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06.05.2021 11:26 News >> 'Press Freedom In Europe Is Highest, But Not Absolute'

'Press Freedom In Europe Is Highest, But Not Absolute'

Journalists in Europe face challenges, including government obstruction, threats by right wing extremists: Media watchdog.

Europe continues to be the safest continent for journalists but is not immune to the global trends affecting press freedoms resulting from government obstruction, threats by right-wing extremists, and the weaponization of social media, international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.
According to the 2021 Press Freedom Index released last month by the Paris-based non-profit organization, 14 of the top 20 countries with high press freedom are based in Europe.
In an interview with Anadolu Agency on the challenges journalism is facing during the coronavirus crisis, Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF's European Union and Balkans desk, said governments in Europe, like in other regions of the world, have also obstructed critical reporting during the pandemic and are among the 130 countries that have blocked journalism.
Journalists have also been attacked in large numbers by extremist groups during protests against COVID-19 measures in Germany, whereas in France, Italy, and Greece, as well as in Poland, Bulgaria, and Serbia in Eastern Europe, journalists have been targets of police violence and arbitrary arrests in the last year.
Szalai feels that in this regard, the European Commission's recent announcement to bring in a media freedom act, binding legislation on all member states, will contribute to protecting journalists and defending press freedom.
Noting that the pandemic has accentuated the vulnerabilities in the journalism sector, EU Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton in April recalled the need to prepare a European Media Freedom Act to ensure media freedom and pluralism, which is the foundation of democratic systems. Any attack on these principles, he said, is an attack on the pact that unites the European Union.
"We need a mechanism to increase transparency, independence, and accountability around actions affecting control and freedom of the press," he said.
Breton added that the act could also provide an opportunity to strengthen the governance of public media around a common framework to better prevent the risks of politicization and funding diversity in media.
Led by RSF and a coalition of NGOs, the European Commission has also assured other initiatives for the physical and online security of journalists, including an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion to prevent hampering public service journalism with systematic complaints with defamation and heavy prison terms, and a new mechanism for the disbursement of funds to media organizations respecting the rule of law.
Fighting web of misinformation on social media
As journalism and press freedom are increasingly coming under pressure in the online sphere with the growing influence of social media platforms that host unregulated, unverified reports and misinformation as "news" as well as hate speech and violent threats against journalists, RSF has taken up the battle to challenge the big tech giants.
On March 22, it filed a legal suit with the public prosecutor in Paris accusing Facebook in France and Ireland of "deceptive commercial practices." Under the French consumer code, a commercial establishment can face a fine of up to 10% of their annual turnover for misleading or false claims, statements, and representations with regard to goods or services or advertisement claims.
"We filed a lawsuit because FB (Facebook) was not respecting its own commitments in the general terms and services to provide a safe and error-free online environment to the users," Szalai said. "It is a way forward to take action against tech giants."
It cataloged a dossier of comments with insults, threats, and calls for violence against journalists on public pages of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, French TV program Quotidien, and of L'Union newspaper, whose photographer Christian Lantenois was brutally assaulted in Reims in March.
"There was a lot of hate speech against these media organizations and the journalists, but Facebook failed to protect them."
The social media platform, RSF found, was also a hub of disinformation and conspiracy theories spreading falsehoods on COVID-19 in France. Documentaries like Hold Up and Manigances-19 were viewed widely and remained active on Facebook for weeks as the pandemic raged in Europe.
Initiatives like fact-checking by news media organizations have been pivotal in debunking misinformation, disinformation, and the circulation of unrelated old images and false videos linked to major current affairs controversies. Szalai said RSF took the step of taking Facebook to court to "remind it about its own commitments."​​​​​​​
Lessons from free press countries
Worldwide, as journalists face growing restrictions and censorship, and the press becomes less free, European countries hold crucial lessons on safeguarding a healthy journalism environment and protecting the fourth pillar of democracy.
Like other regions, journalists in countries with high press freedom rankings are also subjected to threats and attacks. But the response by the authorities with thorough and prompt judicial proceedings on crimes against journalists is what sets these countries apart, Szalai said.
"Globally, over 90% of attacks, crimes against journalists are not investigated. But in these countries, such crimes are prosecuted urgently. There is no impunity."
Moreover, these countries are proactively taking steps to bring in legislation for improving media freedom with journalists and elected representatives along with a high autonomy of institutions regulating public and private media respecting the laws of the land.
Another key factor in the maintenance of the sanctity of media freedom is the ruling party politicians not launching verbal attacks against journalists."Verbal attacks from the prime minister or the senior politicians create a climate leading to physical attacks on the ground," Szalai said.
He pointed out that although statements inciting attacks are rare in Western European countries, they are common in the Balkans.
RSF has raised concern against Slovenia, which is set to assume the rotating EU presidency in July. The EU has condemned Prime Minister Janez Jansa for launching personal attacks against journalists, accusing them of spreading fake news. ​​​​​​
"There is an attempt to totally control public media, pressure private media, and discretionarily criticize serious journalists. The fallout of this has been physical attacks against journalists," Szalai noted. -



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