Media Freedom Declining Across Europe, With Implications for Rule of Law

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Press Freedom

World Press Freedom Day 2024

Protestors gathered in Bratislava on May 2, 2024 to protest against changes to the public broadcaster, RTVS. The placard in the picture reads: RTVS on a flat-screen TV; STVR about a flat earth. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

Protestors gathered in Bratislava on May 2, 2024 to protest against changes to the public broadcaster, RTVS. The placard in the picture reads: RTVS on a flat-screen TV; STVR about a flat earth. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

BRATISLAVA, May 3 2024 (IPS) – A new report has warned media freedom in the EU is close to “breaking point” in many states amid rising authoritarianism across the continent.

In its latest annual report covering 2023, the Berlin-based Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties) highlighted widespread threats, intimidation and violence against journalists and attacks on the independence of public broadcasters in the EU, with roll backs in media freedom down to “deliberate harm or neglect by national governments”.

The group says its research confirms a continuation of alarming trends seen in the previous year, including heavy media ownership concentration, insufficient ownership transparency rules, and threats to the independence and finances of public service media,

And it warns the decline in media freedom seen in a number of EU member states has the potential to pose a direct threat to democracy.

“Media freedom is falling across Europe, and what we see, not just in Europe but in many places around the world, is that where media freedom declines, the rule of law declines too,” Eva Simon, Senior Advocacy Officer at Liberties, told IPS.

The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava, part of the RTVS public broadcaster. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

The Slovak Radio building in Bratislava, part of the RTVS public broadcaster. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

The Liberties report, compiled with 37 rights groups in 19 countries, comes as other media freedom watchdogs and rights groups warn of growing  concentration of media ownership, lack of ownership transparency, surveillance and violence against journalists in EU countries, government capture of public broadcasters, and rising restrictions on freedom of expression.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released its annual World Press Freedom Index today (April 3, 2024), warning that politicians in some EU countries are trying to crack down on independent journalism. They single out a number of leaders as being “at the forefront of this dangerous trend,” including Hungary’s pro-Kremlin prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his counterpart in Slovakia, Robert Fico.

It also highlights concerns for press freedom in other places, such as Malta, Greece, and Italy, pointing out that in the latter—which fell in the Index’s rankings this year—a member of the ruling parliamentary coalition is trying to acquire the second biggest news agency (AGI), raising fears for future independence of media.

“One of the main themes of this year is that the institutions that should be protecting media freedom, for example, governments, have been undermining it,” Pavol Szalai, head of the EU/Balkans desk at RSF, told IPS.

Like Liberties, RSF has cited particular concern about media freedom in Hungary and Slovakia among EU states.

Media freedom has been on the decline in Hungary for more than a decade, as autocratic leader Orban has, critics say, steadily cracked down on independent journalism. His party, Fidesz, has de facto control of 80 percent of the country’s media, and while independent media outlets still exist, their sustainable funding is under threat as state advertising is funneled to pro-government outlets.

The government’s effective control of Hungary’s public broadcaster is another major concern.

“Capturing public broadcasters limits access to information and that can have a huge impact on formulating political opinions and then how people vote,” said Simon.

Hungary is also suspected of having arbitrarily monitored journalists using the controversial Pegasus software.

RSF and Liberties both say their worry is not just what is happening to media freedom in Hungary, but that what Orban has done has provided a blueprint for other autocratic leaders to follow.

“Leaders in Europe are being inspired by Orban in his war against independent media. Just look at Fico in Slovakia, who has declared war on independent media,” said Szalai.

For years, Fico has repeatedly attacked and denigrated independent media and journalists.

In 2018, investigative journalist Jan Kuciak—who had been looking into alleged corruption by people close to Fico’s government— and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were murdered. Critics said Fico’s rhetoric against journalists had contributed to creating an atmosphere in society that allowed those behind the killings to believe they could act with impunity.

Independent journalists continue to face harassment and abuse from Smer MPs today.

Since being elected Prime Minister for the fourth time last autumn, Fico and the governing coalition led by his Smer party have continued their attacks. They also refuse to communicate with critical media, claiming they are biased.

It has also approved legislation—which is expected to be passed in parliament within weeks—that will see the country’s public broadcaster, RTVS, completely overhauled and, critics say, effectively under the control of the government.

“If the bill is passed and signed into law in its current form, RTVS will become a mouthpiece for government propaganda,” said Szalai.

The government has rejected criticism over the bill and argued changes to RTVS are necessary because it is no longer objective, is persistently critical of the government, and is not fulfilling its remit as a public broadcaster to provide balanced and objective information and a plurality of opinions. A senior official at the Slovak Culture Ministry who is among the favorites to take over as head of the public broadcaster in its new form has since suggested that people who support the flat-earth theory should be invited onto shows to air their opinions on the broadcaster.

The bill has led to public protests and threats of a mass strike from current RTVS employees.

However, against this grim backdrop, media watchdogs say new EU legislation provides hope for an improvement in media freedom.

The recently-passed European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), which takes full effect across the EU in August next year,  will, among others, ban governments from pursuing journalists to reveal their sources by deploying spyware, force media to disclose full ownership information, introduce transparency measures for state advertising, and checks on media concentration. It also provides a mechanism to prevent very big online platforms from arbitrarily restricting press freedom.

Another key measure in the legislation is that it enshrines the editorial independence of public service media, setting out that leaders and board members of public media organizations be selected through “transparent and non-discriminatory procedures for sufficiently long terms of office.”

“It is a good law that creates a very important base [for ensuring media freedom], which can be built on in the future. More safeguards [to media freedom] could be added to it in the future,” said Simon.

Szalai agreed, highlighting that the legislation was legally binding for member states. He admitted it had some shortcomings—for example, under some exceptions, journalists could be forced to reveal sources—but emphasized that it would take precedence over any national legislation, “and so governments cannot ignore it or try to get around it.”

But its implementation will be down to individual governments and authorities—something, that media freedom organizations have said must be closely watched.

A new EU body, the European Board for Media Services, is to be set up to oversee the implementation of the laws.

“It is important to make sure that the forces attacking media freedom are held back by this law. It will be up to the European Commission to hold governments to account on its implementation, and the Commission needs to consider press freedom as a priority after the European Parliament elections [in June] and to check on the EMFA’s implementation and take measures against any countries that violate it,” said Szalai.

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