Media freedom ‘perilously close to breaking point’ in several EU countries

Brussels: Media freedom is declining across the EU and “perilously close to breaking point” in several countries, a leading civil liberties network has said, highlighting widespread threats against journalists and attacks on the independence of public broadcasters.

The Berlin-based Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties) said in its annual media freedom report, compiled with 37 rights groups in 19 countries, that alarming trends identified previously persisted in 2023 – although new EU-wide legislation could offer hope of improvement.

“Media freedom is clearly in steady decline across the EU – in many countries as a result of deliberate harm or neglect by national governments,” said Eva Simon, the senior advocacy officer at Liberties.

“Declining media freedom goes hand in hand with a decline in the rule of law. There’s a close correlation between the two. This is the playbook of authoritarian regimes.” She said new EU media legislation “has potential” but must be properly implemented.

Europe’s media landscape continued to be marked last year by heavy concentration of media ownership, inadequate rules on ownership transparency, and numerous threats to the independence and finances of public media, Liberties said.

It also documented multiple instances of threats, intimidation, surveillance and violence against journalists in several member states, as well as restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information across the bloc.

Liberties recommended that the European Commission closely watch member states’ implementation of a new European Media Freedom Act, which Simon said – despite its compromises – created a legal basis for improving media freedom.

“Much will depend on national governments and authorities, but the act means cases can now be brought before a European court that will rule on what media independence, surveillance of journalists and so on really mean,” she said.

A new EU directive targeting the abusive strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps), routinely used against journalists in several EU member states, should also have an impact, Simon said – although again, implementation will be key.

Journalists in countries including Croatia, France, Germany, Greece and Italy faced physical attacks in 2023, the report said, and in Hungary and Slovakia reporters were confronted with abuse and threats from elected politicians.

In Romania and Sweden, police failed to properly investigate attacks on journalists, either because of a lack of resources or a lack of will, the report said, while in France and Bulgaria police officers themselves attacked journalists.

Slapps were commonly used against journalists in Croatia, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden, while reporters in Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Poland were placed under surveillance from spyware such as Pegasus and Predator.

The UK’s Solicitors Regulation Authority defines Slapps as “an alleged misuse of the legal system, and the bringing or threatening of proceedings, in order to harass or intimidate … thereby discouraging scrutiny of matters in the public interest”.

Media ownership concentration remained high in Croatia, France, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands and Slovakia, with many media companies owned by just a few individuals, threatening the diversity of media voices and increasing the risk of bias.

In Germany, Hungary, Lithuania and the Netherlands, journalists critical of the government found themselves excluded from press conferences or other official events, or were denied documents they should have had access to.

In Slovakia, the populist prime minister, Robert Fico, has “cut off all communication” with four media outlets accused of “openly displaying hostile attitudes”. His government this month approved a controversial bill to overhaul the public broadcaster RTVS.

In Hungary, public service media was already “so completely under the yoke of the government” that its output was “characterised by biased and one-sided reporting that is always in line with the interests of the ruling Fidesz party”, Liberties said.

Beyond Hungary, it said public broadcasting was in “a state of uncertainty” in Poland as the new prime minister, Donald Tusk, tries to row back the previous government’s interventions, and there were growing concerns about the governments in Croatia and Italy.