Journalists Say Press Freedom Sliding in Europe     Print
Al Belsky

Some major European governments are interfering more and more with the media in their countries, according to a report by working journalists. The 2009 annual survey released by Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental organization based in Paris, said that the downgrading included several leading members of the European Union, notably Italy.

The European decline is only relative: Western democracies still occupy all top 20 slots. But EU nations are slipping, and the trend eases pressure authoritarian regimes about their treatment of media and could open the way to creeping infringement of Western free-press standards. The back-sliding by some European nations reflects several trends: intimidation by criminals who are not vigorously prosecuted by the authorities; political pressures on their media by some Western leaders; and an insidious tendency by some governments to seek accommodation with Islamic activists on the terms of these pressure groups.

All these separate problems can combine to erode the independence of the media in all European countries, and the trend is unmistakable, according to the media watchdog group.  

True, first place in the 2009 rankings was a five-way EU tie (Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden), and EU member states still hold the first 13 places in the ranking. Significantly, however, some EU powers have continued to skid, notably France (now falling to 43rd) and Italy (down to 49th). The U.S. rose to 20th (from 36th last year) thanks to what the survey’s editors call the “Obama effect,” meaning the impact of Obama’s less hawkish and more liberal approach in comparison to former President George W. Bush. (In a separate “non-territorial” category, the U.S. is relegated to 108th worldwide on the basis of what happens in places where journalists are regulated by the American military.)

Kazakhstan, the incoming chair country of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, got its worst-ever ranking since the index began in 2002, with this year’s survey citing “intimidation and violence against journalists and the prolongation of a law that subjects websites to the same restrictions as the traditional media.”

In the report, 11 countries of the first 15 are EU member states, but countries from “old Europe” have declined, now accounting for only 15 of the 20 leading countries (compared with 18 in 2008).  Denmark gets credit for standing up for free speech in the controversy over the cartoons lampooning Islam’s prophet, Mohammed. 

The results of the survey, which covers 175 countries, are based on a questionnaire measuring 40 variables and sent to a network of 130 correspondents around the world. The data are synthesized and analyzed by a team at Reporters Without Borders. The group is viewed as militant (and even unruly on occasion). But its general findings about trends in press freedom are congruent with other studies about the situation in specific countries.  

The lowest-ranked EU member, Bulgaria, has been falling steadily since its EU adhesion in 2007: it is now 68th – falling from 59th in 2008. The biggest one-year fall of any EU member was recorded by Slovakia, which sank 37 places to 44th place. This was mainly the result of government meddling in media activities and the adoption in 2008 of a law imposing a draconian “right of response” by aggrieved parties. Two candidates for EU membership also suffered dramatic falls – Croatia (78th) fell 33 places and Turkey (112th) fell 20 places.

In Italy, the lowest-ranked of the EU’s founding member states, the report cited the impact of organized crime in targeting journalists for violent reprisals (a situation with parallels in Russia). Italy also has a unique situation in the EU in the sense that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has overt political control over three channels of state-run television and also owns the leading private radio and television group, Mediaset. In this quasi-monopolistic situation, he has been exerting increasing political interference. In October, Reporters without Borders held a news conference to publicize the fact that the organization was close to designating Berlusconi a press “predator” – the first time that a European leader has been put in the same category as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Israeli Defense Forces.

In France the state of press freedom has also been worsening, says Reporters Without Borders, as a result of tension between the media and authorities who are exerting increased pressure on journalists to reveal sources. In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy broke with the practice of French heads of state not to sue journalists and brought a criminal complaint against Le Nouvel Observateur after it carried an article (which turned out to be untrue) that claimed to be revealing secret presidential communications with the woman whom the French leader divorced to marry the current Mme. Sarkozy.  Sarkozy has also supported a move to allow the government to appoint the bosses of state-owned television and radio. 

Russia fell 12 places to 153rd  (just ahead of Uzbekistan) amid the physical threats and attacks against journalists that have continued in the three years since the murder of crusading reporter Anna Politkosvskaya. Russia is reverting, the report says, “with increasing…censorship and reporting taboos and the complete failure to punish those responsible for the murders.”

Beyond the physical violence exercised against journalists, ideological issues may be eroding press freedom in Europe, the report found. Even in Denmark, which continues to hold the position as the country with the highest degree of press freedom, the “cartoons” case – stemming from the 12 cartoons published in 2005 making fun of the Islamic prophet Mohammed – continues to cast a shadow over Denmark and by extension to other EU countries that feel alarmed about offending Muslim susceptibilities.  Just last year Danish intelligence services foiled a murder plot against one of the cartoon artists even though a major anti-Danish commercial boycott in many Arab countries has ended. But the uproar about the cartoons throughout the Muslim world – and economic damage to Danish interests in Arab countries – has made many Europeans more dubious about irreverent mockery of Islamic taboos. This reflex seems to be feeding into a European tradition of restricting “hate speech” by holocaust deniers and other continuing purveyors of Nazi propaganda.

These separate concerns, in the view of media watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders, are liable to be conflated into a push for restrictions against ‘insulting’ and ‘demeaning’ speech. That outcome could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Europe, curtailing Western standards of free speech for the media.

(For the full country-by-country survey by Reporters Without Borders for 2009 (offered in six languages), see their web site: www.rsf.org.)