At a demonstration in Cairo, Egyptian policemen shot two journalists with rubber bullets. In China, journalist Wang Jing was sentenced to nearly five years in jail; her articles caused “unrest”. She wrote about demonstrations that were brutally crushed by the Chinese police. In Mexico, investigative journalists are targeted by drug cartels and in Bangladesh bloggers have been attacked and killed by extremists. Everywhere in the world press freedom is under increasing pressure. Police and Justice Departments, along with some governments, are not doing enough to address this.
Besides direct threats against freedom of speech there is also other pressure in the form of government control, censorship or propaganda. A new law in Poland for the media increases government control in order to keep critical journalists in line. In Turkey, journalists are accused of insults or lies by the President himself. In China, foreign companies have to get the government’s permission before they can publish anything online. The Russian government has a key role in various media that spread conspiracy theories or strongly coloured posts in Europe. Where one actively uses the media for political gain, the other restrains it for his political career.
Without a free press, people do not have access to and lack appropriate information on human rights violations or revelations of whistle-blowers. Without a free press public debate is silenced, there is no control of government and democracy, as we in the “West” understand it, can’t exist. Freedom of the press is an essential component of European identity and values. We need to invest in it. It should be an essential part of foreign policy. Unfortunately, more and more often we see the opposite happening.
Europe as a whole, never mind the European Union, hardly responds when candidate member states violate the freedom of the press on a daily basis. In the Balkans and Turkey incidents are increasing. Journalists are threatened, persecuted or imprisoned and different types of media have been taken over by the state without strong criticism. The result? A Dutch journalist was arrested in Turkey because of a critical tweet and a German comedian is being forced to account for insulting Erdogan. How did we get into a situation where Turkey exports authoritarian tendencies to the EU instead of the EU strengthening freedom of expression in Turkey?
This is a question to think about on International Press Freedom Day. The European Union can and must do more to guarantee freedom of the press and to face down censorship and propaganda. Many of the countries where press freedom is respected are located in Europe, globally only 13 % of the population lives in a country where press freedom is respected.
The European Union mustn’t adopt laws allowing the privatised censorship of online content by companies such as Twitter or YouTube. Sometimes people ask to ban or block publications and websites with propaganda, but a European approach must have the principle of free speech as a starting point along with pluralistic independent media.
The EU must continue to train activists and journalists in the use of anonymising tools and encryption techniques to work online securely. New technologies that protect human rights can be developed especially in Europe. That should be promoted more actively.
Further, the export of European espionage technologies, which allow authoritarian governments to keep an eye on journalists, bloggers or dissidents, must be brought to an end. By putting a stop to the export of digital weapons Europe can be a more credible advocate of press freedom.
And lastly, European politicians and diplomats should stand up for press freedom always and everywhere. In conversations with countries where press freedom is not respected, this is perhaps more difficult, but that is also where it is needed most urgently. Europe must show that this is one of our core values, which must not be squandered for economic or strategic interests. This means we strengthen trade ties with countries only in exchange for an improvement in human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Global press freedom has declined in 2015 to its lowest level in twelve years. Europe should be playing a leading role to put an end to the free fall. Democracy cannot function without free press.