Media freedom must stay at the top of our agendas

In a plenary debate with Reporters without Borders and the European Federation of Journalists, the EESC reaffirmed its commitment to supporting the pluralism and freedom of the media and guaranteeing absolute safety for journalists, amid alarming developments across the EU which have in the past few years claimed several reporters' lives.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) is joining the EU's efforts to reverse the worrying trend of declining media freedoms and the increasing curbs on journalistic independence caused by mounting pressure from different power and business structures, poor pay, media ownership concentration and a proliferation of fake news on social media and other channels.

In a debate with the head of the Brussels Office of Reporters without Borders, Julie Majerczak, and the Secretary-General of the European Federation of Journalists, Ricardo Gutiérrez, at its September plenary session, the EESC also expressed concern at the way journalists are increasingly becoming targets of verbal and physical attacks, with 16 murdered since 2015.

We see trends in Europe that we cannot accept. Freedom and diversity of the media are the preconditions for a well‑functioning democracy, and therefore concern all of us. Professional journalism can never be replaced by algorithms, news aggregation and social networks, EESC president Christa Schweng said, opening the debate.

Stating that threats to media freedom, limiting media diversity and pluralism, have become a general trend across the EU and a systematic practice in some of its Member States, the EESC said it endorsed the latest European Commission initiatives, including the Recommendation on the Safety of Journalists, presented last week by Commissioner Věra Jourovà.

It also welcomed the Commission president's State of the Union speech, in which Ursula Von der Leyen announced the plans for the European Media Freedom Act, which would give the Commission the legal tools to enforce media freedom and pluralism in the single market.

The EESC president said: The EU has understood the magnitude of the challenge and stepped up its response in recent months. The EESC is involved and fully supports the proposed initiatives. Media freedom must stay at the top of our agendas.

In the opinion Securing media freedom and diversity in Europe, adopted at the plenary session, the EESC called on all Member States to take urgent steps to preserve media freedom and media plurality. Given the unwillingness of some Member States to adopt the necessary measures to this end, it was the EU institutions' obligation to enforce European values and guarantee the functioning of liberal democracy and the rule of law in all EU Member States.

In this regard, the EESC called on the Commission to apply the general conditionality rules and impose budgetary sanctions without delay on those countries where media freedom and pluralism were seriously threatened.

The EESC also underlined the need for a legal ban on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) in particular. It proposed the creation of a fully independent European public service broadcaster.

However, the rapporteur for the opinion, Christian Moos, warned: Recommendations on the protection and safety of journalists will not be enough. There is no more time to lose. Member States that stifle media freedom must be excluded from Next Generation EU. The regulation on conditionality must be applied. Hungary and Poland are actively destroying or have already destroyed media freedom. Their governments must restore democracy and the rule of law, for otherwise they cannot remain members in the EU, which legally guarantees democracy and the rule of law and, as an indispensable prerequisite for both, media freedom.

Ms Majerczak and Mr Gutiérrez expressed their support for the EESC opinion and for EU action to secure media freedom and pluralism, but stressed the importance of ensuring that the Commission's recommendations and proposed plan did not remain a dead letter.

We live in times where it is no longer nice to be a journalist. We are receiving messages from all four corners of Europe that media freedoms are shrinking. Journalists are being assaulted by anti-vaxers or even threatened by European heads of state who have adopted the Trump rhetoric of seeing journalists as the enemy of the people, Mr Gutiérrez said, adding that journalists now needed support from economic and social partners more than ever.

We - journalists - need the support of civil society in the same way that we need water, because we are allies. Like you, we are defending the cause of democracy. The Parliament and the Commission are taking commendable initiatives but they are not doing enough. They need to go further, especially given the passive attitude of some Member States, he stressed.

Ms Majerczak said the EU was still the safest place for journalists, but that threats against them were multiplying. Most shocking were the assassinations of journalists which had taken place in the EU in the last four years.

Seeing the EU hit by these murders must make us think harder about the state of our democracies. The impunity often enjoyed by those who have ordered or carried out murders results in giving a carte blanche to those who want to stifle critical voices and creates a climate of fear among journalists. But this is just the tip of an iceberg, she said.

She added that journalists were facing an ever wider range of intimidation and pressure: verbal and physical violence, online harassment, judicial harassment, arrests, arbitrary detention, illegal surveillance and sexist and sexual harassment.

The EU cannot simply stand by. It needs to take urgent action. First of all, by publicly condemning attacks on the media, even when they come from the highest level, such as in Slovenia, where the Prime Minister goes on Twitter to verbally attack journalists, which is unacceptable.  To act also means to equip yourself with appropriate tools to make sure media freedoms and pluralism are respected. [Given the latest initiatives], it seems that the European Commission has finally become aware of the problem, she concluded.