Media freedom in Europe is increasingly under threat as a result of the economic crisis, says a report released by human rights organisation Freedom House.
Gabriela Belmar-Valencia, Internal Voice, 29.05.2013
The US-based NGO released their 2013 Freedom of the Press Report, an annual index containing comprehensive data on global media freedom from 1980 to the present, at a launch on the 27th May in Brussels. Attending the launch were MEPs Marietje Schaake and Ana Gomes, both members of the European Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs, with Mrs. Gomes also being a member of the Sub-Committee on Human Rights. The new report paints a bleak picture for the future of media freedom both in Europe and around the world. It highlights the chilling fact that despite some improvements in Latin America and Eastern Europe throughout the 1990s, when dictatorships in those regions began to make the transition to democracy, there has been a continued and sustained decline in media freedom globally since the 1980s. Indeed, the world is currently in the midst of a five year low in respect of media freedom. According to the report, the decline in media freedom is due to a number of factors, including setbacks by repressive and authoritarian regimes in Africa and Eurasia (opposed to media freedom for political reasons), increased intimidation of journalists by both state and non-state actors such as organised crime and Islamist groups, and the culture of impunity surrounding violence against journalists around the world. The countries showing the world's largest decline in terms of media freedom include Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Egypt, the Maldives, and worryingly Greece. The worst offending countries within the EU include Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Spain and Cyprus, with Greece being re-categorised by Freedom House as “partly free” in terms of freedom of the press, in contrast to its previous category of “free”. Dr. Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Project Director at Freedom House, pointed to the economic crisis as the main factor behind the loss of media freedom in Europe. “Pressure on journalists has increased as a result of the crisis” she told the audience at the launch of the report. “Media outlets have been forced to shut down as a result of the hostile economic climate; they have also had to downsize, and there has been a move towards the use of free-lancers by media organisations. Reduced job security has resulted in journalists practising self-censorship, out of fear of losing their jobs, as they are under increasing pressure from media owners.” “There are other things we are seeing across Europe as a result of austerity measures. Time and again we’re seeing, in places like Greece, legal action against journalists who expose tax evaders, excessively broad libel laws being used for political reasons, and coverage of protests against austerity measures being inhibited through attacks on journalists by law enforcement.” Ana Gomes was also critical of the impact of the economic crisis on media freedom in Europe, particularly in her own country of Portugal, where there have been recent attempts to privatise publically owned media organisations. “Privatisation has become the new buzz-word” she said, “I am not opposed to privatisation in all circumstances, but it is important to investigate those who seek to buy publically-owned media, to make sure there is no over-concentration of media ownership.” “I was a child of the Carnation Revolution, and I remember as a young diplomat going to Spain, which was still under dictatorship, and meeting a Spanish General who asked me ‘how can you be sure Portugal will never return to a dictatorship?’ I was sure because now Portugal had media freedom. This freedom is essential to the enjoyment of all others rights, except the right to life. Without it, you can’t breathe, you can’t denounce wrongdoing.” Dr. Karlekar also pointed out that legislation on media freedom in the West serve as models for the rest of the world. “When the Obama administration seizes journalists’ phone records, and countries like the UK have excessively broad libel laws, repressive regimes can point to established democracies to legitimise their own authoritarian practices. Reduced media freedom in the West is stifling such freedom around the world.” Marietje Schaake, who has been working on two reports for the European Parliament on digital and media freedom, agreed with this point. “I met a blogger in Cairo over the weekend, and he said to me ‘be aware of your own credibility.’ When you have social media sites being shut down on the pretext of riots, when you have repressive libel laws, when media outlets in Europe are owned by politicians, we lose our credibility. When Herman van Rompuy seeks to rejuvenate negotiations on Turkish accession to the EU, despite the violence and intimidation against journalists in Turkey, and the censorship of books by politicians, we also lose our credibility. And when Europe loses its credibility on this issue, we lose our ability to help promote media freedom in the rest of the world. You ask me what Europe is doing to tackle media freedom in our own back yard? I say not enough. We have to get our own house in order.” Ms. Schaake is the author of a draft report on ‘The Freedom of Press and Media in the World,” which will be debated by the European Parliament in June. Freedom House's own report can be accessed through their website at: www.freedomhouse.org.