19th Mar 2018

Brussels launches toothless inquiry into EU press freedoms

  • Press freedom is under assault in a number of EU states, civil liberties advocates and unions say (Photo: DRB62)

The European Commission is launching a high-level inquiry into press freedoms around the bloc. But its own officials admit the exercise is mainly intended for show.

The inquiry is to look into issues such as political interference, legal threats to journalists' rights, corporate influence in the media and concentration of media ownership. In the wake of the phone-tapping scandal at the News of the World, a now-defunct British tabloid, the group will investigate the state of "quality journalism" as well as ethics and media accountability.

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It will also make recommendations to the commission on what kind of follow-up there should be.

Speaking to press in Brussels on Tuesday, EU digital affairs commissioner Neelie Kroes said "there have been developments in the EU that put [press freedom] at stake. We all know where that is."

She noted that "member states have primary responsibility for policing freedom of the press ... What we lack is further competence to impose binding rules."

But she insisted the establishment of the group will not be an empty exercise: "We're not going to say [after the group has made its recommendations]: 'That's great. Thank-you very much' and then move on to something new. That's not going to be done here."

The commission's own officials say that is precisely what will happen, however.

One contact explained the main reason for creating the panel is to placate the European Parliament, which has repeatedly called on the commission to take action against member states. "It’s basically to get the parliament off our back ... There are some MEPs who seem incapable of understanding that the EU has very limited legal powers in this area," the source said.

The lack of any legal mandate for Brussels to intervene means it will have little choice but to sit on the report when it is ready.

A number of the individuals on the team were picked specifically due to their awareness of the lack of powers of the commission in this area.

The group will comprise the former president of Latvia and ex-commissioner Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, Herta Daubler-Gmelin, a former German justice minister, and Luis Pessoa Maduro, a professor at the European University Institute and former advocate-general at the European Court of Justice.

The sole journalist on the panel will be Ben Hammersley, an editor with Wired UK who has also reported from Burma, Iran and Afghanistan.

Speaking to EUobserver, he defended the new task-force aims to redefine the terms of the debate on the future of journalism.

"What do we mean by media, journalism, freedom of the press? We need to return to first principle and build a framework of best practice atop that," he said. "The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last 10-15 years, in terms of technology and patterns of consumption. If Europe is to start to address the question of media freedom, they have to address intellectually what exactly it is they are talking about."

He said that in the group's first discussion, which took place on Tuesday afternoon, the members were very aware of the limitations of the commission's powers in this realm.

"This is a huge problem. What is the possible efficacy of this effort? But you have to start somewhere," he said, adding that a second group that will look into the practicalities of what can be done will be established in a year's time. The new group expects to deliver its results in 12 months.

The European Parliament pressure comes amid widespread complaints about constriction of press freedoms in the EU in recent years.

Italy, ranked last in the EU in Reporters Without Borders' 2010 Press Freedom Index, has come under fire from the left and centre in the European Parliament for hyper-concentration of public and private media in the hands of the prime minister.

On 5 October, a legislative committee approved what Reporters Without Borders called "cosmetic changes" to a bill that would curb the publication of police wiretaps in the news media and would force websites to publish corrections. The law had earlier been shelved after public outcry. The draft bill is due to be voted on next week.

In February, the same organisation denounced Neelie Kroes' action over Hungary's media law, which sets up a media council to watch over ‘unbalanced reporting’, as “inadequate”.

A number of eastern European countries have also been criticised by the Open Society Institute's media programme for high levels of state interference in the appointment of journalists at public broadcasters.

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