Guest commentary by former AEJ President Otmar Lahodynsky in the Wiener Zeitung February 18, 2021
MEDIA FREEDOM IN DANGER
The EU must finally show more energy in defending freedom of the press
It is a paradox: During the pandemic, trustworthy information has become increasingly important. Bur at the same time the situation for the media sector has rapidly deteriorated: falling advertising revenues, austerity measures, and higher unemployment among journalists. Most recently, corona deniers have attacked journalists in many EU countries – physically during demonstrations, and through verbal threats on social media.
So, after six years as President of the Association of European Journalists, my balance sheet is mixed. Restrictions on media freedom have increased in many countries. Last Sunday the Hungarian Klubradio, one of the last independent radio stations in the country, stopped broadcasting. Following the closure of the Internet portal index.hu last year, another critical medium has now gone silent. Almost 80 percent of the media in Hungary already belong to the government-affiliated Kesma consortium.
In Poland, too, there is growing pressure on media critical of the government: a new advertising tax has been passed that threatens the existence of private TV stations. At the same time, foreign media owners are to be “persuaded” to sell their newspapers for the purpose of “repolonisation”.
Hundreds of journalists have now been arrested in neighbouring Belarus, and there were raids on Tuesday to prepare charges. Two female TV reporters have just been sentenced to two years in prison in Minsk. Their crime was to film demonstrations.
The worst events for me were the murders of the investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galicia in Malta in 2017 and of the Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee a year later. In both cases, the killers remain to this day unknown and no-one has been arrested. The conviction of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was just as scandalous.
But Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is still in custody in Great Britain. In France, video recordings of police actions have been banned. In Germany journalists’ laptops are to be searched. In Austria the public prosecutor’s office for business and corruption recently sought to accuse a colleague of the “press” with defamation.
Such “SLAPP” procedures (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) are increasingly used by politicians and entrepreneurs to fend off investigative journalists. In an online conference, the Vice-President of the EU Commission, Vera Jourova, responsible for Basic Values and Transparency, announced a 2021 EU directive against such procedures. She also wants to combat the influence from abroad on European election campaigns, especially those involving troll factories in Russia and China. The EU Commission now at last wants to fight serious restrictions on media freedom – a sign of hope in my balance sheet.
Saia Tsaousidou, my Greek colleague, has been elected my successor. She wants to “work with the EU institutions and highlight the problems of journalists, especially younger ones, especially in the print media”. Her priority is “free, independent, transparent, sustainable journalism”.