Wrap-up: on the trail of media freedom in Europe - “We must feel worried“

(Hier geht es zur deutschen Version)

In July, Daniel Bouhs and Jörg Wagner have driven 7500 kilometres in their search for press freedom in Europe. Guided by the annual rankings published by Reporters Without Borders they chose their target destinations: Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Poland. These are their results.

Daniel Bouhs and Jörg Wagner Daniel Bouhs and Jörg Wagner, two German reporters who went on a "press freedom safari" through the European countries Italy, Poland, Hungary, Greece and Bulgaria (Picture: NDR and RBB)


After four weeks on your research safari, what is the state of press freedom in the countries you visited?

Daniel Bouhs: First we should sound the all-clear: the working conditions in the EU are not as bad in any of the Member States as they are in Russia, China or Turkey. Journalists must not lose they lives or end up in jail just for doing their jobs. But nontheless, unfortunately we must feel worried: even in our system of values press freedom is in danger – partly insidious but also in many different ways. Let’s take Bulgaria and Greece. Here the big businesses and oligarchs harness the media for their own ends – newspapers and TV channels that they keep practically as their hobbies. A Bulgarian colleague told us in the end it doesn’t matter if he researches a scandal – other media will challenge it with five lies. And so the readers have no chance whatsoever to recognise what is true and what is not.

Jörg Wagner: In Poland and Hungary it is even the governments themselves who exert pressure on critical media with their friends in the industry. Along comes an investor who is close to the government and takes over the most critical newspaper in the land, and closes it down overnight. Then again the government and state companies completely stop placing advertisements in critical newspapers and TV and radio channels. OK, critical media are not prohibited. Freedom of expression is actually preserved in theory. It’s more of an attempt to starve the critical media to death. Just one comparison: for example at home (in Germany) the German Army deliberately takes out large display adverts in "taz" ( a left wing newspaper that is critical of the German military) and does not exclude them from its national campaign.

Did the rankings prove to be accurate?

Jörg Wagner: Basically, yes – at least as far as the overall places are concerned. All five countries that we visited – and in Italy, where the Mafia threatens journalists and politicians and company bosses take an astonishing pleasure in suing for libel – press freedom is in a worse state than in the Scandinavian countries or even at home in Germany. The Reporters Without Borders rankings actually point in the right direction. Yet we can no more draw conclusions than the colleagues we spoke to in the countries that are affected. Our impression is that Hungary must be the worst example, where President Viktor Orbán has developed a sort of IKEA flatpack that other countries can use as a model, to make the media landscape more agreeable for themselves. That is how a Hungarian journalist who used to work for "Népszabadság" (an opposition newspaper that was closed down shortly after being sold in 2016) explained it.

Daniel Bouhs: On the other hand we found that Bulgaria which is placed number 109, the worst country in the EU, is actually not so badly off. It’s true that the media fight each other here and journalists suffer because, for example in spite of their investigative research no politicians have been indicted for corruption – of course that takes the shine off the trustworthiness of their reporting.

But the cases, which Reporters Without Borders partly rely on – a journalist’s car being set on fire or violence against journalists at a demonstration – happened years ago. But the rankings are published annually and they should reflect the current situation. Perhaps Reporters without Borders should tighten up their criteria here. At the same time Christian Mihir, the leader of the German section of Reporters Without Borders, also told us that the rankings are subjective, of course.

What is the greatest threat to press freedom?

Daniel Bouhs: In our opinion the biggest problem is that the European Union has not defined any criteria for measuring press freedom. In their treaties there are vague references to it but no firm conditions. What is happening in Hungary or Poland mainly slips under the radar of the people in Brussels.

A few politicians get excited but the EU commission cannot really take the problems seriously: where there are no minimum standards for Member States they cannot impose sanctions. That is a significant failing, which we have only realised just now. So if it really should be part of our system of values to protect press freedom, which actually is a cornerstone of democracy, then the EU needs unambiguous criteria which are also linked to the possibility of sanctions.

Jörg Wagner: If Hungary treats NGOs badly, controls them and in some cases also tries to ban them, then Brussels examines whether to kick the country out of the EU – yes, in the end they should increase the pressure so that Hungary will after all stick to our common values and stop being a control freak. But if Hungary comprehensively transforms the media landscape and makes things difficult for critical media, then the EU Commission just looks on. That can not be!

Have you found any tried and tested remedy?

Jörg Wagner: In despair the journalists’ self-confidence and ability to resist are called into question. At "Gazeta Wyborcza" in Poland a colleague told us, half ironically and half in earnest, that his oder colleagues already had the experience of going underground and producing a newspaper in that way – they are preared for the worst and they will not give up.

Daniel Bouhs: In Greece it is basically the same. There our colleagues also have to contend with self-censorship: at the public service broadcaster ERT – which the first government closed down as an economy measure during the economic crisis and the second government then re-instated – reporters are also asked to break free from playing the part of uncritical government spokespeople and to clearly describe the country’s problems. That takes a special kind of courage when the country is in crisis. But that’s OK: the reporters at a private TV station that belongs to a shipping company owner can for example report freely about the government’s plans to tax shipowners, that is their owner.

Are you disillusioned or more highly motivated?

Daniel Bouhs: Actually we did not realise that – especially in Poland and Ungary – the conditions are so bad for journalists. Discovering that at first hand, on the spot, was actually a bit of a shock when we came from Germany, where we also by the way have a problem of accreditations being withdrawn ( link to G20 article). Still, that was a one-off and not a systemative problem.

Jörg Wagner: But at the same time it is also reassuring to compare with other countries like Turkey: as mentioned we are very far away from this situation. Even in Hungary there are still critical voices – partly because fans of critical TV networks still donate money on a grand scale.

Daniel Bouhs: We should just not assume that press freedom in the European Union can be taken for granted. Quite the opposite: especially in southern Europe freedom requires our full attention and solidarity.

Please check here for a "safari summary" in ZAPP magazine (in German)

Please find here the individual podcasts by country (in German)