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Across Europe, press and media freedom is under threat. Earlier this month, media experts called for a “reconquest” of crumbling media freedoms in the EU. Commission President José Manuel Barroso has described freedom of the media as a “sacred principle” of the Union, yet everywhere we look there are problems.

Last year, the International Press Institute warned of “serious pockets of concern” about the state of media in Italy – where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns a substantial chunk of the country’s commercial media; in Turkey (a candidate member of the EU) thousands took to the streets last Sunday to demonstrate for greater press freedom following the arrest of more than a dozen journalists; in Bulgaria, journalists fear the use of illegal wiretapping; in France too, there have been accusations that the intelligence services “spy” on investigative online media; in the UK, the Deputy Prime Minster has called Britain’s famously strict libel laws a “laughing stock” (though some bloggers are sceptical about the chances of root-and-branch reform). Then there was the infamous controversy around new Hungarian media laws that threatened to overshadow the country’s EU Presidency (and saw thousands march in protest yesterday).

Reporters Without Borders published its 2010 Press Freedom Index last year under the headline “Europe falls from its pedestal.” What’s going wrong? Why are press freedoms retreating in the EU? Is there anything we can do to turn the tide and launch a “reconquest”? Well, part of the problem is that states are only now playing catch-up with technology. There is talk of a “revolution 2.0” sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, as protesters use Twitter and Facebook to organise demonstrations and to expose human rights abuses. The same tools that can bring down a despotic regime in one country can be used to mobilise people in liberal democracies. Alarmed by the chaotic power of the internet (which has positive effects – such as the aforementioned tumbling of autocrats – as well as negative – such as giving a greater voice to groups that want to incite racial hatred) governments are now reacting. In France, the HADOPI law is one manifestation of this reaction – as the government tries to restrict illegal downloads of media content. The justification given by the Hungarian government when it instituted its controversial new media legislation was that Hungary’s laws needed to be updated to better deal with the realities of online content.

However, regulators are catching up in other ways as well. New technologies can be used both to spread information and to monitor and control it. Turkey recently banned (again) Blogger, the popular Google blogging platform. In the past, it has also banned the video sharing site YouTube. The chaotic freedom of the internet still relies heavily on infrastructure controlled and monitored by the state. See how access to social media sites was blocked during the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan revolutions. What technology giveth, technology can taketh away.

So what’s the solution? Well, Barroso is completely right to call media freedom a “sacred principle” of the EU. It should be defended vigorously, and the investigation of Hungary’s media laws by the Commission is something that should be commended. Freedom of expression, in the internet age – when everybody has the power to broadcast to a potentially enormous audience – comes with responsibilities. However, governments need to ensure they don’t overreact when responding to the changing technology landscape. Again, the most effective way to put pressure on individual governments in Europe is through already-existing pressure groups (NGOs, think-tanks, etc.) and institutions (including the EU and the Council of Europe). We should not exaggerate. Hungary is not Belarus and France is not North Korea. However, even a small step backwards for Europe in terms of media freedom is a step in the wrong direction.

At a recent conference, outgoing IFJ leader Aidan White suggested setting up an independent think-tank to address these issues at the European level. Now is the time to make sure it has practical objectives, and obviously does not turn into an involuntary source of red-tape for the media.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Is the erosion of media freedom in Europe a problem? Should we be concerned? If so, what can we do to turn things round? Let us know your thoughts.

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Image Credits: CC / Flickr – Jennifer Moo

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