EU marks World Press Freedom Day

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell calls Press freedom a fundamental EU value.
Sollok29/CC BY-SA 4.0

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

04 May 2021

The EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell says the EU “is determined to do more, in Europe and abroad,” to defend the freedom of the press.

His pledge was timed to mark World Press Freedom Day on Monday 3 May.

Speaking just ahead of the international day, Borrell, a former MEP, said, “The EU will continue speaking up against any restriction on freedom of expression and censorship.

“At a time when independent and free media reporting is more essential than ever, press freedom continues to be under threat. Journalists continue to experience harsh working conditions with increasing financial and political pressure, surveillance, arbitrary prison sentences or violence for doing their work.”

According to the UNESCO Observatory, 76 journalists have been killed since 2020, while many more were arrested, harassed or threatened worldwide.

Of particular concern, says Borrell, is gender-based violence targeting female journalists.

The Spaniard said, “Press freedom is a fundamental value for the EU, underpinned by many recent initiatives.”

“At a time when independent and free media reporting is more essential than ever, press freedom continues to be under threat. Journalists continue to experience harsh working conditions with increasing financial and political pressure, surveillance, arbitrary prison sentences or violence for doing their work” EU High Representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell

He said media freedom and the safety of journalists are “key” priorities of the new Human Rights and Democracy Action Plan and of the European Democracy Action Plan.

The European Commission says that, in 2020, more than 400 journalists benefited from the EU mechanism for protection of Human Rights Defenders, while the EU took actions to support journalists, independent media and the fight against disinformation.

It says its EU delegations “are the voice of the EU on the ground” which closely monitor court proceedings against journalists, speak out against the repression of human rights defenders and media workers and raise concerns with national authorities over communication, media, information and broadcasting legislation.

Borrell added, “The EU is determined to do more, in Europe and abroad. The EU will continue coordinating with international organisations and mechanisms and pioneering new approaches.”

One example, he noted, is the Commission’s proposal for a Digital Services Act aimed at holding the major platforms accountable “to make their systems fairer, safer and more transparent.”

“We will also continue our action to counter disinformation and seek with all partners the effective means to support sustainable business models for independent media.”

He said, The EU will continue speaking up against any restriction on freedom of expression and censorship, both online and offline, in violation of international human rights law. Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democratic societies, which can thrive only if citizens have access to reliable information and can make informed choices.”

“A Media Freedom Act would be important. The EU has to make media freedom a central piece in its legislation to force governments across Europe to respect independent journalism and media” Marius Dragomir, director at the Centre for Media, Data and Society at the Central European University

European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency, Vera Jourová also spoke out in defence of the press, saying there are examples of restricted press freedom in Europe. She said she was “very worried” about countries “trying to copy the Kremlin’s playbook” with attacks against independent journalists and attempts to control the media.

While she did not name any countries, a parliamentary event on Monday heard that Hungary has dropped further in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, coming in 92nd out of 180 countries, a drop of three places in comparison to last year.

RSF named Hungary as one of the 130 countries that partly or completely block journalism.

They said that emergency legislation, in force since March 2020, despite a name change, “continues to criminalise ‘fake news’ about the coronavirus and to block access to information” in Hungary. RSF also highlights that the government accused independent media of spreading disinformation when around 30 news organisations asked the government to lift a ban on reporting in hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Foreign media meanwhile have reportedly been targeted by an intimidation campaign.

RSF states that “Hungary’s unabashed political decision to throttle free speech and press freedom is a source of inspiration to certain other EU members and sets a bad example to EU accession candidates”, citing Poland, Slovenia and Albania as examples.

Further comment came from Marius Dragomir, director at the Centre for Media, Data and Society at the Central European University who told this website, “There has been a trend of media ownership concentration in the region for many years. But during the past decade or so it has intensified to a level where media are highly captured by groups of oligarchs and political entities.”

Speaking on Monday, he said, “The most pronounced form of media capture is in Hungary, where the party of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Fidesz, has been taking over most of the private media in the country; and in Poland where trends and patterns of capture found in Hungary are being imported by the current party in power, PiS.

“A Media Freedom Act would be important. The EU has to make media freedom a central piece in its legislation to force governments across Europe to respect independent journalism and media.”

Later on Monday, the parliament held a webinar for journalists to mark World Press Freedom Day on the topic “What are the main threats for journalists in Europe?”

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