On Europe Day -May 9th- , the President of the “Association of European Journalists” (AEJ), Otmar Lahodynsky, warns of further restrictions on media freedom as a result of the Covid19-pandemic. In several EU countries, journalists have been fined for spreading false news related to the disease. In Hungary, prison sentences of several years were introduced for violations. It was usually not clearly regulated which institution decides on what is correct or incorrect information.
On March 25, international media organizations – including AEJ – sent a petition to the three presidents of the leading EU institutions. It warned that some EU governments could use the disease control to punish and restrict independent media, including limited access to press conferences and official information. On March 31, ten international media organizations, including AEJ, sent an open letter to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, demanding that emergency measures to combat the disease should not restrict media freedom without adequate justification and adequacy and must be in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. The Association of European Journalists has recently criticized the Italian government’s intention to hold prison sentences for journalists for defamation lawsuits, according to the Advocate General’s announcement to the Supreme Court on April 17.
AEJ President Otmar Lahodynsky emphasized that media freedom should not “become a collateral damage” for Covid19. The media-sector is currently facing financial difficulties worldwide. Special aid from individual governments should therefore be awarded transparently and fairly. Awarding state aid – such as the special press funding in Austria which was measured according to the number of printed copies- is not fair and may also be incompatible with EU competition rules said the EU Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, to me in a webinar. In Denmark, aid was geared to the size of the decline in the number of advertisements. In Sweden there is a special aid for regional media in poorly populated areas.
State aid payments should also depend on whether individual media companies maintain their staff-levels or whether drastic layoffs of media employees are announced. “It is paradoxical that in a situation where the need for reliable information is growing, quality media in particular suffer from the consequences of the pandemic,” said Lahodynsky.