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Emerging threats to freedom of the press


By Paul Gillespie

Dublin, 17 November 2007

We reproduce this article with the kind permission of The Irish Times

WORLD VIEW: For whom is journalism meant to be? For whom is it actually?

Is it a business like any other or does it serve a different, public interest? How can the public interest be defined and who should do that? How does this relate to democratic participation and the citizen's right to freedom of expression? Do contemporary journalistic standards measure up to the invocation and assertion of these wider freedoms? What are the associated responsibilities?

Such large questions were thrown up in a stimulating discussion last weekend about media freedom at the annual congress of the Association of European Journalists held in Dublin. A survey by its members of the state of play in 20 European states reveals a varied picture.

As its editor William Horsley says in his introduction: "Although some free and vigorous media can be said to flourish in all but a handful of the countries covered, the survey reveals a picture of a profession and an industry beset by problems of political interference, economic weakness and uneven or doubtful professional standards."

These include the extreme violence and intimidation seen in Russia, Armenia, Turkey and Spain; criminal prosecution using secrecy and defamation laws in Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Slovakia and Ireland; political interference in public service broadcasting in Austria, Italy, Poland and Croatia; takeover of media by big business individuals close to Sarkozy in France; growing exploitation of journalists through the use of cheap freelances in Belgium; media wars with those in power in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Britain; and a marked trend towards sensationalism and celebrity reportage which erodes trust in media and the public belief that journalists can in fact perform the democratic functions in the public sphere classically ascribed to them.

Examples discussed included the closure, two months before elections, of a popular journalists' training and networking centre in Moscow on the basis of a dubious fire hazard report - together with the endemic self-censorship and cynicism that pervades journalism there in the face of political power. The concept of autonomous public service broadcasting is quite foreign to political authorities and journalists in most parts of central and eastern Europe, where state ownership is commonly assumed to enable the direct exercise of political power over television and radio. Often family income is too low there to pay for fees such as those that fund RTÉ or the BBC.

In that sense, the problem of pluralism varies, being concerned more with removing state interference in the east, whereas ensuring diversity in the face of commercial monopoly exercises media in the west.

Miklos Haraszti, media freedom representative of the 46-country Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and a veteran Hungarian dissident from pre-1989 days, told the conference there is a counter-revolution against media going on in a number of eastern countries.  There is a loss of universalism, yielding to talk about "our new way of democracy", contrasted to the different democracy in the west.






Universalism can only be retrieved by a vigorous movement of solidarity by journalists and others throughout the OSCE, including a willingness of governments and NGOs to impose conditionality on political relations as a way of safeguarding real media freedoms. He appealed to the Government to "create a wonderful example" by dropping the legislation allowing journalists to be jailed for defamation and criminal libel in Ireland. This would help remove the excuse of eastern governments to keep such powers.

Haraszti is well informed on Irish media affairs. They figured prominently in the AEJ's discussions, arising from the recent High Court judgment requiring this newspaper to tell the Mahon tribunal whether the leaked document revealing its private investigation into Bertie Ahern's 1993 finances came from the tribunal. This judgment has now been appealed to the Supreme Court.

The issue of how to define the "public interest" is central in this case, and is an active issue throughout European media. Outlining his new role to the AEJ delegates, John Horgan, the new Press Ombudsman, said one of the tasks of the Irish Press Council, with which he will work, will be to arrive at a better working definition of the term than journalists can do "on the hop". Its findings will build up a kind of case law on the subject.

This week the National Newspapers of Ireland code of conduct for newspapers and periodicals has been distributed. It is based on wide consultations within the industry here and internationally and offers the following definition: "The general principle is that the public interest is invoked in relation to a matter capable of affecting the people at large so that they may legitimately be interested in receiving and the Press legitimately interested in providing information about it."

Horgan made the cogent point that better journalistic standards are the best defence of press freedom. But that prompts the further question of who such freedom is for. It cannot be simply for the media themselves, but should recognise how they differ from ordinary corporate entities in providing a public good. Interestingly, Article 10.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guides the OSCE and the European Court, says "everyone has the right to freedom of expression", including "freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers". Another clause qualifies that freedom with rights, responsibilities and laws necessary in a democratic society, including "for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence."

So the defence of the public interest must go beyond the media because they act in its name to ensure the public's right to know. From that perspective journalism's key task can be defined as providing accurate information rapidly and independently to a public seeking to understand a complex and challenging world. An editorial in this newspaper on October 24th put it like this: "The core function of journalism is to provide the raw material of democratic choice, the information on which, in a healthy democracy, facts, arguments, interpretations and value judgments are based."

Journalism should be grounded in citizenship practice rather than in its own self-interest if it is to earn public trust.