Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Opinion

World Press Freedom: Can EU take the global lead?

  • Journalists at a summit in Brussels - EU should be a beacon of light in dark times (Photo: Consilium)

Today marks World Press Freedom Day.

A multitude of press freedom organisations, journalists and activists will write appeals and opinion pieces. Speeches will be made at events and conferences.

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EU officials around the world will also host local events to publicly reiterate the EU's commitment to its values, including those of free expression and of defending the press.

But what does that actually mean for journalists who need help from the EU?

Internationally, journalists are increasingly vulnerable and their rights are under threat like never before.

Impunity is the norm, with only one out of 10 cases of journalist murders being successfully prosecuted.

The brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi last October became symbolic of the struggle to challenge impunity and once again underlined the dangers that journalists can face - and the limits of international criticism to challenge repression and violence.

At the end of last year, over 250 journalists were imprisoned worldwide because of their work. Repressive laws restricted many.

Verbal attacks by officials, accusations of "fake news" and legal charges allowed governments around the world to replicate an all too familiar pattern of silencing critics.

The EU must continue to examine its responses to ongoing clampdowns like those experienced in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey last year.

Delegations of the European External Action Service need to be perceived locally as beacons of support and sources of hope for journalists languishing in prisons, threatened or under pressure of self-censorship.

EU officials need always to be upholding their commitments to defend journalists, as part of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Expression Online and Offline.

There is great potential, given the broad scope of the guidelines, for EU diplomats to protect and support journalists, yet they are not well known by either diplomats or journalists.

But essentially, they allow for EU officials to act as a lifeline to those at risk - and for their families and colleagues.

But can the EU become a bastion of press freedom internationally?

We know that all too often trade relations, private - or soft - diplomacy as well as security or political considerations or relations can hamper the extent to which EU institutions or member states get tough on repressive leaders.

For just over a year and a half, the brutal murders of investigative journalists Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta started an important discussion in Brussels about journalist protection in Europe.

Much of this discussion has also focused on ensuring that justice is delivered in both of these important cases.

However, the conditions under which the two journalists worked have been cited as equally important. Both individuals were subject, like so many other journalists, to severe psychological pressure because of their work.

Around Europe, journalists like them face serious physical threats, often without effective protection available, and sometimes in isolation.

But beyond this, ever-changing media landscapes are creating more difficult conditions for journalists to work in.

Media ownership is paving the wave for oligarchs, in countries like Hungary, to buy up critical media outlets. Independent journalism is under threat.

In addition, the dominance of social media platforms, and their business models, makes it even more difficult for independent journalists to economically compete.

Public service journalism remains underfunded. Distrust for journalists prevails around Europe. The profession is weakened and everyone knows it.

And are some politicians deliberately undermining journalists to fuel this climate of mistrust?

Journalists often face verbal attacks by politicians. For example, former Slovak prime minister Robert Fico has consistently displayed aggression towards journalists.

"Shall all you comedians be knocked out?", he said when journalists spoke at rallies in November 2018 in memory of Jan Kuciak. In November 2016, he called journalists "dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes".

By protecting journalists in EU states, the European Commission and the European Parliament will do more than just protect values in the block: they can set an example internationally.

The future president of the commission can play a critical role by making journalist protection a priority, condemning attacks by EU populist politicians, providing one of the future commissioners with a strengthened press freedom mandate, and providing all space and support necessary to allow for a plan of action to build a favourable environment for independent and critical journalists.

So let's not make World Press Freedom Day about rhetoric on values: it should be about concrete steps after elections and the political will to see them through.

Author bio

Tom Gibson is the lead advocate in Brussels for the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international NGO based in New York.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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