Journalists associations and media self-governing bodies across Europe are suffering from severe economic difficulties, as well as from editorial interference from the state and from media owners that constrains and threatens independent journalism. The European institutions should be more responsive to journalists’ legitimate demands for protection from political and commercial interference.
Current acute problems faced by journalists were recently highlighted by AEJ members. They include physical threats and improper pressures on journalists in Bulgaria, politicisation of public service media in Croatia, oppressive libel laws in Italy and the UK, and frequent cases of denial of journalists’ freedom to ask questions at political press conferences in Spain.
France and the Netherlands have seen recent cases of unlawful spying on journalists by the state and searches of newsrooms. And Council of Europe ministers have so far failed to implement their pledge, made in Reykjavik in 2009, to review national anti-terrorism laws regularly to ensure that they do not violate the universal right to freedom of expression.
The so-called High-Level Group on media freedom and media pluralism has called on the European Commission to intervene in systems of press self-regulation in EU member states to ensure that standards of media content are enforced. But any such move could represent a clear threat to legitimate media freedom. It is a basic principle of Europe’s independent press councils and journalistic organisations that regulation of editorial content should be independent of government, and that codes of ethics are the business of journalists and publishers only.
AEJ journalists are dismayed and alarmed by cases of corrupt or unethical practices by some journalists, such as in the evidence of widespread phone-hacking and inaccurate reporting by some newspapers in the UK, and the phenomenon of partisan or paid-for articles in newspapers in some EU countries. But state controls or interventions in the media should have no place in any response to such lapses and failures in journalistic standards.
European institutions can best support the professionalism and quality of the media by protecting the security and the working environment of journalists. In particular, the EU should put more pressure on national governments to comply with Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as enforcing the free expression parts of the European Audio-Visual Media Services Directive. As has also been suggested, it could be a positive step for the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) to be mandated to monitor infringements of media freedom in member states.
But in that case the FRA and the Commission must take great care to observe the key international norm which states that in matters of ethics, journalists and media houses should be held accountable to the public, and to their readers and audiences, and not to any governmental authority.
It is extremely important, too, that the ministers of the 47 Council of Europe member states act responsibly and urgently to establish preventive mechanisms to prevent physical attacks and abuses of state power targeting journalists. The ministers have a real opportunity to decide on strong and determined actions when they meet at the conference of Council of Europe media ministers to be held in Belgrade in October this year. Many journalists’ organisations and NGOs are urging them to put in place an effective system of monitoring and responses to serious violations of press freedom.
They should also look to the established powers and to the relevant case law of the European Court of Human Rights to give more protection for journalists’ safety and media freedom. In particular, the Court’s recent rulings pointing to the ‘positive obligations’ of States to prevent attacks or murders of journalists who have been threatened should be backed up by much higher standards of enforcement of European Convention standards by state authorities.
These and other steps are vital to preserve the ability of the mainstream media as well as new media in Europe to act as an effective watchdog on matters of public interest, and to achieve a higher level of public trust and professional standards.
(William Horsley, AEJ)