Monday, May 16, 2011

Press freedom – the new accession criterion?

by Katinka Barysch

Countries that want to join the EU need to show that their democracies work well. However, press freedom – a key ingredient of any pluralist democracy – is under threat in most of the countries that are now queuing for accession. Independent newspapers and broadcasters are being squeezed out of the market. Critical journalists are being sacked, beaten or locked up. Without curious and courageous journalists, crime and cronyism flourish, public debate is stunted and politicians feel unaccountable. The EU could do more to protect media freedom in the Western Balkans and Turkey.

The erosion of press freedom has been most striking in Turkey recently. A shocking 50-60 journalists are now in jail (depending on who does the counting), mostly accused of plotting to overthrow the government or split the country. Some 10,000 lawsuits are pending against writers and broadcasters. Many journalists suspect that their phones are tapped and their e-mails read. Fear and suspicion pervade the media. In the press freedom ranking of Reporters without Borders, a Paris-based NGO, Turkey has dropped to 138th place, behind Iraq and only just ahead of Russia.

The situation in the Western Balkan countries is similarly worrying. Scores of journalists have been beaten up or intimidated. A couple have lost their lives, with their killers usually going unpunished. Some of Serbia's and Croatia's best-known journalists now live with constant police protection. Many of their colleagues prefer self-censorship to a life in fear or unemployment.

The problems that the region's newspapers, radio stations and TV broadcasters grapple with are complex. Direct state censorship is arguably the least of their problems. Pressure is indirect and comes from various sides. Money is a huge constraint, especially in the small, fragmented Balkan media markets. The economic crisis that started in 2008 has led to painful losses of advertising revenue. Media companies have sacked staff and dumbed down their coverage. Investigative journalism is becoming a luxury.

Some media bosses would not want their journalists to snoop around too much anyway. Conflicts of interests are rife: although ownership structures are often obscure, it is clear that many newspapers and TV stations form part of bigger business empires. Owners fear that they will lose lucrative public contracts or other favours from politicians if their journalists write about government corruption or crime. Others are using their media outlets blatantly to promote their own interests. Albania, with fewer inhabitants than Berlin, has 25 daily newspapers. Most of them are controlled by local mini-tycoons wrestling for influence. In such an environment, journalists are little more than PR writers.

West Europeans can usually rely on well-funded public service broadcasters for information. But trying to build a local version of the BBC is not the solution for South East Europe. In most Balkan countries, public TV stations function more like "ministries for propaganda", says Remzi Lani of the Albanian Media Institute. Their coverage is neither independent nor balanced. In the Western Balkans, a legacy of ethnic hatred and fervent nationalism makes for a toxic media landscape. In Turkey, the press mirrors the political schism between the mildly Islamist AK government and its Kemalist opponents.

"Governments need to stop seeing the media as their private property", warns Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s Media Freedom Representative. Some observers hope that internet bloggers and other forms of 'citizen journalism' could fill the gap between self-serving commercial media and politicised public ones. However, most web publications do not generate income to pay for investigative journalism. And governments are clamping down on the internet as well. The Turkish government has blocked an estimated 12,000 websites to date. It is now planning to make 'filters' compulsory to prevent Turks from viewing websites that contain pornography. Access to sites containing one or more of 138 'prohibited' words (including puzzling items such as skirt, homemade and Haydar) would be blocked automatically.

The European Commission, in charge of monitoring accession countries' compliance with civil liberties and democratic standards, is getting seriously worried. It has repeatedly flagged up the deteriorating media environment in its annual assessments of accession preparations. Yet the situation keeps getting worse. To help it figure out what to do, the Commission gathered over 450 journalists and activists from the Western Balkans and Turkey in Brussels on May 6th. Many of them were seething with frustration: "The Europeans are hypocrites. They say they worry about journalism in our countries. But they still support our governments", said one editor.

The EU has been shy to put pressure on accession country governments. First, the EU's own record on media freedom is not flawless, with Hungary's new restrictive media law and Silvio Berlusconi's grip on Italy’s television the most frequently cited examples. Second, the EU has only a limited role in the media sector. There is, for example, a directive telling member-states not to discriminate against media outlets from other EU countries. But on the whole, the acquis in this area is thin and rules are made by national governments or by self-regulatory bodies.

To its credit, the Commission is becoming more outspoken, in particular in response to the most recent arrests of journalists in Turkey. Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule is also thinking about singling out press freedom as a more explicit benchmark for accession. At the moment, it is just one of the many items assessed under the criterion of a 'functioning democracy' (the other accession criteria concern market economics and the implementation of EU law).

The Commission could also do more to monitor the broader environment in which journalists in Turkey and the Western Balkans operate. While the accession countries usually have nice-sounding laws on media freedom, these are often not implemented properly. Other laws, covering defamation, anti-terrorism, taxation or public procurement, have been used to prosecute journalists and bankrupt or disadvantage their employers. The Commission has a remit to push accession countries to reform their judiciaries and improve the wider business environment for media outlets. It should use it forcefully.

In addition, the Commission should ask accession countries to make media ownership more transparent and clamp down on conflicts of interest. It should work out benchmarks against which the region's fledgling self-regulatory bodies can be measured. It could join other donors in funding training for investigative journalists or support for independent news websites.

Most importantly, the EU and its member-states have to become more vocal about their concerns. Past attempts to put pressure on the governments of Turkey and some Balkan countries through silent diplomacy have not worked. "Our politicians are liars", says Saso Ordanoski, an editor from Macedonia. "They will promise anything unless they are exposed to public scrutiny."

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

1 comment:

K Bledowski said...

A thoughtful counsel.

Europe projects less and less its political and military power in the far reaches of the world these days. But its media presence, combined with their intellectual gravitas, weighs heavily. It makes sense to capitalize on this intangible goodwill and make it a piece de resistance of the EU acqui.