This article has been published by Euractiv.
In honour of World Press Freedom Day (2 May), journalists from the EURACTIV Network have been asked to comment on Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 Press Freedom Index.
Their responses were wide-ranging, reflecting the political challenges facing EU media, even in states where press freedoms are improving.
Still, all expressed concern due to the rise of right-wing populism across Europe. As Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans told EURACTIV this week, “independent journalism is an essential element of maintaining open societies”.
How much ‘freedom’ for the Greek media?
As we mark World Press Freedom Day this week, we need more than ever to keep our eyes open. The press is under huge pressure. Media pluralism should be a bulwark against populism. But where is the fine line between “freedom” and “free-riding”?
In the case of Greece, we can’t see the wood for the trees. According to RWB, in 2016, Bulgaria was the EU’s worst achiever (109th) followed by Greece (88th), Croatia (74th), Poland (54th) and Italy (52nd). Hungary ranked 71st.
“Alexis Tsipras‘ government continues to struggle to end corruption and to provide the adequate framework for the functioning of the country’s media,” RWB noted.
Greece is the only member state that has never launched a licensing process for private TV channels, maintaining a lawless regime of temporary licenses for 25 years.
As part of its bailout obligations, the leftist Syriza government attempted to regulate the media via a controversial auction to grant four national broadcasting licences.
The small number offered triggered strong reactions from opposition parties, which blamed the government for trying to control the press.
The government responded by accusing them of trying to protect the corrupt old establishment.
The tender should have been conducted by Greece’s independent regulatory authority (NCRTV) but the opposition blocked several attempts by the government to appoint its board members.
Tsipras‘ government pushed ahead with the tender without the NCRTV and managed to raise 250 million euros for the cash-strapped economy.
But Greece’s top court ruled that the auction was unconstitutional, as NCRTV’s powers to carry out the tender should not have been transferred to the state.
After the court decision, the board members were appointed and they are now charged with implementing the tender.
Meanwhile, the Association of National Broadcasting Television Station Owners (EITHSEE) filed a petition asking that its members and senior executives be exempted from an obligation to submit wealth statements. Thousands of Greeks and all journalists are obliged to do so.
In addition, the newly appointed NCRTV members have since become inactive.
The reason? The majority had retired before they were appointed to the authority and had complained about not being exempted from a law on the employment of pensioners in the public sector, which mandates a drastic reduction in their income.
The government then passed an amendment, to help sugar the pill. Yet, no tender is foreseen.
The NCRTV now claims that it does not have the proper infrastructure to proceed. Asked what was wrong, NCRTV Vice-President Rodolphos Moronis replied, “Logistical and staff problems. I would not like to continue this conversation.“
By Sarantis Michalopolous
The Inside Track
In Serbia, media freedom deteriorated over the past year. It fell from 59th place in 2015 to 66th. The chapter on Serbia states: “Media freedom has declined ever since Aleksandar Vucic, Slobodan Milosevic‘s former information minister, became prime minister in May 2014.” In a recent report, the European Parliament also described unclear ownership structures and state financing of media in Serbia, especially at local level.
A year and a half into the Law and Justice party’s rule, Poland has fallen from 18th place in 2015 to 54th. The “good change” slogan preached by the ruling party has not exactly increased media freedom.
The Czech Republic ranked 23rd in the index, down from 21st in 2015. In terms of press freedom, it ranks among the best in Central and Eastern Europe. But several concerns remain. Since 2008, new oligarchs have been using their fortunes to buy up newspapers. One of them, Andrej Babis, is both deputy prime minister and finance minister, as well as owner of the two most influential daily newspapers – Mladá fronta DNES and Lidové noviny.
Placing 29th in 2016, Spain climbed five spots in the index but major challenges remain. The new Citizen Security Protection Law (also known as the “Gag law”) imposed severe restrictions on freedom of information. But other risks are a greater threat to the future of journalism. The economic crisis remains deeply felt, with media forced to fire thousands of journalists, cut salaries or close, with underpaid and unpaid freelancers now on the rise.
Germany held steady in 16th place. But, last year, journalists were shocked by numerous attacks, threats and intimidation attempts. Violence came mainly from right-wing populists and conservative groups. Although the number of attacks was lower than in 2015, many journalists felt restricted in their work.
Romania came in 46th. RWB mentions “excessive politicisation of the media, corrupt financing mechanisms, editorial policies subordinated to owner interests and intelligence agency infiltration of staff“. Romania also hosts some of the most successful regional investigative journalism centres, with a number of its journalists being part of the team behind the Pulitzer-winning Panama Papers.
France’s ranking improved in 2016, going from 45th to 39th. But it does not take into account the targeting of journalists during the presidential campaign. Reporters who broke the “Penelopegate” scandal have been repeatedly threatened, and the National Front routinely bans journalists from press conferences and meetings, sometimes violently.