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The EU Ponders Crackdown on Journalism

The EU Ponders Crackdown on Journalism


President Reagan famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are these: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In 2013, the European equivalent of this statement is: “I’m from Brussels and I’m going to enhance your freedom.” Surely “terrifying” is the mot juste for a new report, A Free and Pluralistic Media to Sustain European Democracy, produced by the EU’s High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism, or HLG for short. The HLG, which consists of four people – Professor Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, a former President of Latvia; Professor Herta Däubler-Gmelin, a former German Minister of Justice; Ben Hammersley, a British journalist; and Professor Luís Miguel Poiares Pessoa Maduro, a Portuguese jurist – was established in October 2011 by European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes, a Dutch politician, who asked it “to provide a set of recommendations for the respect, the protection, the support and the promotion of pluralism and freedom of the media in Europe.”

Of course, the best contribution the EU could make to the “pluralism and freedom of the media in Europe” would be to keep its mitts off and recognize that it has no business mucking around in questions about what journalists do or don’t do. But it’s not in the nature of the EU to keep its mitts off. The EU is about sticking its nose in – about accumulating power, more and more and more of it. So when it talks about doing a better job of respecting freedom, it’s really talking how about to exert its control more fully; and when it talks about promoting diversity, it’s really talking about how to get the news media to fall more fully into line behind its own agenda.

The HLG’s report provides a nice, slick example of how to turn freedom and diversity into their opposites. Here’s the formula. Start by declaring that “a free and pluralistic media is crucial for European democracy.” Then point out that “there are currently a number of challenges which can potentially restrict journalistic freedom or reduce pluralism.” And whose job is it to maintain journalistic freedom and pluralism in the face of these challenges? Why, the government’s, of course. (A neat trick, by the way, given that one of the challenges listed is “political influence.”) To this end, the HLG calls on EU member states to set up “independent media councils with a politically and culturally balanced and socially diverse membership” that would be empowered “to investigate complaints,” ensure “that media organisations have published a code of conduct,” and so on. These councils “should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or” – italics mine – “removal of journalistic status.” Yes, you read that right: these councils – in the name of journalistic freedom – should be able to stop certain journalists from practicing journalism.

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