03 May, 2021

Op-Ed: Europe must remain a beacon of free press in the 21st century

In this op-ed, Daniel Berg, ALDE Party Vice-President and Deputy Mayor of the 2nd district of Budapest, lists four actionable steps for ensuring free media across the EU, protecting the lives and livelihoods of journalists and standing up to authoritarian leaders using media for their own gain.

Free press is a core European value and one of the essential building blocks of democracy. It is the best safeguard against tyranny, along with well-informed citizens. Ensuring access to honest and fair reporting is of particular importance in an age of disinformation and populism. The work of journalists in holding politicians accountable and exposing corruption and misuse of power is also a crucial service to citizens.

Despite its critical role, during this last decade, we have witnessed a steady deterioration in the state of media freedom across the globe. Authoritarian leaders see the Fourth Estate as a danger to their rule and do what they can to undermine press freedoms with any means available. Often this means erecting byzantine legal barriers that prevent journalists from doing their jobs. Threats of violence, or cases of overt violence, are sadly also not uncommon.

As liberals, we believe that open and unrestricted access to the marketplace of ideas is key to a well-functioning society. As Europeans, we believe that the European Union has a moral obligation to stand up for essential freedoms, like the freedom of the press. As devoted democrats, we are committed to preserving and expanding democratic freedoms to all corners of the globe.

Europe must lead the way in protecting and nurturing press freedoms. To do so, we must lead by example. Within the borders of our Union, there can be zero tolerance for leaders who seek to limit or roll back press freedoms. At the time of writing, however, the European Union has been negligent of this duty.

A case in point is Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orbán. In the last decade, Orbán has used his super majority in the Hungarian parliament to attack and harass free media. 

After Orbán came to power in the 2010 national election, he quickly moved to consolidate his control over the media. A media control authority was established, which has the power to impose significant fines on any media organs that do not toe the party line. Needless to say, this body is stacked with a stable majority of Orbán loyalists. Meanwhile, government-friendly oligarchs have used their considerable resources to dominate the media market. Public broadcasters have become mouthpieces for Orbán’s brand of Eurosceptic illiberal propaganda.

The politically motivated closure of newspapers, the calculated takeover of media by pro-government owners, controversial reforms to freedom of information laws, and an atmosphere of censorship and self-censorship in public broadcasting have all contributed to the deterioration of Hungarian media freedoms.

Hungary is perhaps the most extreme example within the EU, but it is by no means an outlier. Poland’s far-right government is an eager emulator of Orbán’s policies, while the 2018 murder of Slovakian investigative journalist Ján Kuciak caused mass protests and a governmental crisis in the country. Media freedom scores are consistently lower in the post-communist countries, contributing to an East-West divide that is a threat to European stability.

It is vital that European leaders not only express concern about the media situation, but also take action. Concrete steps must be taken to ensure free media in member states, protect the lives and livelihoods of journalists and stand up to encroaching authoritarianism.

A good first step is adopting the European Media Freedom Act proposed by the European Commission, which aims to ensure media freedom and plurality and provide a common framework for public media. This would help ensure public broadcasters serve the public, not political interests.

Second, the European Union must not shy away from applying sanctions to repeat transgressors. A new tool that can serve this purpose is the recently adopted Rule of Law Conditionality Mechanism, which ties European funds to adherence to European values.

Third, the EU must practice what it preaches on the global stage. The member states must take a firm joint stand against authoritarian regimes, like Russia and China, which not only limit press freedoms, but persecute critical journalists.

In the darkest days of the last century, we Europeans learned through bitter experience that attacks on the free press are attacks on the fabric of democracy itself. In this new century, we must remain committed and vigilant in defending the rights and privileges of the press. We must not only preserve, but expand these protections, strengthening them for times to come. The only alternative - the loss of our own freedoms - cannot be allowed.

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