Press Freedom Under Fire in Europe

Today, May 3, on the World Press Freedom Day, all decision-makers in the Europe should ponder the wise words of French writer Albert Camus: "A free press can be good or bad, but one thing is certain, no freedom can never be anything but poor."

Unfortunately, the fight for press freedom in Europe is more urgent than ever. Free speech is seriously challenged in a number of EU Member States. The France-based NGO Reporters Without Borders has repeatedly expressed concern about the deteriorating press freedom in several European countries, and regrettably the 2010 Press Freedom Index confirms these fears.

Whilst some individual EU states are at the forefront of press freedom in the world, at least 14 member states are ranked considerably lower on the list. In the ranking of press freedom in the world, France has fallen to place 44 and Italy to 49. Romania is close behind at place 52 and Greece and Bulgaria share place 70 with Benin and Kenya.

Reporters Without Borders notes that the EU is far from homogeneous in terms of press freedom and that the gap between member states continues to grow. The EU is in danger of undermining its position as a world leader in respect for freedom of speech.

As a result of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU is in the process of building a common external action service, which has the struggle for human rights worldwide as one of its core tasks. However, if Europe cannot live up to press freedom at home, how could the Union, with credibility, criticize totalitarian regimes around the world?

In January 2011, Hungary took over the rotating EU presidency. The very same day, the country's new and criticized media law came in to force. This law has been illustrated as a potpourri of the worst parts of the media laws in the EU. The European Commission has criticized the legislation, which resulted in Hungary backing down on some issues. Still, however, a media council, whose members are appointed by Parliament's conservative Fidesz majority, is to monitor all forms of media. The OSCE has deemed the media council a concentration of power without precedent in European democracies.

Italy has dropped like a stone in the ranking. Prime Minister Berlusconi's power over the country's media must be of concern also outside Italy. A broad coalition of political groups in the European Parliament -- Liberals, Greens, Socialists, and the Left -- launched a resolution in October 2009, criticizing that freedom of expression is under threat in Italy. The vote was exceptionally narrow, but the resolution was unfortunately voted down with the help of the conservative EPP group, where Berlusconi's PdL party is one of the largest members.

The European Union was founded on the ruins of the Holocaust and the Second World War. The European foundation is made out of liberty, democracy, respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law. These values are laid down in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Treaty of Lisbon, which are endorsed in full by all 27 member states, without exception.

According to Freedom House's annual review in 2010, there is a severe backlash in the respect for political rights and freedoms in the world. We are now looking back to four years of regrettable decline, which is the longest period of decline during the nearly 40 years that the survey has been carried out. Positive role models should not be underestimated if we want to spread democracy in the world. The European Union can and should play a crucial role.

Becoming a member of the EU is not easy; candidate states must live up to the political criteria, which includes paying full respect to human rights and fundamental freedoms. These requirements of course apply equally to countries that are already full members , but today the Union has no tools to control how these rights are respected in practice.

In the field of economic policy, the European Union's watchdog role is becoming more and more important as a means to keep member states' finances in shape and ensure respect for common legislation. Giving the EU an equally prominent role in scrutinizing how fundamental rights are respected by national governments would be a natural next step to take. The European Commission has been given a strong mandate for dealing with fundamental rights through the Lisbon Treaty.

A serious discussion on how to deal with member states that compromise with fundamental rights -- including press freedom -- needs to begin now. Freedom of speech was once born in Europe, and it must be preserved to future generations. The EU has an obligation to hold the torch of freedom high in a world where the majority of mankind can not speak freely.

Birgitta Ohlsson, Swedish Minister for EU Affairs and Democracy
Jean-François Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders