No democracy without free media

In the latest ranking by Reporters without Borders, the Nordic countries were again among the winners in the defense of media freedom. What do the governments of these countries do better than others?

In Norway (which, again, placed 1st), a special government commission takes care of formulating a good framework of conditions for the media. In Sweden, where freedom of the press was enshrined as early as 1766, its citizens have an enforceable right to official information. In Denmark, all forms of media receive subsidies.

The COVID-pandemic has made the situation for the media, especially for quality media, more precarious. The advertising pie has become smaller because of competition from social media giants like Google and Facebook. This has resulted in countless jobs in the media industry being lost forever.

At the same time, the Council of Europe registered 40 per cent more threats against journalists in 2020 than in 2019 through physical attacks at demonstrations and assaults aimed at intimidating journalists mostly via social media. Unfortunately, after the 2017 murder of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and of Slovak reporters Jan Kuciak a year later, along with his fiancée Martina Kusnirova, there was another victim in Greece only days ago. Investigative reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was shot and killed outside his home – the third murder of a European journalist in the last four years. 

Investigative journalism has been hampered by a new form of libel suits by politicians and corporations – so-called SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation). Caruana Galizia had 46 such lawsuits filed against her by the time of her murder. Two Romanian journalists were recently sued by an Orthodox bishop for a large sum and had their articles about paedophile assaults removed. The Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza is already fighting more than 55 SLAPP lawsuits, including many of which were filed by Poland’s ruling PiS party.

In Hungary, another medium critical of the government was shut down and pushed onto the internet with the withdrawal of the licence for Klubradio. In April, Hungarian state television paraded the Viennese journalist Franziska Tschinderle from profile in Hungary’s main news after accusing her of unprofessionalism and provocative questions to Hungarian MEPs.

The Association of European Journalists, which I led for six years, put her on the Council of Europe’s platform for persecuted journalists. It’s a symbolic pushback based on the principle of naming and shaming as governments have to comment on the cases on the platform. A similar platform now exists in the EU.

In Poland, the public broadcaster has, over the years, mutated into a propaganda station for the right-wing, authoritarian government. During the presidential elections last year, according to an investigation by our Polish section, only negative reports were broadcast about the opponent Rafal Trzaskowski to the incumbent Andrzej Duda during the election campaign. There was not a single TV debate.

A re-Polonization program for foreign-owned media is now underway as more than a hundred regional newspapers owned by the Bavarian publishing group Passau have recently been bought up by the pro-government Polish petrol station chain Orlen

In Slovenia, which takes over the EU presidency in July, Prime Minister Janez Jansa is riding on a campaign against independent media, following Viktor Orban’s example in Hungary. The Slovenian news agency STA, which he often criticized for refusing to submit to the government, is being financially starved and is on the verge of bankruptcy.

Like ex-President Donald Trump, whom he idolizes, Jansa posts a vast number of tweets every day and has earned the nickname “Marshal Twito”, in reference to Yugoslavia’s former Communist dictator, Marshall Tito. 

In Albania, a chief editor of a daily newspaper who filmed a police operation against youth demonstrators with his mobile phone was beaten by the police and arrested. 

In Western Europe, the situation for the media has also become more problematic. A ban on video recordings during police operations was passed in France a fortnight ago as part of the “Law for Global Security”. This is intended to reduce physical attacks on police officers after the outbreak of the violent Gilets Jaunes (yellow waistcoat) protests two years ago.

Journalists who violate the law could face up to five years in prison and fines of up to €75,000. Likewise, it is a criminal offense to report on police violence using video recordings. Of course, at the end of 2020, a violent police act against a black shopkeeper in Paris was documented by footage from a surveillance camera. 

The independence of the venerable BBC has been threatened by a direct link to the UK’s budget. 

The Bundestag in Germany passed a law last March allowing the Federal Intelligence Service to collect data on communication links and pass it on to foreign spy services. This undermines editorial secrecy because it allows conclusions to be drawn about journalists’ informants. 

In Austria, newspapers with the largest circulation receive the lion’s share of state media funding as well as the most advertisements from public agencies and state-related companies. Domestic tabloid media collected almost €100 million in advertising from the public sector last year. The EU-Commission, in its first report about the rule of law in Austria last autumn, criticised this unfair Austrian “tradition“. 

The EU Commission has – late, but nevertheless – recognized the threat to media freedom as an attack on fundamental European values and has introduced countermeasures. A series of new initiatives are intended to increase the safety of journalists and also to better protect media pluralism as an indispensable component of democracy. Disinformation and the interference of foreign powers – above all Russia and China – in inner-European election campaigns are also to be made more difficult in the future. 

The Vice-President of the EU Commission responsible for fundamental values and transparency, Vera Jourova, has promised that a new directive on “SLAPP” libel suits will be presented this year in order to continue to make investigative journalism possible.

Similarly, political advertising is to be regulated by strict conditions. So-called “microtargeting”, in which companies or parties bombard members of social networks with false or one-sided information in a targeted manner, is to be banned altogether. This comes after it became clear that this type of influencing by Cambridge Analytica helped the supporters of Brexit to a significant extend. 

In addition, the European Commission is planning new instruments to increase press freedom. 

European laws do not recognise the special role of the media as one of the pillars of democracy, said Jourova. She strongly suggested that a media freedom law had to be launched now. She called it frustrating that the existing competition rules don’t work for media mergers. KESMA, a Hungarian conglomerate comprising nearly 500 media groups, was in financial terms too small for intervention as competition law was designed for bigger mergers, Jourova told Euronews.

Jourova also said that the member states should finance media companies with money from the reconstruction funds or from a Creative Europe fund. 

“We were naive,” explained Jourova, who directly experienced censorship and repression for many years in Communist-era Czechoslovakia. “Democracy will not defend itself. We also need independent media for that.”

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