23rd Sep 2019

EU states downgraded in press freedom index

  • Press freedom is no given in Europe (Photo: EUobserver)

Press freedom in several European countries has eroded dramatically in the past year, particularly in Slovakia, Italy and Bulgaria, according to an annual index released on Tuesday (20 October) by NGO Reporters Without Borders.

Slovakia registered the biggest fall among EU member states, dropping by 37 places compared to 2008, as a result of "government meddling in media activities" and the adoption of a law imposing an automatic right of response in the press.

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The index ranks 175 countries in the world on a scale from 0 to 115.50, with 0 being the best grade - shared by Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Estonia and Norway - and 115.50 being the worst, as registered in Eritrea.

It is based on questionnaires with 40 criteria, including violence against journalists, imprisonment, physical attacks, censorship, confiscation of newspaper print runs, searches and harassment. The index also takes into account the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for press freedom violations.

The worst scores among EU members were given to Bulgaria (68th place), Romania (50th) and Italy (49th).

"The impact of organised crime and the targeting of journalists account for the falls suffered by both Bulgaria and Italy, which got the worst ranking of the EU's six original founding members," notes the report.

"Silvio Berlusconi's harassment of the media, mafia violence against journalists who expose its activity and a bill that would drastically curb the media's ability to publish official phone tap transcripts explain why Italy fell for the second year running."

Journalists are still physically threatened in Italy and Spain, but also in EU candidate country Croatia, where the owner and marketing director of the weekly Nacional were killed by a bomb on 23 October 2008.

France fell eight points because of judicial investigations, arrests of journalists, raids on media and meddling by prominent politicians, including President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"It is disturbing to see European democracies such as France, Italy and Slovakia fall steadily in the rankings year after year," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-Francois Julliard said. "Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home?"

The index is yet another thumbs down for Italy's premier, just as the European Parliament is set to vote on Wednesday on a resolution harshly critical of Mr Berlusconi's multiple legal cases against newspapers who published articles and photos about his sex scandals.

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), currently the largest group in the EU legislature, tried to block or alter the resolution, pointing to the general situation in Europe, not just Italy. Mr Berlusconi's party is one of the largest and most influential in the EPP group, which alleged that the criticism is political and originates among the Italian leftist opposition.

As of Tuesday, the draft resolution text still called on the Italian premier to withdraw the legal challenges and to "address the anomaly represented by the special conflict of interests between political, economic and media power," in reference to Mr Berlusconi's extensive media company holdings.

The EPP group is likely to vote against the resolution or introduce amendments pointing out to other states where media is concentrated in the hands of left-leaning political figures.

Russia worse off than Belarus

The media freedom index also notes that Russia has for the first time fallen behind Belarus, due to the continuing murders of journalists and human rights activists. Censorship and "reporting taboos" have also returned "with increased force," while culprits have nothing to fear from the Russian courts.

Reporters without Borders saw a deterioration in the press freedom situation in almost all of the former Soviet republics except Georgia (81st place) and, to a lesser extent, Belarus (151st place), whose government has initiated a cautious and so far limited improvement in its relations with the press as part of a renewed dialogue with the EU.

Georgia leaped forward by 39 positions "because it did not fight a war during the period covered," namely 1 September 2008 to 31 August 2009. "Political tension" continues to have an impact on news coverage in the Caucasus country, however.

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