Already denounced in the 2009 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, the often liberticidal legislative activity of certain European Union Member States, and the new upsurge in anti-press proceedings brought by political leaders, are weakening the European freedom of expression model and, in so doing, are undermining its external policy and the universal impact of its values. Ireland is still punishing blasphemy with a EUR 25,000 fine. Romania now considers the media a threat to national security and plans to legally censor its activities. In Italy, where ten or so journalists still live under police protection, only an unprecedented national media mobilisation’s tenacity helped to defeat a bill aimed at prohibiting the publication of the content of telephone call intercepts, one of the main sources used in judicial and investigative journalism. Although the United Kingdom still benefits from a free and high-quality media, its defamation laws offer grounds for assembly-line trials brought by censors of every sort. Not only would this be counter-productive, but all such actions would complicate the mission of those who, outside of the EU, are trying to secure the decriminalisation of press offences.
The heads of European governments, like their parliamentary colleagues, are gaining notoriety for their increasingly systematic use of proceedings against the news media and its journalists. The latter have to endure the insults which political leaders allow themselves to indulge in ever more frequently in their statements, following, in such matters, the deplorable example of press freedom predators, and overlooking the moral obligations inherent in their public office. In Slovenia, the former Prime Minister is thus competing with Silvio Berlusconi and Robert Fico by demanding no less than 1.5 million euros from a journalist who denounced irregularities tainting certain procurement contracts. In France, the presidential majority could not find words harsh enough to label journalists who inquired into the Woerth/Bettencourt affair. But the prize for political meddling goes to the Greek government which, in a manner not unlike most of the government censors, went so far as to request its German counterpart to apologise for the Greek economic crisis headline used by the magazine Stern.
Among the EU-27 countries whose rankings declined the most, Bulgaria continues its slide and has ended up, along with Greece, in 70th place – the worst position held by EU member countries. France (44th) and Italy (49th), still dealing with some major interference in media activity by their political leaders, confirmed their status as the “dunces” of the EU’s founding countries. Although we may welcome with cautious relief the ebbing ETA attacks against the media in Spain (39th), we cannot help but be concerned by the court verdict of 21 months in prison and the prohibition to exercise their profession brought against Daniel Anido, director of the private radio station Cadena SER, and Rodolfo Irago, the news director of the same radio network. In Denmark (11th) as well as Sweden (1st), press freedom is faring well, but murder attempts against cartoonists Kurt Westergaard and Lars Vilks are opening a door to self-censorship, which until now had been negligible, in a climate of rising extremism and nationalism. Slovakia (35th), which is just emerging from former Prime Minister Robert Fico’s tumultuous era, now merits watching, while among the Baltic States, Latvia (30th) is experiencing an odd return to violence and censorship in an electoral period. Although weakened, the European Union remains one of the rare areas in which the media can exist under acceptable conditions. Naturally, constant vigilance is needed to ensure that this weakening can be freely fought. The European Parliament, though legitimately very active internationally in such issues, has shown the full limits of its exercise of power in refusing, by one vote, in plenary session, to address the subject of press freedom in Italy.
The Balkan Peninsula is still a concern and has recorded major changes. Montenegro (-27), Macedonia (-34), Serbia (-23) and Kosovo (-17) constitute the most substantial losses. Although the legislative reforms required for accession to the EU have been adopted in most Balkan countries, their implementation is still in the embryonic – if not non-existent – stage. Control of the public and private media by the calculated use of institutional advertising budgets and the collusion between political and judicial circles is making the work of journalists increasingly difficult. In a precarious situation, caught in a vice between the violence of ultranationalist groups and authorities who have not yet rid themselves of old reflexes from the Communist era, an increasing portion of journalists are settling for a calculated self-censorship or a mercenary journalism which pays better, but gradually ruins the profession’s credibility. Blighted by mafioso activities which, every year, strengthen their financial stranglehold on the media sector, independent publications are waging an ongoing battle which deserves more sustained attention from European neighbours.
At Europe’s doors, Turkey and Ukraine are experiencing historically low rankings, the former (138th) being separated from Russia’s position (140th) only by Ethiopia (139th). These declines can be explained, as far as Turkey is concerned, by the frenzied proliferation of lawsuits, incarcerations, and court sentencing targeting journalists. Among them, there are many media outlets and professionals which are either Kurd or are covering the Kurd issue. Ukraine is paying the price of the multiple press freedom violations which have broadsided the country since February 2010 and Viktor Yanukovych’s election as Head of State. These violations initially met with indifference by the local authorities. Worse still, censorship has signalled its return, particularly in the audiovisual sector, and serious conflicts of interest are menacing Ukraine’s media pluralism.
Russia now occupies a position (140th) more like it had in previous years, with the exception of 2009, which was marred by the murder of several journalists and human rights activists. Nonetheless, the country has recorded no improvement. The system remains as tightly controlled as ever, and impunity reigns unchallenged in cases of violence against journalists.
Central Asia’s prospects are dismal. In addition to Turkmenistan, which – in the 176th place – is still one of the worst governments in the world in terms of freedom (only the state-owned media is tolerated there and even that is often “purged”), Kazakhstan (162nd) and Kyrgyzstan (159th) are ranked dangerously close to Uzbekistan, holding steady in the 163rd position. Almaty has gained notoriety through repeated attacks on the rights of the media and journalists in the very year in which he presides over the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), when the country is bound to be subjected to particularly close scrutiny. Despite repeated calls for remedying problems of all kinds which are hampering media activity, authorities have not deemed it necessary to do so, nor to release Ramazan Eserguepov, detained in prison for political reasons. Kazakhstan’s neighbouring country, Kyrgyzstan joined this descent into the depths of the Index, to the discredit of April’s change of power and June’s inter-ethnic conflicts. As for Uzbekistan, the core of independent journalists who refuse to give up is now in the judicial authorities’ line of fire. Documentary film-makers, like trusted journalists, have also been victims of the regime’s paranoia. All of these developments have only been met with indifference on the part of the European States, too concerned about energy security to protest scandalous practices which violate every international commitment made by Central Asian governments.
Lastly, the situation is dreary and stable in Belarus, torn between two allegiances – one to Moscow and the other to the EU – and caught up in a delicate balancing act between these two powers. The regime makes no concession to civil society and continues, as the December presidential elections approach, to put pressure on the country’s few remaining independent media outlets.