Europe’s journalists are in trouble.
While EU leaders often pledge their support for press freedom, the on-the-ground realities for European journalists are getting more grim, according to the latest World Press Freedom Index from the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.
Across the bloc, the media freedom rankings for Germany, Estonia, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria all fell from 2020.
The EU “struggles to defend values at home,” the group said Tuesday, pointing to legislation in EU countries limiting information flow, the politicization of state media and a growing number of violent incidents targeting reporters.
The EU’s worst performers are Greece, ranked at 70, Malta at 81, Hungary at 92 and Bulgaria at 112.
“Europe continues to be the most favourable continent for press freedom, but violence against journalists has increased, and the mechanisms the European Union established to protect fundamental freedoms have yet to loosen [Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán’s grip on Hungary’s media or halt the draconian measures being taken in other central European countries,” Reporters Without Borders said.
Hungary came under special scrutiny in the report. The country has limited journalists’ ability to report on the coronavirus and few major independent media outlets remain active domestically.
“The EU, for its part, seems powerless,” the watchdog wrote of the situation.
The report — which comes weeks after a Greek journalist was shot dead outside his home — also raised concerns about challenges facing journalists in western EU countries.
“In both the east and west of the continent, new legislation limiting the right to inform has facilitated arrests and detentions of journalists,” the organization wrote.
And, it noted, “many reporters have been physically attacked by members or supporters of extremist and conspiracy-theory groups during protests against coronavirus restrictions”. Such assaults have been especially apparent in Germany, which fell two spots to 13, and Italy, ranked at 41.
“In other countries, especially Greece, reporters have been the victims of police violence and arbitrary arrest that have restricted coverage of law enforcement operations during demonstrations,” according to the report.
The European Commission has faced criticism for not doing enough to tackle media freedom problems across the bloc.
“The Commission, in a lot of areas — including this one — is not making full use of the instruments that are available,” said Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, a member of the liberal Renew Europe group.
“National governments also have their responsibility, and there you see that part of the problem is that attacks on the media are actually in some cases coming from the governments themselves,” the Dutch politician said, pointing to verbal attacks, intimidation, harassment and “legislation which is too restrictive.”
But there is also pressure from some national governments to do more.
“Media freedom and pluralism are vital for our democracies and need to be actively fostered,” said Finnish Minister for European Affairs Tytti Tuppurainen. “At the EU level, discussion on the issue has intensified recently,” the minister, a member of the Finnish Social Democratic Party, said in a text message, adding that “the EU and the member states shall not stand still.”
“New measures are in preparation. It is important that we continue to address this issue at the level of the EU, and aim at intensifying our measures at all levels, to promote and to support media freedom and pluralism,” she added.
The Berlaymont maintains that its room to take action on media freedom is constrained — while signaling a willingness to explore new tools.
“We need to do more, even if our competence is limited,” Commissioner Thierry Breton told members of the European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee on Monday.
The French politician — who cited “concerning” developments in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic — said that in his view the EU needs a new “European Media Freedom Act,” which would aim to ensure that “the freedom and pluralism of the media are the pillars of our democracy.”
While pointing to some existing financial support for the media sector, the commissioner said, “I believe that we need a mechanism to increase the transparency, the independence and the responsibility around the actions affecting the control and freedom of the press.”
This would also be an opportunity, he added, to look at the resilience of small actors and the governance of public media.
“We should also think about the financing supporting the pluralism and freedom of the media, and the structures that support this financing,” Breton said.
But some MEPs say that the current Commission appears unwilling to be sufficiently tough with capitals.
The Commission is trying “to hide under the bed as soon as there’s trouble, because they’re afraid of the member state governments,” said in ‘t Veld.
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