Sunday

29th Mar 2020

EU to better protect journalists, Jourova promises

  • Commissioner-designate Vera Jourova presented few concrete plans but said she would be 'firm on principle' (Photo: European Parliament)

The new commissioner tasked with defending democracy and the rule of law in the EU on Monday (7 October) promised better protection for journalists in Europe.

Commissioner-designate for the new "values and transparency" portfolio, Vera Jourova told MEPs at her hearing that legal aid should be provided to journalists in case of legal harassment, abuse of litigation and EU funds could be used for that.

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"We definitely must do more" on media freedom and pluralism, Jourova said.

The Czech candidate admitted that the EU does not have the legislative tools to protect journalists who are under threat by their own government.

"I am very concerned that journalists are attacked by politicians in member states," she said.

"We should continue funding independent projects monitoring media pluralism, map media freedom, and support journalists whose safety is under threat," Jourova added.

Jourova told MEPs she had promised the mother of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia to scrutinise the investigation into her death and promised her son to better protect journalists.

"These promises are very strong commitments. I am happy to do more to keep these promises," Jourova said.

The last two years have seen two murders of European investigative journalists, with Slovak Jan Kuciak killed in 2018 and Galizia murdered in 2017.

The Czech candidate, who hails from the liberal Renew European political family, sailed through her confirmation hearing on Monday.

She comes from the ruling ANO party of prime minister Andrej Babis who has come under corruption allegations.

Jourova's portfolio will also include reforming European elections and the lead candidate/Spitzenkandidat system to choose the EU commission president, plus fighting disinformation, defending the rule of law and media freedom.

She called her portfolio to be about "Europe's soul", saying her goal is to "make Europe more democratic and transparent", "more resilient to threats including digital ones," and make it "more capable to defend values".

Not 'the new Timmermans'

Jourova said she wants to build on the "tireless" work done by current commission vice-president responsible for the rule of law, Frans Timmermans, but will have her own style.

"I will not be Timmermans," she told MEPs.

"I admired what he did and achieved, it was not easy. To defend the rule of law, and democracy is not a popular job to do. I will mobilise all my knowledge and experience, also in the region where we have problems, I will be firm on the principle," Jourova pledged.

She defended the Article 7 sanction procedure launched against Hungary and Poland in recent years, insisting the processes - which have yielded few palpable results in the two countries - are working.

"When using all the tools, in a fair way, we can achieve progress," she said, referring to the political perception in some central European countries that Article 7 and other tools have been misused for political purposes by the EU.

Jourova said she will work with prospective justice commissioner Didier Reynders to launch an annual monitoring of the rule of law in all EU member states.

She added that "something has to be done around the budget" to defend taxpayers money.

Jourova said linking EU funds to rule of law will not be aimed at sanctioning the beneficiaries, but to make governments' life "less easy".

She also promised to look at corruption in a "systematic manner", making it part of the annual rule of law review.

Disinformation

Jourova, who is currently serving as justice commission, said that a key part of her work was fighting disinformation and improving the transparency of online political advertising.

"There will be no 'ministry of truth'," Jourova told MEPs, but added she wants more clarity on paid political advertisements and the financing of European political parties. "We want citizens to know the source of information," she added.

She wants to make online platforms adhere to the "code of practice", a self-regulatory charter signed by most major platforms to address the spread of online disinformation.

However, Jourova did not set out any future legislation on disinformation.

She pledged to restart discussions on a mandatory joint transparency register, of meetings with registered lobbyists, for EU institutions.

Jourova also wants an independent ethics body, dealing with ethics issues of the EU institutions, to create a "European political culture".

Elections

Jourova will also lead negotiations on creating transnational lists for European elections, and reforming the lead candidate system for choosing the EU commission president.

That was a key promise of commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen to the parliament after she was picked by EU leaders despite not having run in the European elections as a lead candidate herself.

But Jourova refrained from presenting any concrete plans - saying she wants to compare ideas and present proposals by the summer of 2020.

Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing

Hungary was quizzed by EU ministers over its domestic crackdown on media, judges, academia and NGOs. Hungary's minister responded by saying the country had defended "the European way of life" for centuries, and it should be respected.

EU divided on how to protect rule of law

Poland and Hungary have argued that rule of law is purely a domestic matter and the EU should respect legal traditions, but Dutch foreign minister warned backsliding was a worry for all.

Reynders is the new Timmermans on rule of law

Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen wants to see "tighter enforcement" of EU rules, and wants the current Belgian foreign minister to take charge.

Timmermans: von der Leyen will be tough on rule of law

The Dutch rule of law top man said the new commission would be just as tough on the issue as the current one, but would not say whether he wants to hold onto the portfolio in the next executive.

Opinion

'A game of roulette' - life as a journalist now in Turkey

Turkey has more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world. The authorities seem to equate journalism with terrorism: everyone has the right to express themselves, but, in their eyes, legitimate journalism is a threat to security.

Online platforms need regulating, Jourova warns

The EU commission vice-president pledged to tackle disinformation by regulating platforms and cleaning up online political advertising rules. She also pointed to Russia and China as wanting to undermine European democracy.

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