Thursday

26th Nov 2020

Opinion

Eastern Partnership must now improve media freedoms

  • 'More for more' has largely been the EU's policy in the Eastern Partnership countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine), but it has been hopelessly insufficient at encouraging media freedom (Photo: Surreal Name Given)

"It is better than nothing," replied Volha Siakhovich, legal expert for the Belarusian Association of Journalists, when asked about the Eastern Partnerships' (EaP) record of advancing media freedom in the country.

The EaP is an initiative aimed at strengthening relations between the EU and six post-Soviet states (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine).

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Although its creation in 2009 was widely seen as bold and visionary, its implementation has been decidedly lacklustre – not least with regard to media freedom.

A free press is essential to the EaP's objectives: journalists must be empowered to hold power to account in order to build sustainable economies, societies, and governance.

But the EaP countries have failed to make consistent headway on media freedom: Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan's rankings in the RSF Press Freedom Index have fallen since 2009, and it would be a hard sell to credit the EaP with Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia's modest advances.

But with the new EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell declaring that partnerships will be one of the guiding principles of his mandate, can we hope to see the EaP being embraced with renewed vigour?

These are three things that the EU must do in order to improve the EaP's impact on media freedom:

1. EU member states must lead by example

With many of its own window panes shattered, the EU can hardly throw stones at the EaP countries for disrespecting media freedom. Five EU member states, including Croatia which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, came below Armenia and Georgia in the 2019 RSF Press Freedom Index. Bulgaria ranked nine places behind Ukraine.

EU member states must defend journalists and independent media by empowering journalists, by not adopting restrictive laws, and by earnestly addressing cases of impunity for murdered journalists.

Some 17 journalists who were murdered in the EU since 1992 have yet to see justice.

Member states must demonstrate their commitment to media freedom by submitting timely and comprehensive replies to alerts on the Council of Europe's platform.

Of the 83 alerts that went unanswered in 2019, 35 percent relate to EU member states. The UK and Spain were among the EU's worst offenders, having failed to respond to six and four alerts respectively.

2. Empowering and supporting local journalists

Vadym Komarov was a reporter from the city of Cherkasy in central Ukraine. He worked for the local daily Dzvin, reporting on such issues as corruption and organised crime.

On 3 May 2019, he wrote on Facebook that he would imminently publish information on alleged corruption among local authorities.

The following day, he was found unconscious by a passerby. He had been violently beaten and sustained severe head injuries. He died on 20 June 2019.

This was just one of the violations targeting a local journalist, which was recorded by Index on Censorship last year.

Journalists covering local issues have long been among the most targeted for their work: they represented 90 percent of journalists killed worldwide in 2017.

When asked about how it is empowering and supporting local journalists in the EaP, the EEAS highlighted three funding initiatives in the countries amounting to €19m. Funding is essential, but must be accompanied by other forms of support.

"EU officials rarely make statements on issues related to journalists," says Rasul Jafarov, coordinator for the EaP Civil Society Forum.

Borrell, and his colleagues commissioners Didier Reynders, Olivér Várhelyi, and Jutta Urpilainen are all well-placed to speak out against the violations facing journalists in the EaP.

3. More serious consequences for non-compliance

"More for more" has largely been the EU's policy in the EaP countries, but it has been hopelessly insufficient at encouraging media freedom.

"Fewer carrots and more sticks should be applied in cases of grave violations against journalists," says Jafarov.

"Sticks" are often seen as being synonymous with economic sanctions but, as with all aspects of the EaP, creative and differentiated approaches are needed to effectively target each of the EaP countries.

According to Andrei Bastunets, chairperson of Belarusian Association of Journalists, such sanctions could "push Belarus toward deeper integration with Russia" and cause "a dramatic deterioration in the situation".

Media freedom must be a part of negotiations between the EU and the partner countries. According to Bastunets, "it is important not to separate [..] economic cooperation from respect for human rights during multilateral or bilateral negotiations."

At the dawn of a new decade for the EaP, trust in the EU is at its highest level to date (61 percent) among citizens of the partner countries.

The EU must capitalise on the positive sentiment and prioritise efforts aimed at advancing media freedom if it is to see more positive outcomes in the years ahead.

Author bio

Jessica Ní Mhainín is policy research and advocacy officer at Index on Censorship and manages Index's Media Monitoring and Advocating for Media Freedom project.

Disclaimer

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

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