Two journalists travel six thousand kilometers on the trail of press freedom in Europe

Fact checking is a no-brainer in journalism. Or is it? Two German journalists, Jörg Wagner und Daniel Bouhs from the public service broadcasters NDR and RBB are checking on the state of press freedom in five EU countries. They call their safari of 6000 kilometers - from Italy to Poland to Hungary to Greece and to Bulgaria - the EU press freedom check (#EUPressefreiheitsCheck). An interview.


Two journalists travel six thousand kilometers on the trail of press freedom in Europe Daniel Bouhs and Jörg Wagner on the road. "We want to know what's behind those numbers" (Copyright: RBB/NDR)

ECPMF: Why is a press freedom check tour important now?

Daniel Bouhs: For years now we've been seeing and reporting on the press freedom ranking of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). But in the end it's just dry numbers, and we wanted to find out what is behind those numbers.

Wagner: When the new ranking was published in April I was at the media congress Medientage Mitteldeutschland in Leipzig and I met this woman from Bulgaria who works in the media monitoring bodies in Sofia, and who was apalled by Bulgaria being number 109. She said that the ranking was wrong and she wouldn't trust the facts behind the figures. There we had the idea to go and check it. Hungary 71, Italy 52, Poland 54 Polen, it doesn't say much. It's like noting the water-level in the river Elbe.

ECPMF: How did you chose the journalists you meet and talk to on your tour?

Bouhs: Some of them we already knew after reporting on their cases. Some approached us like the former deputy editor-in-chief of the Hungarian civil rights newspaper "Népszabadság", which was shut down. I met him at the annual conference of the German Netzwerk Recherche (research network). It's a good thing for colleagues who are affected to talk about the situation, because the reports on big demonstrations are soon forgotten.

ECPMF: How much time passed between the decision to do it and starting the trip?

Bouhs: It was actually quite spontaneous. Normally this is a decision like this takes its time passing through the institutions. But actually it didn't take a week for RBB and NDR (German public media authorities) to greenlight it. That was impressively fast. Obviously the subject of media freedom is considered a necessary one there too. 

Wagner: We had about a month of preparation. But a lot of interviews come about on-site. 

ECPMF: You're in Hungary right now…

Wagner: We're just on our way to a town called Pécs, close to the Croatian border. There we'll meet an academic who is researching the media as well as monitoring them with his own NGO. He collects facts and figures and publishes them. 

Bouhs: In Budapest we had the possibilty to talk to the spokesperson of the Orban government at short notice. He called the downgrading of Hungary in the press freedom ranking a conspiracy. He thinks it's strongly politically motivated. He claimed that concerning press freedom everything is fine in Hungary. It was interesting to see someone playing-down the difficult situation with such conviction. 

ECPMF: How do you deal with someone obviously making inaccurate statements? Do you just listen? Do you counter it?

Bouhs: Basically we are collecting the pieces of the puzzle. We want to give voice to both sides of the agenda and to contrast them with each other - like the media academic and the government spokesman. We are geared to the RSF ranking but in the same time we are asking the journalists on-site what they think about their position in the ranking.

Wagner: For example, Bosnia-Herzegovina is ranked better than Hungary - even though still in 2013 the risk to getting killed for your work as a journalist there was higher than in Hungary.

ECPMF: Why you can't see that in the ranking?

Wagner: Christian Mihr, managing director of Reporters Without Borders Germany, told us, before we started our journey that the ranking is of course a subjective one. Because it is arrived at by people who live in those countries filling out in a subjective way, a questionnaire that is as objective as possible. If you have been living in fear and danger for the last 20 years, you won't be as susceptible to danger as, for example, someone coming to Bosnia-Herzegovina from Finland. Also the list is put up for discussion, it's not the be-all anend-all, but a reason to think about press freedom. And it's correct that Poland is as ranked less high-risk than Germany. 

ECPMF: Did your own understanding of press freedom change? What is normal?

Bouhs: The question is always where do the attitudes come from in a particular country? Scandinavian countries for example, that have been peaceful and democracies for a long time have a different understanding of press freedom from SoutherEuropean countries, where press freedom has a different history - if they just overcame communism. Of course this ranking does not reflect this comprehensively. "Normal” press freedom should be the ideal state, where the journalist does not fear to do his or her job and gets support and protection from all sides - judiciary as well as security authoristies. That you don't have to fear for life and limb because you are investigating scandals. Unfortunately there are countries where this is the case.

Wagner: G20 happened when we were already on the road. Jouralists were hampered in their work. Via Twitter people told us that we should take care of press freedom in Germany instead of going to Poland. Of course we tried sensitive to this. Yes, the G20 is a problem if your accreditation gets revoked. I am sure this will be reflected in next year's ranking. But the question is, if this is happening systemically or arbitrary? Does it happen because in a state of emergency the government choses its own dominance over press freedom? There is no state of emergency in Poland - it's not like Ukraine where there is war or like Turkey after an attempted coup. This is peaceful Poland. There are differences in the evaluation. Of course you should take a look at Germany too, but that's happening anyway in daily reporting.

Bouhs: This is the first attempt to dig down in a couple of countries that are the tail-lights in the EU when it comes to press freedom.

Wagner: You know we always talk about the European house, and there are house rules. Despite these European standards some of the members are far apart. Scandinavia is in the lead, the Balkans are far behind. We want to investigate that.

ECPMF: Looking at your experiences so far, is it worse or better than you thought?

Bouhs: I was quite amazed how badly Polish media is suffering from influence of politics. Not only the public broadcasting but also newspapers, that were and still are dependent on governmental advertising funds. One editor told us. "We are ready to go underground, if they shut us down to do the journalism we want to do. Like we did in Communism." These are unthinkable thoughts in Germany. In Poland they are already in people's heads. You don't even want to think about what's happening in countries down at the bottom of the index. At  the same time there are colleagues who work in a protected space of press freedom, in the private sector. They say: "We can do what we want. Don't make the problems bigger than they actually are."

It looks like everyone sticks to their own plan. We didn't really find a lot of solidarity.

Wagner: We were well prepared. But I was surprised by the political culture in Poland. We were  in Warsaw at the same time as US president Donald Trump. We listened to his speech standing in a backstreet looking at a huge screen. When Trump mentioned former Polish president Lech Wałęsa and freedom coming from the labour movement, people started to whistle and shout. Later we were told the Kaczyński brothers had already started to rewrite Polish history in their favour. And that the people around us were cheerleaders of the PiS, summoned to fuel sentiments. This actually reminded me immensely of the German Democratic Republic (former communist-controlled East Germany). 

ECPMF: What are your hopes for after the journey? What's next?

Wagner: The plan was to go and do the press freedom check in countries with a good position in the ranking. To show how it looks when things go well. But this is still an idea. We also want to take a look at countries that aren't EU members. We are definitely hoping to create a sense of continuity.

Bouhs: Press freedom shouldn't just pop up brieflly on the news, because thousands of people are protesting. What happens in between those medial peaks? Of course we hope for more press freedom for our colleagues. And publicity helps them.


Click here for the "EU press freedom Check reports" in the media libraries of "Zapp" and Radioeins (both in German)