EU worried about freedom of expression and media in enlargement countries
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EU worried about freedom of expression and media in enlargement countries

The European Commission organized recently (November 4) for the third time its “Speak-Up” conference on freedom of expression and media in the Western Balkans countries and Turkey. The conference which takes place every two years aims at tacking stock of the media situation in the enlargement countries.

This year the conference assembled 400 participants from media, NGOs and think-tanks. The Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy & Enlargement NegotiationsJohannes Hahn addressed the conference.

“I have heard it said that the EU has ´lost its interest´ in media freedom in the Western Balkans and in Turkey. There, we have seen worrying developments in the last weeks in the run-up to the elections, such as the intimidation of journalists in various forms,” Commissioner Hahn said.

“Let me be very clear: Freedom of media is at the core of the EU integration process and is not negotiable!”

Press freedom is a fundamental right protected by the EU treaties and charters to which all EU member states must adhere. Without press freedom democracy cannot function. A recent report by the “Committee to Protect Journalists” showed, however, that press freedom is at risk of being undermined in the member states themselves.

 “We must remind policymakers and people in public life that ethical journalism is the life-blood of democracy,” said Aidan White, Director of Ethical Journalism Network. “Without it corruption cannot be exposed, power cannot be held to account, and the weak and vulnerable cannot be protected.”

The situation in the countries aspiring to become member states is much more worrying. None of them has a respectable press freedom record and score significantly below the EU average. The situation has hardly improved since the first Speak-Up conference.

Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, President of the European Federation of Journalists, told the conference: “Media, journalists and their organizations in Western Balkans and Turkey are operating in an environment where a lack of respect for the fundamental rights of journalists poses a threat to the safety of journalists and media freedom.”

He added: “The rights of citizens in Turkey are ignored. Free press is far from being the reality. To date, 21 journalists are still in jail waiting for their trails because of their work as journalists. This is unacceptable.”

Bobi Hristov, editor of Telma TV in Macedonia bluntly criticized the media situation in his country: “If Macedonian journalism was unconscious two and a half years ago, it is in a deep coma today. The media, with  few exceptions, no longer serves the public but  the politics.”

At the conference, preliminary findings of an assessment of the “2014 guidelines for EU support to media freedom and media integrity” were presented. The study is based on solid empirical data and will be published in December.

A number of common trends in all enlargement countries are identified in the study. Just to mention some of them:

“The economic situation is worsening for most media outlets. Political and economic interests are increasingly interfering in media and threating their independence.  Interference comes in the forms of non-transparent and illegal concentration of ownership.”

“Powerful privately-owned broadcasters act as government mouthpieces. Investigative journalism is confined to alternative media outlets heavily dependent on foreign financial support.  Censorship and self-censorship among journalists are commonly assumed to be widespread.”

The accession process, when EU negotiates with the candidate countries on preparing them for membership, is the opportunity when EU has most leverage on them and can require them to meet the conditions for membership and implement necessary reforms.

As emerged from the conference, EU needs to combine a country-by-country approach and a regional approach to ensure freedom of press and media in the Western Balkans and Turkey. Especially important is to improve the working conditions of journalists who currently have not the right to organize.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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