Freedom of press in the European Union

, by Alessio Pisanò

Freedom of press in the European Union

At the European Parliament you can talk about Europe but you cannot talk individually about the member states. In the same way, a member state is allowed to address the European Union or to ask Brussels for help, but the EU must keep out of the member states’ domestic business.

This is the result of the failure of the resolution on the freedom of press in Italy last week, torpedoed by the centre-right majority in the Strasbourg plenary session.

To sum up, the Liberals and the Left-wing deputies called for a European directive to table some general standards in order to guarantee freedom of press and media pluralism throughout Europe.

After a relatively drawn out procedure – due to the EPP’s attempts to stop it before being discussed – the joint resolution tabled by the S&D, ALDE, Greens/EFA and GUE groups relating to the freedom of information in Italy has been rejected by the EPP, ECR and EFD.

this is another clear example of how the EU is seen only as a bunch of advantages and not as a means by which we might live together

«Brussels must not meddle in Italian affairs», this is the main point of contention as far as the EPP is concerned. A moot point as the Italian government itself has been requesting EU support to help dealing with illegal immigration through its Southern coastline for months. Obviously, there must be a set of criteria in place, delineating what the EU can take care of and what it cannot. Or, more likely, this is another clear example of how the EU is seen only as a bunch of advantages and not as a means by which we might live together sharing our individual strengths and a collective responsibility.

And for the EU responsibility is precisely providing freedom of information, and therefore each member state must learn to protect it and develop. Now as ever the EU ought to have approved such a resolution, as the eighth annual World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders shows how Europe is decreasing. “It is disturbing to see European democracies such as France, Italy and Slovakia fall steadily in the rankings year after year,” the Secretary-General Jean-François Julliard said last week at the presentation of the report. Indeed, according to this index, several European nations have fallen significantly in this year’s index. Even if the first 13 positions are still in the hands of European countries, others - such as France (43rd), Slovakia (44th) and Italy (49th) - continue their descent, falling to the eightth, 37th and fifth position respectively. In so doing, they have given way to young democracies in Africa (Mali, South Africa and Ghana) and in the Western hemisphere (Uruguay and Trinidad and Tobago).

Nevertheless, the EPP group has strongly underlined that “in Italy an information problem does not exist, and even if it existed the European Parliament is not the right place for it to be discussed”.

A position very similar to that which Turkey’s Chief European Union negotiator Egemen Bagis stated on October 14th with regard to the Commission’s worries about the press of freedom in Turkey: “The tax fine imposed on the Dogan group is a matter for the Turkish Financial Ministery, not foreign authorities, and if it can’t solve it, it is a matter for the Turkish judicial system”. The Dogan Yayin company is the country’s largest media group, was recently hit with an outstanding fine of 2 million Euros by the Turkish government. Officially, the fine is motivated with fiscal problems, but many suspect a political interference in the press, as the group’s publication charged with the fine has featured articles focussing on alleged corruption within the ruling AK party.

The European Commission has officially criticized Turkey over its lack of freedom of press in its annual report released on October 14th, dealing on how several countries wishing to join the European Union are faring in bringing their legal frameworks in line with the EU norms.

It is clear that the rules in force for extra-European states do not apply to the EU member states. Or, more likely, that the EU has missed another opportunity to regulate a market in danger – as the Reporters Without Borders’ annual index shows – and to do something on behalf of the never-named discussion on European public opinion in the plenary.

Neither the Centre-Left groups nor the Liberals – who are definitely not from the Left-wing – have spoken about this concept as if it had never existed. Instead, the accurate international coverage of the Italian government’s misadventures of the last months clearly shows how much Europeans care about what is going on in Italy as one of the 27 member states. For this reason, expecting to avoid European interference is not only nonsense but also an old-fashioned claim that seriously threatens the European integration. The understandable worries about the freedom of press in Turkey stand as testament to that.

At the very least it is a ‘bad example’ to set for those who wish to gain membership in the EU, especially due to Italy’s stance as arguably the weakest democracy within the current member states. Media experts speak of a ’virus’ that approaching from Italy might infect the entire European information system.

As Chair of the former PSE, now S&D, group Martin Schultz stated in a never-to-be-forgotten discussion with the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the European Parliament, ’Is Italy not in Europe? Why then mustn’t we speak about it?’

The EU has missed a good opportunity, and yet again we missed the opportunity to become European.

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