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EU countries ‘caught between two extremes’ over press freedom

by Press room

European Union countries are “caught between two extremes” when it comes to press freedom, says Reporters Without Borders

The NGO said there was “polarisation to the west, war and propaganda to the east”.

In its 2022 index, timed to coincide with World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, it found increased government control, public hostility and murders of journalists had worsened press freedoms across the bloc over the last year.

But it also highlighted that freedoms had “evolved considerably” in many countries, particularly in the Baltics

Estonia and Lithuania — both former Communist states — are now in the world’s top ten at 4th and 9th respectively, while the Netherlands plummeted from 6th to 28th and Greece replaced Bulgaria in Europe’s last place at 108th.  

Reporters Without Borders said these developments reflect three main trends. 

This includes the “return of journalist murders” in the EU, public hostility over public health measures, which has led to reporters being attacked, and the intensification of “draconian laws”. 

The NGO has examined the state of press freedom in 180 countries around the world every year since 2002. 

Five criteria are used to assess the political, economic, socio-cultural, legal and security situation in each country, which were given a score from 0 to 100.

Europe remains at the top of the leaderboard. 

Of the 10 countries in the world where press freedom is best guaranteed, eight are European. Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Portugal, and Lithuania all scored above 84.

Murders of journalists

Europe is facing a strong asymmetry between “open societies” that are attentive to the independence of journalists and “despotic regimes” that cut back on press freedom and “weaken democracies,” said Pavol Szalai, head of the Europe and Balkans desk at the Reporters Without Borders.

“We are seeing a return to the murder of journalists, sometimes even in major European cities,” said Szalai.

Last year, Greek journalist Giorgos Karaïvaz and Peter R. De Vries, from the Netherlands, were gunned down in Mafia-style attacks. 

Szalai continued: “Hostility towards journalists is growing and is particularly evident during demonstrations. We are also seeing a tightening of anti-media freedom measures, in Poland, Hungary and Greece for example”.

But there have been some improvements. Alongside the Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania, France has jumped eight places in the ranking, from 34th to 26th. 

This is due to improvements in journalists’ safety, although a methodological change slightly blurs the picture and limits comparisons between 2021 and 2022.

“A new National Law Enforcement Scheme (SNMO), which is more respectful of journalists’ rights during demonstrations, has been adopted in response to police violence,” said Szalai.

Internationally, Reporters Without Borders observes “informational chaos” with “a globalised and deregulated digital space that encourages false information and propaganda”. 

The NGO also points to the development of “opinion media based on the American Fox news model” and the “trivialisation of disinformation circuits”.

However, the organisation notes that 2022 saw a change in methodology. 

While this sought to improve how the digitalisation of the media was recorded, it means that “comparisons of rank and score between 2021 and 2022 should be treated with caution”.

Greece, a source of concern

The situation in Greece is of particular concern to Reporters Without Borders.

The country, which ranked 70th in 2021, has fallen to 108th place this year. 

This is due to “many shortcomings”, such as the surveillance of journalists, judicial pressure and the stalling of the investigation into the murder of Karaivaz.

“Not only is Greece failing to protect its journalists, but there is clearly a political will to reduce press freedom,” said Szalai.

Greece, which has experienced several economic crises, previously dropped five places in the ranking between 2020 and 2021.

Europe on guard

The findings come as the EU is moving to address issues with press freedoms. 

On 27 April, the European Commission presented a draft directive against “gag procedures”.

It aims to tackle a practice where news is buried through an avalanche of lawsuits, often for defamation, which attempts to intimidate journalists, through legal fees and court summons. 

“With these measures, we are helping to protect those who take risks and speak out when the public interest is at stake,” said European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova, citing issues of money laundering and environmental protection.

The EU Commission also denounced an “erosion” of press freedom in Europe in a report published in April with Reporters Without Borders. 

Pointing to the situation in Ukraine, it said: “Journalists have recently been targeted by the Russian army which has cost several of them their lives”, adding calls for governments to take “measures to protect journalists, including in times of war.”

Reporters Without Borders called these EU efforts a “step forward,” saying that “press freedom is finally on the European agenda”.

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