freedom, especially Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

Hungary has been the focus of particular attention due to the passage of a law that restricts the media. Among other provisions, the law creates a National Media Council, which could impose fines on newspapers and broadcasters. These fines could amount to over €85,000 for newspapers and €650,000 for broadcasters.

The law's passage was extremely controversial and was criticised by France, numerous Liberal and Green MEPs, Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This pressure pushed the Hungarian government to amend the law, but not everyone is satisfied with the changes made.

The law was paired with the passage of a new constitution, which has been accused of cementing the ruling party's grip on power and criticised by Liberal MEPs as a "Trojan horse for authoritarianism".

Freedom House highlights Bulgaria and Romania as two countries that now receive "worse overall democracy scores" than when they joined the EU in 2007. In Romania, print and broadcast media are politicised by the control of billionaires and current and former politicians. Freedom House claims that the "media sector is dominated by a handful of owners with both political and business interests".

In June 2010, Romania's government identified the country's media as a "national security threat". In a National Defence Document it criticises what it calls "orchestrated media campaigns that denigrate state institutions by disseminating false information".

In Bulgaria, the country's National Audit Office revealed the existence of widespread state-led corruption in the media. Its report claimed that the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs had paid over €300,000 to at least 16 media outlets between 2008 and 2009 in order to secure positive coverage.

More generally, Freedom House states that reporters in Bulgaria "continue to face pressure and intimidation aimed at protecting economic, political, and criminal interests. The perpetrators often operate with impunity, leading to some self-censorship among journalists".

Candidate countries: New authoritarianism?

Freedom of the press and of expression are both key criteria for possible membership of the EU. However, in recent years press freedom has declined in many aspiring members of the bloc. Last November the European Commission's reports on enlargement found that the situation was actually worsening in many candidate countries, including Turkey and the Western Balkans.

The situation is particularly difficult in Turkey. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 138th in the world in terms of press freedom, just ahead of Ethiopia and Russia. It complains of a "frenzied proliferation of lawsuits, incarcerations and court sentencing targeting journalists," especially those dealing with the Kurdish minority.

Similarly, Freedom House's press freedom report claims that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) "continued to crack down on unfavourable press coverage in 2009," apparently prosecuting 323 journalists, publishers and activists that year.

A major issue is Article Five of the Turkish Penal Code, which criminalises "insulting the Turkish nation". Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, was prosecuted under this article in 2005 for statements he made regarding the Armenian Genocide.

Last November, Turkey reinstated a ban on popular video-sharing site YouTube. The OSCE's Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovi?, recently reported that some 57 journalists were imprisoned in the country.

These developments have not gone unnoticed by Western officials. In March 2011, EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle criticised Turkey for the arrest of seven journalists allegedly involved in a coup plot, saying: "Turkish law does not sufficiently guarantee freedom of expression in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights."

During a visit to Istanbul in July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton similarly called on Turkey to uphold human rights and press freedom.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an's AKP won a large majority in the June 2011 parliamentary elections, almost enough to push for a new constitution without the support of other parties. This had been preceded by the disqualification of Kurdish candidates for the elections, including Sakharov Prize winner Leyla Zana, and a boycott of the parliament by the Turkish opposition.

The future of press freedom in Turkey depends in large part on whether Erdo?an pushes for a new constitution and what guarantees for freedom of the press would be enshrined within it.

The situation is also difficult in EU hopeful Macedonia. In June 2011, EURACTIV reported on WikiLeaks cables in which US diplomats described Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski as maintaining a "climate of fear" over the opposition and civil society groups. In January the opposition left parliament in protest against the government's blocking the bank accounts of several media companies.

These and other developments, particularly a deterioration of relations with neighbouring Greece, led Commissioner Füle to question Macedonia's accession prospects. "If we have a feeling that instead of progress there is a regress, if we have a feeling that instead of going forward you are going backwards, we would probably have to reassess that recommendation to start accession negotiations," he said.

Shortly afterwards (4 July), hundreds of journalists marched in Skopje to protest against the government's pressure on independent media and the closure of several newspapers and other media companies.

In Croatia, it was reported on 16 September that a journalist from the newspaper Vecernji List was summoned by the police following the publication of an investigative story on illegal party and electoral financing. The journalist was pressured to reveal his sources but he refused to do so.

The country completed its accession negotiations last June and is on course to become a member of the European Union on 1 July 2013.

At the height of the controversy over Hungary's new media law, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso emphasised the importance of press freedom in the EU. "The freedom of media is for us a sacred principle. It's a problem of values, let there be no doubt about it. In the European Union, freedom of the media is a sacred principle. It's a fundamental principle," he said.

The secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, Jean-François Julliard, said on the publication of his organisation's press freedom index that "it is disturbing to see several European Union member countries continuing to fall in the index".

"If it does not pull itself together, the European Union risks losing its position as world leader in respect for human rights. And if that were to happen, how could it be convincing when it asked authoritarian regimes to make improvements? There is an urgent need for European countries to recover their exemplary status," Julliard said.

Aidan White is a former secretary-general of the International Federation of Journalists, a long-time advocate of press freedom and a member of Fondation EURACTIV Politech's advisory council. He said in an interview that "there are many problems within the European Union but particularly I think there are problems in Southeastern and Eastern Europe. Here we still have countries in the process of political transition. There was a big controversy because of changes taking place in Hungary at the beginning of the year."

"I think what that controversy revealed is that it's not just a Hungarian problem. I think there are many countries in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans where the relationship between politics and media is not clear enough, and where there are serious problems for journalism that need to be corrected," he added.

Reijo Kemppinen, the European Council's director-general for press and communication, said in an interview with EURACTIV that the change in the structure of media was affecting journalism negatively. Journalists "have to do the same story in three to four different formats: print, audiovisual and websites," he said.

He added that "even in the hands of the most skilful, and journalists are skilful, it cannot but have an impact on the quality of the journalism. It may not become less accurate, but it becomes faster and it becomes less deep".

Philippe Cayla, CEO of Euronews, said of public support for the media that it is "a delicate question indeed" but that that "the problem […] has been solved well in countries like Great Britain and Germany" through licensing fees for public broadcasters.

"Ideally we would need a European licensing fee and that this fee be redistributed to a certain number of public European media. But we are very far from this today," he added.

French MEP Jean-Marie Cavada MEP (European People's Party), the president of the Media Intergroup in the European Parliament, has argued for public intervention at EU level to make viable the "economics of culture," saying: "Frankly, do you think the French newspaper L'Humanité, the organ of the Communist Party, which is very strongly subsidised because of its poor economic health, has lost an ounce of independence?"

"I'd like to add that I do not share the sentiment which sometimes rules in Europe and which describes public subsidies as something counter-productive. The Internet was created forty years ago through the subsidies of American military credits," he added.

In the run up to a conference in Brussels on journalism since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the International/European Federation of Journalists said that these "have been followed by a dark decade particularly for journalists and media staff who have been among the most prominent victims."

It added that "a range of unprecedented laws and policies that have enfeebled civil liberties and human rights protection everywhere. In every corner of the world, journalism has been diminished by the shadow of terrorism."

  • 1970s: End of state broadcasting monopolies across Europe sees rise of "community radios," most of which were initially pirate radios.
  • 1980s: Development of satellite broadcasting triggers first attempts to shape an EU audiovisual policy.
  • 1981: Rupert Murdorch's News International buys The Times of London.
  • 1984: Commission launches public consultation (Green Paper) on the establishment of a common market in broadcasting.
  • 1989: EU adopts TV without Frontiers Directive (TVWF), the only piece of EU legislation directly dealing with press and broadcasting.
  • 1990s: Rise of the Internet as a popular means of communication.
  • 1997: Term 'weblog' is coined.
  • 1999: Founding of classified advertisements website Craigslist.
  • 1999: Founding of blogging platform Blogger.
  • 2005: European Commission proposes update to the TV Without Frontiers Directive to keep up with rapid development of the Internet. The legislation is renamed Audiovisual Services Directive (AVMSD).
  • 2006: Founding of micro-blogging platform Twitter.
  • 2007: EU adopts Audiovisual Services Directive (AVMSD).
  • 2007-2009: Launch of French 'pure player' online media Rue89, and Mediapart.
  • 2009: European Charter on Freedom of the Press signed.
  • 2011: Launch of Huffington Post UK.

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