Tremendous gulf between European member states and press freedom, MEPs warn

Posted on: September 14, 2020 by Claire Meadows

There is a tremendous gulf between European member states and their treatment of media freedom, leading MEPs have warned.

Speaking during a debate on press freedom and disinformation by Parliament’s Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs last week, MEPs warned that more needed to be done in Europe to safeguard media freedoms and that some EU member states continued to use the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to spread disinformation and to clamp down on press freedoms and the rule of law.

Romanian MEP Ramona Strugariu said press freedom safeguards were “more necessary than ever” because press freedom and safety standards for journalists were deteriorating every day.

She said: “The most recent example in this regard comes from Bulgaria – a country that had already ranked the lowest in the EU in the 2020 Press Freedom Index. Over the past weeks and, even days, we have seen images of journalists being beaten, attacked with pepper spray and tear gas and brutalised with batons by the police. We have seen their equipment being damaged or destroyed and some were even handcuffed or detained. Pictures of bruised and bloodied faces of journalists or any protesters do not have a place in Europe or in the world.”

Bulgarian Socialist Party member and MEP Elena Yoncheva agreed that there was a widening gap between member states and that her country placed far behind other European counterparts.

She said: “There is a tremendous gap that exists between member states. Finland is proud to be number one when it comes to world press freedom but Bulgaria drags far behind the other member states – it is placed 111th worldwide.”

Yoncheva, a freelance journalist and former Bulgarian National Television correspondent, called for measures including the establishment of a media surveillance mechanism that would include clear standards and criteria for protecting journalists at an EU level alongside investment and funding for investigative journalism by European governments.

The committee was discussing amendments to a report by Polish MEP Magdalena Adamowicz which highlighted ongoing threats to press freedom including attacks on journalists and the rise of disinformation and hate speech. The report, ‘Strengthening media freedom: the protection of journalists in Europe, hate speech, disinformation and the role of platforms’ was published in May 2020 and looked at the effect the Covid-19 pandemic has had on media freedoms across Europe alongside the politicisation and take-over of media in recent years by governing bodies across EU member states.

The report calls for tougher measures to hold member state governments that silence critical media and undermine media freedom and pluralism to account as well as recommendations including the establishment of a European fund for journalists offering direct financial support for independent journalists and media outlets and the establishment of an independent and comprehensive EU mechanism that would include media monitoring, democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in the EU.

Speaking during Thursday’s debate, Adamowicz agreed that there was a widening gap between member states’ treatment of media freedom and an increasing tendency by individuals and governments to incite violence against journalists.

She said: “In recent years the situation where freedom of the media is concerned is deteriorating, even in the most advanced member states. We are seeing threats to media freedom at a global level however it is the impact on the state of democracy that is the most concerning. […] An alarming issue that I am trying to point out in this report is the increasing tendency to incite violence against journalists. We want to change this situation.

“Hate speech more and more often applies to female journalists so this of course not only affects freedom of speech but also increases certain discriminatory stereotypes that apply to female journalists. Spreading hate speech online cannot seemingly be stopped so self-regulation under good practice codes are an important first step in order to make our society more resilient to fake news and disinformation however we need to go further so we want to focus on the identification of the phenomena and also on developing appropriate measures in order to combat them.”

Swedish MEP Alice Kuhnke also pointed to countries such as Poland and Hungary who have come under immense criticism for clamping down on press freedoms during the Covid-19 pandemic.

She said: “These are two member states that are limiting freedom of expression in an attempt to silence criticism. These are two countries that already qualified in the absolute bottom of all member states in this year’s Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders.

“I have proposed steps highlighting the need for a rapid response mechanism for journalists requesting protection. We need an EU mechanism where we have a contact point in order to follow the cases of journalists requesting protection ensuring that attention is paid to their situation.”

Slovak MEP Lucia Ďuriš Nicholsonová agreed that the situation in central and Eastern Europe in respect of media freedom was also not good.

She said: “Disinformation media are getting more and more influential – even more influential than the standard media according to data and this is very dangerous especially now during the period of Covid because they are introducing this hoax about the dangers of vaccination and so on.

“In some countries in central and Eastern Europe the public media are under huge influence of politicians and private media are owned by oligarchs and mafia and politicians who previously were powerful oligarchs.”