William Horstley: “media freedom in Europe is in retreat”

, by Fabien Cazenave

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William Horstley: “media freedom in Europe is in retreat”

William Horsley, the representative of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) Media Freedom, answers to some questions regarding the research on the freedom of press.

Le Taurillon : Could you explain the reasons and the context of the survey?

William Hortsley : The spur which drove the AEJ to produce our main Survey in late 2007, and the Update in February 2008, was the rising alarm and concern among our journalist members in over 20 European countries about the many-sided assaults on media freedom which we felt directly or observed across the whole of Europe . We started our interventions by protesting in support of journalists facing violence or unjust pressures in particular countries, such as Russia and Turkey. Our members also realised that governments in western Europe were also using harsh anti-terrorism laws and bullying tactics to intimidate journalists, and to limit their power to hold elected governments to account.

The demand for the Survey, and for collective action of our own, came from among our own members, including experienced and senior journalists. Our research confirmed our anxiety that the 21st century is developing into a bad dream, instead of the promised age of freedom, for the media and therefore for the peoples of Europe. Violence, censorship, unjust legal constraints and many forms of interference in the media’s editorial independence mean that, overall, media freedom in Europe is in retreat. We are independent, active journalists who have felt obliged to speak up plainly with a warning that free speech and free media, values which most Europeans hold dear, are in grave danger in our own continent.

Le Taurillon : What are the big tendencies in media freedom in Europe at the moment?

William Hortsley : Two big and dangerous trends: misuse of political power to control or manipulate the media, which is seen in several countries from Italy to Armenia; and dramatic changes in patterns of ownership and new technology, which threaten the very survival of many traditional newspaper groups, for example in France, and in the nations of central and eastern Europe. The failure to maintain proper standards of editorial independence and impartiality in public service media, for example in Croatia and Poland – but also in Italy and Austria – is especially worrying. Sometimes – as in the case in Britain of the BBC’s showdown with the government over its manipulation of the case for war in Iraq – it is only confident, highly professional public TV broadcasting networks which are strong enough to challenge governments when they attempt to deceive the public and to bully their own media to toe the official line.

Let’s look at the problems in Europe ’s main regions. In the East, especially in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, a golden age of free media and relatively open politics in the 1990s has been snuffed out. Instead, journalists there live in fear of harassment or murder in case they ask awkward questions about abuses of power or official corruption. In the “new democracies” which freed themselves from Soviet communist control, our members reported disturbing evidence of growing governmental efforts to interfere with, or directly to take control of, the leading media – take, for example, the new Press Law in Slovakia or the allegations of improper government pressure on leading media in Slovenia. In many parts of western Europe, journalists’ ability to hold the powerful to account is being eroded by economic “precarite”, while mainstream media everywhere have succumbed to the temptation to “dumb down” their contents in a race for higher ratings or circulations. The result is a serious decline in the status and prestige of journalists in the eyes of the public. Media morale, economic viability and editorial independence are all at a historically low point, despite the explosion of free information through the Internet and despite the huge gains made when communism collapsed in Europe almost 20 years ago.

Finally, it is alarming that the long-standing framework of defences for media freedom and political freedom in Europe – especially the Council of Europe, the European Union and the OSCE – appear to be failing, for various reasons, to protect freedom of speech and freedom of media against these many-sided assaults. The AEJ’s findings point to a need for much sharper media scrutiny of these failings. Europe’s national governments and the European Union’s institutions should attend closely to the dangers exposed by our surveys. They themselves must do much more to live up to their public commitment to openness and to media freedom. If not, the much-vaunted goal of bringing political Europe “closer to its citizens” is likely to fail. Vigorous and unfettered journalism is necessary to keep Europe’s body politically healthy.

Le Taurillon : How does this work complete the action of Reporters Without Borders?

William Hortsley : I believe that the goals and overall analysis of AEJ and Reporters Without Borders are very similar. We are fellow-professionals, not rivals. The same with the International Press Institute, the European Federation of Journalists and many other watchdogs on media freedom. We are glad to cooperate with all such organisations. The AEJ is also pleased that the Council of Europe’s Steering committee on Media has this year accepted our organisation as “observer”, along with other Europe-wide bodies, giving us also the opportunity to take part in the Council’s deliberations and to contribute to its agreed programme of work for international media freedom.

Le Taurillon : Can internet have a positive effect on press freedom ?

William Hortsley : Definitely, it has already had a dramatic positive effect — by enabling huge numbers of people, in effect, to publish information and views freely themselves, and by allowing individual internet users to access all kinds of information without costs and without limits. These days anyone in Europe can effectively read hundreds of newspapers and news agency reports free of charge. The internet is harder to regulate and control than newspapers or traditional broadcasting. But there is a down side, too. The avalanche of free information has diluted the market value of journalists’ first-hand reporting and experts’ analysis. One obvious effect has been to undermine many mainstream media organisations, with the loss of many professional journalists’ jobs. The internet is fast changing the practice and working methods of journalism.

At the AEJ’s Workshop on Media Freedom, held during our annual Congress in Dublin in 2007, many members voiced acute concerns about the risk that professional standards may continue to decline, in part under pressure from the “new media”. Journalists in Europe must now show their commitment to the “gold standard” of independence and professionalism. Good journalism campaigns against injustice, but does not rush to judgement. Media work in the name of any government or partisan organisation is not journalism but propaganda. The democratic health of every society still depends critically on the health and vigour of diverse and independent- minded media.

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