Brussels, 28th February 2008. Presenting the latest survey of media freedom from the AEJ (Association of European Journalists), survey editor William Horsley said the findings should cause serious concern to editors and journalists across Europe. Pointing to abuses such as blatant media bias for pro-government candidates, interference in editorial policies, manipulation of the flow of news and comment, blocking of access to official information, threats and intimidation, not to mention increasing commercial pressures, he said that it is time that journalists got together to face these issues and deal with them.
Reporting in retreat
Horsley (an ex-BBC foreign correspondent) presented further research from 15 countries in this latest update to the AEJ survey, which showed media freedom as in retreat across much of Europe. In particular:
- Governments across Europe are showing a marked trend to use harsher methods, including heavy official “spin” and tighter controls on journalists’ access to information in order to block media criticism. Journalists are coming under more pressure to censor themselves or to toe a political line and not challenge authority. The open confrontation between government and the media in Slovenia is mirrored in various ways in the UK, Ireland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, among others.
- The media freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which is binding on all 47 member countries of the Council of Europe, are being undermined by abuse and indifference from governments, and by journalists’ own neglect. Europe’s leaders and media have allowed the civil rights and media freedoms won for all Europeans at the end of the Cold War to be placed in doubt again. New forms of political and religious intolerance inside Europe and beyond its borders mean those battles must now be won all over again.
- “Dumbing down” has weakened public support for the media and also for media freedom, and 21st century economics have turned news into “churnalism”. Journalists need to demonstrate real commitment to objectivity and fairness – “the gold standard of good journalism” is to win back public trust. Media freedom is not an optional extra. Without it, governments cannot be held to account and there can be no rule of law.
Intimidation and repression
His points were made to a packed press room, in a meeting chaired by director of J@YS Giuseppe Zaffuto. Horsley picked five examples to illustrate his case, as contributed by a network of independent journalists across Europe:
- Cases of straightforward violence (with no fewer than 13 assassinations in the last eight years in Russia) and intimidation against journalists or blatant manipulation of media in countries such as Russia and Armenia (both members of the Council of Europe).
- Assault on the independence of media by central governments (e.g. in Slovenia, currently holding the presidency of the European Union and considered one of the best performing countries in this area when it was an applicant country).
- Political abuse, particularly of public broadcasting (Croatia, Slovakia, Poland et al.).
- New commercial pressures and over-concentration of ownership (e.g. France, Italy) affecting the independence and the quality of Europe’s mainstream media.
- Security-related laws that are serving to block access to official information, and to threaten journalists with jail or fines through particularly severe libel and defamation laws.
Some 30 journalists contributed to the Question & Answer session. One question discussed was the “conscience clauses” launched by the British and Irish press (e.g. the NUJ Code of Conduct). “What the media can do is to keep their own house in order. Are we really independent? They should ask themselves that,” Horsley stated.
API president Lorenzo Consoli added that it is important to improve conditions for transparency, and denounced the growing tendency among Brussels institutions to try and control the questions asked by the press.
While applauding the European institutions’ daily briefing facilities, Horsley asked why the EU is not treated by journalists in the same way as national EU governments. “The EU should be scrutinized like a government,” he said, “because it is a quasi-governmental institution.” He suggested that journalists start by asking themselves, “What topics appear to be off-limits?”
The difference [in Brussels] in attitude of journalists from the Anglo-Saxon press and those from the rest of Europe were also discussed. But the real test of media freedom, Horsley said, is in the quality of the questions.
We should also think how the role of the journalist has changed due to new technology, he said, noting the appearance of “churnalism”, news production as a factory-like process simply to fill space.
“Are journalists losing the battle for accurate reporting?” was a question from one journalist deploring the spread of “info-tainment” and decline of factual reporting. “We have to return to our core values,” said Horsley, “and focus on high quality, factual and accurate stories.”
He also advocated a return to real investigative journalism, as well as a greater role for the Council of Europe, which, he said, is the best defender of media freedom especially from the point of view of accountability.
Horsley summed up by saying that, “We need to restore the status and standing of editors and journalists”. He said that maintaining quality was important to avoiding what Nick Davies (author of “Flat Earth News”) called the “Ninja turtle” syndrome or the Three Monkeys case, i.e. take the gags away and try not to make monkeys of ourselves.
Download the survey
© Philip Hunt, Maria Laura Franciosi, 2008.