The Brief, powered by GIGAEurope – Striking democracy – EURACTIV.com
A series of media, journalism and democracy alarm bells were recently sounded across Europe for those who wanted to listen.
The physical violence against journalists, the most obvious manifestation, is like an underground river that overflows at the first heavy rain. Threats and killings typically target investigative journalists who examine corruption and the links between the public sector and organized crime.
The threat to media freedom in Europe is far more sophisticated, but no less worrying. In countries where the entire media system is biased or controlled, there is no need to kill independent journalists.
For years, EU policymakers have largely turned a blind eye to such cases, leaving the issue in the hands of national governments.
But now, when we see that Hungary is not an isolated case but a trendsetter for an entire region, the European institutions must finally face music.
There are two main reasons for the poor state of the European media: economics and politics.
The media sector has been in crisis since the advent of digital technologies. Free access to information through the Internet has made people less inclined to pay, making us forget that information (like democracy) comes at a cost.
The fragmentation of media channels has reduced advertising revenues and on most online platforms where media content is shared, the intellectual property of news organizations is not recognized – at least until the transposition of the Directive on copyright.
The other main reason is political. In a democracy, there is a necessary tension between the political system and the media organizations. There will always be politicians who don’t want to be questioned. In a mature democracy, the rule of law protects this tension.
On the other hand, when the media system is unhealthy and the rule of law is not guaranteed, the media are at the mercy of their political bosses.
Since few media are profitable, new entrants to the media market are usually funded by wealthy individuals or businesses looking to use the media as pawns in their political game. Alternatively, the media become dependent on public funding which, without objective criteria, is distributed on the basis of political sympathies.
Those who do not respect this regime are then attacked, initially by legal means. Police protection is withdrawn. Obstruction and excessive use of violence prevent denunciation. Broadcast licenses are removed. Verbal attacks from senior politicians are becoming the norm.
Finally, journalists (but also NGOs, activists, academics) are targeted by strategic prosecutions against public participation (SLAPP). The point of these lawsuits is not to win, but to intimidate. Just as fascism has used freedom of speech to overthrow democracies and then deny that freedom, the SLAPP is disrupting the justice system, using defamatory law to defame.
To counter this worrying trend, the European Commission ad an anti-SLAPP initiative by the end of the year. The European Parliament has twice called for a directive to make it legally binding.
MEPs also work on their own political report. Meanwhile, a NGO coalition launched the European competition SLAPP, Eurovision for abusers of prosecutions. Categories include Corporate Bully, SLAPP Politician of the Year, Court Addict, and Bully Lawyers. The winners of the prestigious award will be ad Friday (May 21). Stay tuned…
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Opinions are those of the author
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox]