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5th Dec 2016

Press freedom under attack inside EU, advocates say

  • The control of media outlets in the hands of few harms pluralism and undermines democracy, say media freedom advocates (Photo: Jon S)

Media advocates are calling on EU lawmakers to speak out against the roll-back of press freedoms in some EU member states.

"There is not a single member state that has not taken a step back on press freedom," said Olivier Basille, secretary general of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) at a hearing in the European Parliament on Tuesday (6 November).

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Basille, along with a panel of media experts and advocates, laid out troubling trends in European media, with journalists coming under increasing pressure from political heavyweights to cede critical reporting.

Romanian Liberal MEP Renate Weber, who drafted the European Parliament's position on media freedom in the EU, said the European Commission cannot shy away from taking a position.

"It is not good enough to invoke bureaucratic difficulties - be they legal powers in the sense of a specific legislation - to justify the lack of willingness of the commission [to speak out]," said Weber.

The protection of sources and the protection against defamation claims by public figures are among some of the standards that are not being wholly respected.

William Horsley of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) pointed out that reporters are routinely intimidated, receive threats of violence by police and suffer arbitrary arrests in countries such as Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and in soon-to-join-the-EU Croatia.

Bulgarian journalist Yavor Dachkov, who co-edits the Galeria newspaper in Sofia, told this website in July that a bomb exploded in front of his office soon after they published a phone call in January 2011 that allegedly incriminates Bulgaria's Prime Minister Borisov in a scandal involving a national beer company.

"It was close to taking the life of one of our colleagues," wrote Dachkov in a letter addressed to European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

Meanwhile, concentrated ownership of media outlets in the hands of the few has created its own sets of problems.

Owners of some media outlets in Romania and Bulgaria have links to organised crime, said the AEJ's Horsely: "This is corrupting the free flow of information within the borders of the European Union to an extent that EU lawmakers should understand and act on."

He added that the commission and the parliament have known about the extent of abuse and press freedom violations for some time but "have clearly not acted."

For its part, the New York-based Open Society Foundations (OSF), says there is an urgent need to address media ownership concentration.

The group has surveyed the impact of digitisation and digital media on media pluralism, diversity, accessibility and independence in 60 countries including 13 EU member states.

Their study found that media concentration impacts editorial independence given the shady ties that are sometimes formed between owners and the political and business elite.

They attribute some of this trend to the deregulation of media ownership rules and in some cases, to the removal of market share thresholds, as in the Netherlands, Romania and Slovenia.

"This has consolidated agenda-setting power in particular entities—including individual proprietors—which harms pluralism and undermines democracy," said OSF.

Member state funding of publicly run media outlets is also raising concern and in particular, official advertising, which "supports politically friendly media and discriminates against others."

Austrians ponder shift to far right

Austrian voters will on Sunday decide whether to stay in the EU centre, or lurch to the radical right, with Hofer slightly ahead in polls ahead of the presidential election.

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