Press freedom: Muzzling the voices of dissent
It is vital that the EU puts media rights centre stage in relations with those states which claim to have a European “vocation”
These are difficult times for media freedom in Europe. Index on Censorship (IoC) reports what it calls a “stark deterioration of press freedom” here this year, citing in particular conflict in Turkey and Ukraine creating especially difficult conditions. Hungary and Poland are not far behind. Three journalists have died in Turkey this year while reporting, and at least 131 media outlets have been shut down and more that 100 journalists jailed in the aftermath of the July 15th coup attempt and declaration of emergency, recently extended, by President Recip Erdogan.
Earlier this month, his regime closed a further 23 pro-Kurdish channels and radio stations – among them a children’s channel that translated cartoons like SpongeBob Squarepants and the Smurfs into Kurdish – and claimed the action is about hitting terrorism and supporters of the coup. Most of those targeted, however, have nothing to do with exiled Fethullah Gulen, but have voiced opposition to Erdogan’s policies, not least the crackdown that has seen some 32,000 jailed and 100,000 military officers, police, teachers, judges, prosecutors and others sacked.
Can Dundar, former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s main opposition daily, who was sentenced by a Turkish court in May to five years and 10 months in prison, had highlighted Ankara’s duplicitous role delivering arms to militants in Syria. He has been shortlisted by MEPs for this year’s human rights Sakharov Prize.
Recent weeks also saw a heavy blow to media freedom in Hungary where Népszabadság, Hungary’s biggest selling broadsheet, closed down ostensibly for commercial reasons. In reality it fell victim to a campaign by Viktor Orban’s government to deprive non-conforming papers of state ad revenue, a tactic also employed by Erdogan.
The Népszabadság shutdown will concentrate media ownership in pro-government hands with fewer and fewer voices able to criticise Orban. The country is now ranked by Freedom House among the lowest for press freedom in the EU, while Poland is also under investigation by the EU for undermining media freedom.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian prosecutors have logged 113 criminal offences – including physical attacks, damage to property, and obstruction – committed against journalists in the first half of 2016. According to Ukrainian journalists, this is just the tip of the iceberg. It prompted a junior minister to resign recently because he didn’t “agree with attacks on journalists and attacks on freedom of speech by individual politicians”.
The erosion of media freedom is a dimension of a wider attack on human rights in these countries; a necessary prop in the armoury of autocrats to undermine discussion of and opposition to their rule. It is vital that the EU puts media rights centre stage in relations with such states which all claim to have a European “vocation”.