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26th Jul 2021

EU fears death of free media in eastern Europe

  • EU commissioner in charge of protecting European values, Věra Jourová (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Efforts to shut down government-critical media go beyond Hungary and Poland, but current EU law means there is little the European Commission can do about it.

That was the gist of an ill-tempered European Parliament debate in Brussels on Wednesday (10 March), which pitted Europe's centrist and left-wing political parties against the apologists of right-wing regimes in central Europe.

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In Hungary, the nationalist government of prime minister Viktor Orbán has seen his rich friends buy up newspapers and shut them down or gut editorial boards to install people who toed the party line.

Orbán also recently drove Hungary's last independent radio station, Klubrádió, off the air and onto the internet.

In Poland, state media pump out what Radek Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister, called "Goebbelsian propaganda", by reference to Nazi Germany's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, for its xenophobic and anti-European content.

Poland is also trying to force through a new tax on digital advertising designed to impoverish independent media.

And in Slovenia, prime minister Janez Janša was accused of creating a dangerous atmosphere by verbal attacks on press, such as a notorious tweet calling two women reporters "worn-out prostitutes".

But similar abuses were also going on in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia, MEPs said, while in Bulgaria, media ownership by pro-government oligarchs had already wiped out free press in ways Hungary and Poland were still aspiring to.

"The obituary of independent media in Hungary is getting longer every year," French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield said.

"An attack on Polish independent media is an attack on us all," Dutch centre-right MEP Jeroen Lenaers noted.

"In Hungary and Poland, we can say the media are no longer free, and therefore they are no longer complete democracies," Dutch liberal Sophie in 't Veld added.

For her part, the EU commissioner in charge of protecting European values, Věra Jourová, voiced sympathy, while recalling her own experience of growing up in communist-era Czechoslovakia to show her understanding of the risk of backsliding.

But she noted that, as things stood, the Commission had all-but no legal mandate to intervene.

"The competences of the Commission when it comes to media are very limited," she said.

"We need a tool which recognises the role of media as the key players in democratic society ... at this moment, we only have rules which recognise the role of the media as actors in the European single market, and this is what is limiting our ability to act," she said.

She pledged to explore the creation of a new "toolbox" with fellow commissioners.

And pro-free press MEPs suggested a long list of possible ways to deal with the problem.

These included: using anti-state aid and anti-monopoly laws to prevent take-overs; creating a new law against 'SLAPPs' - malicious lawsuits against reporters; withholding EU funds from abusive states; and triggering emergency sanctions under the EU treaty's 'Article 7', which required a four-fifths' majority, instead of a consensus to put them into life.

"No EU money without EU values," Larence Farreng, a French Liberal MEP, said.

Backlash

But at the same time, MEPs from ruling parties in the region castigated their colleagues for peddling "fake news" on the issue in a bid to discredit "conservative" politicians, who disagreed with the EU's "leftist" agenda.

Beata Szydło, a former Polish prime minister for the ruling Law and Justice party, claimed, falsely, that its new media tax was designed to hit only global tech firms such as Google or Facebook.

"You should not organise such debates ... this debate is disinformation," she said.

"The real violation is here in this house, because here your only standard is your reason to express your crazy ideas about Europe," German far-right MEP Christine Anderson also said.

"Anything that you don't agree with you just call 'fake news' ... you want everything to be climate-neutral and gender-mainstreamed and that beautiful world, you don't want anyone to destroy that," Anderson said.

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