WITH THE EUROPEAN Parliamentary elections safely in the bag, the people of Europe are quietly returning to their everyday lives as politicians and MEPs are shuttling back and forth in order to create coalitions to drive their desired policies. But as the European media was working full steam ahead in order to find out every suggested policy, angle or dirty little secret of the potential MEPs, it looks as though they overlooked the issue closest to their core — press freedom in Europe.
In the 2014 Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, several European countries seem to be in decline. As large parts of the world is mapped by dark and gloomy colours, Europe has for a long time stood as a shining bright pillar in the world of declining press freedom. But that freedom seems to be declining — and it’s not just a trend that is sweeping in from the south.
Hungary, the United Kingdom and France are some of the more noticeable drops in the 2014 statistics – with the Eastern European country seeing the largest fall in the rankings. With a highly criticised media law coming in to place late in January 2011, Hungary has seen a steady drop when its press freedom has been evaluated. Clocking in at 66 in 2014, the country falls below some countries that have been previously linked with a poor press freedom.
The Órban led Fidesz government has arguably spent the last few years imposing a series of controversial legislations on a national level – but few of them have raised the same kind of international uproar as the Media Act.
Since its entry in to the European Union in 2004, Hungary has been seen by many as a country at the forefront of adopting ‘western standards’ in terms of democracy and press freedom. In their first membership year, Hungary’s media was deemed to be ‘Free’ by Freedom House — another organization which measures and evaluates press freedom — and clocked in at position number 45.
Hungary is not the only country that has seen this type of roller-coaster ride in the last decade as a member of the European Union.
Due to recent scandals in the UK there has been growing debate about press regulation. The phone-hacking scandal, which now sees some of the media’s top figures in court, led to a review of press standards in Leveson and a report was released calling for greater regulation of the press which was seen to have gotten out of control.
This has opened up a wider debate about press freedom in the UK. Many celebrities who fell victim to the phone-hacking scandal formed the group ‘Hacked Off’ which campaigned for greater restriction on the media regarding personal privacy. Some of the press in the UK have a reputation for treading a thin line when it comes to an invasion of privacy.
The Leveson report said that the relations between the press and politicians had been too close — most notably with former Prime Minister Tony Blair and David Cameron’s former head of communications Andy Coulson — the latter was arrested for his role in phone hacking while at the News of the World. Leveson recommended an independent body, much like the one that governs broadcasting in the UK, in order to regulate the press.
These recommendations have been criticised by many in the press as encroaching on press freedom which is seen as dangerous for democracy.
This week also saw the announcement of the first terrorism case to be held entirely behind closed doors, with no access to either the press or the public due to reasons of ‘national security’. This has been seen as a further threat to press freedom and the principle of ‘open justice’ which is a key part of the British justice system. Shami Chakrabati of the campaign group ‘Liberty’ said: “Transparency isn’t an optional luxury in the justice system – it’s key to ensuring fairness and protecting the rule of law.
“This case is a worrying high water mark for secrecy in our courts – extensive restrictions set without robust reasons or a time limit. There must be clearer explanations before the door is shut on press and public.”
While this is worrying for the UK, events further afield suggest that press freedom is under attack in other countries as well. The recent attempts to ban social media outlets in Turkey raises further concerns about freedom of speech in the country. A ban on Twitter and YouTube was announced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan which led to international condemnation and domestic protests – the ban was overturned by President Abdullah Gul, but with Erdogan expected to become President concerns have arisen that freedom of speech, and with it press freedom, could come under further attack.
While it’s unfair to say that the media is ‘under attack’ from governments’ and citizens, its fair to say its a slippery slope in Europe. What can be done to arrest this is a different matter, the rise of anti-EU parties and the large number of votes for the radical right and left suggest that Europe is increasingly disenfranchised with the press and media. The behaviour of the press might be part of the solution as well as the states themselves recognising the need to protect one of its most important institutions.
By Niklas Jakobsson and Greg Bianchi
Photos by: Nina Haghighi, Ninian Reid, Khalid Albaih