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17th Apr 2021

MEPs take note of attacks on EU press freedom

  • Hungary is not the only country where media face restrictions, warn critics (Photo: GiantsFanatic)

European governments are using wiretaps, the threat of large fines and the prospect of psychiatric testing to intimidate journalists and muzzle the region's free press, according to stakeholders and experts in the field.

A shortage of funds and an over-concentration of media ownership are also key problems facing the sector, participants at a conference organised by the European Parliament's Socialist group said on Thursday (3 March).

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Traditionally seen as a 'fourth estate' charged with monitoring the holders of power, Europe's media freedom has recently come under greater scrutiny after Hungary's centre-right government introduced a widely–criticised media law on 1 January 2011.

But other EU countries including Romania, Italy, Bulgaria and France have also witnessed rising tensions.

Romanian broadcast laws have been subject to six amendments over the past year, with up to 40 percent of broadcast time now reserved for the national news agency, said Ioana Avadani, executive director of the Centre of Independent Journalism, a Bucharest-based NGO.

The country's parliament is currently debating the idea of imposing annual psychiatric controls on journalists, while the government recently changed a public procurement law related to media contracts.

"Basically the government can give public money to whoever it wants," Ms Avadani said, reserving her strongest criticism for the government's plan for a 'national defence strategy' under which media groups would be listed as a 'vulnerability' to the state.

In France, the recent scandal linking L'Oreal billionaire-heiress Liliane Bettencourt with Eric Woerth, the former treasurer of President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP party, has added to tensions.

The centre-left Le Monde newspaper subsequently accused the French presidency of ordering counter-intelligence agents to identify the source who leaked information to the newspaper.

Added to this, the fall in readership and recent wave of newspaper/television takeovers has threatened the independence of some of the country's most established news outlets, said Jean-Marie Charon, a sociologist with CNRS, a French government-funded research body

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's fusion of political and media power has been a bone of contention for many years.

But the embattled premier could opt to further increase the size of his media empire from 1 April when a law restricting media concentration is set to expire, warned Roberto Natale, President of the Federazione Nazionale Stampa Italiana.

"As prime minister, only he can decide on whether to extend the law or not," said Mr Natale.

In Bulgaria, the centre-right government is also planning to introduce new media laws.

These, together with widespread wiretapping of journalists and a failure to properly investigate a recent bomb explosion at the Sofia-based headquarters of the Galeria magazine were reminiscent of the country's "past totalitarian regime" said Borislav Tsekov, director of the Institute of Modern Politics in Bulgaria.

The European Commission's role in supporting Europe's free press has also come under greater scrutiny following Hungary's controversial new media law, but critics say a series of amendments demanded by the commission are essentially cosmetic in nature, with the homogeneous nature of Hungary's powerful new media authority left intact.

As a result, "other EU states and aspiring members may also be tempted to engage in media restrictions" said Gabor Horvath, deputy editor-in-chief of Hungary's Nepszabadsag newspaper.

Different EU initiatives have also faced criticism, with a European Parliament plan to allocate €1.5 million to investigative journalism research grants in 2010 and 2011 eventually withdrawn due to fears over editorial independence.

While several speakers at Thursday's event called for the introduction of new EU legislation to secure Europe's media freedom and potentially provide financial support, the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists said policymakers should concentrate on implementing legal provisions already in place, including the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

"Creating new legislation is such a long-winded debate. We've been discussing it for 15 years ... we need to focus on practical structures," said Aidan White.

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