European Press Freedom at the Pillory

By Marejke Tammen

The danger of press freedom is not only an issue that can be observe in the US, China or Russia. It is right in front of us and thumbs its nose at us Europeans.
What happens when unpopular ideas get silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark? What does it mean when journalists are muzzled, and fake news are deliberately disseminated? The answer is very clear: press freedom dies. Such painful death is happening on our so called “democratic continent” – Europe. Press freedom stands at the pillory, and its hangman is the populism.
Just recently, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published the annual Press Freedom Index for 2018 and shows the bitter truth: growing animosity towards journalists, hostility towards the media – encouraged by political leaders. But even more terrifying: the report refers to Europe.

As we usually think about countries outside of Europe as Egypt, Iran or China in terms of reduced press freedom, we must face the fact that the traditionally safe environment for journalists in Europe has begun to vanish. The situation of the freedom of press has deteriorated like in no other region in the world. Especially in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Malta and the Czech Republic attacks on media increased alarmingly. Leading politicians stand out negatively through verbal abuses and legal steps against journalists. European democratically-elected leaders, such as Victor Orbán or Giuseppe Conte, no longer see media as something that needs to be defended at all costs but as a toxic enemy. Even though free press is deep-seated in the fundamental rights and is an essential part of liberal democracies – something that Europe cloaks itself with. Europe rather seems to be pleased to trample all over these rights. But why is it so that the media becomes an adversary or even a scapegoat for all the bad things that happen?

Media researchers blame increasing populism for that. They see a close connection between media and populism: Personalisation, reduction of complexity, dramatization and emotionality are key characteristics of modern mass communication as well as of populism. This ration gets even more intensified by social media since the change of the media landscape encourages the spread of fake news and alternative facts. At this point we should not get wrong what the word means – it does not mean mistakes in journalistic works but targeted disinformation. Ironically, populists are doing what they are blaming journalists for: Spreading falsehoods and rumours. They are using social media as a catalyst for selective perceptions of professional media related to their own populist content. In Germany, voices have become louder, expressing the view that biased media coverage of the refugee crisis had led to the big electoral success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). This begs the question whether journalists share some of the responsibility. But even so, the worst mistake journalists could do in this situation is jumping on the bandwagon of accusations –  since it would give populists the desired attention. Especially concerning are technological developments that play into populist’s hands: Social Bots are computer programs that communicate automatically by acting as a “follower” in order to promote certain ideas and persons. Such programs were already used in the US elections in 2016 – and we all know where this was leading to. This is particularly critical since younger generations do not consume public service media but social media as a main source of information – and not only in the US. We also have to face the increase of populism in Europe. On the Czech parliamentary elections in 2017, Europe witnessed the landslide victory of Andrej Babiš, a controversial populist often called the “European Donald Trump”. In the election campaign he acted as Eurosceptic and opponent of refugees. Although he reached out to the EU once he was elected, he still refuses a fair refugee distribution programme. In the Czech Republic as well as in Poland and Hungary a strong tendency of personalisation of politics can be seen. But that can even be observed in Western Europe. One need only think of the French politician Marine Lepen who lost the presidential elections against Emmanuel Macron just by very little. Trump’s “Amercia First”-policy is also clearly visible in Le Pen’s party Rassemblement National: préférence et priorité nationale. The same applies for the Netherlands with its right-wing populist Geert Wilders. He also counts on personality cult and population’s fears when he is hitting against foreigners and Islam. Provocation and constantly polarisation keep them in the public debate and in the media. They all use social media and do not back off from using fake news for the defamation of their opponents.

Sure, we could keep on demonising populist politicians and blaming them for the demise of free press. It can, however, not be disregarded that we citizens are responsible for the rise of populism since we are the ones who vote for them – even if often only in protest. But as soon as protest turns into convictions, the future of Europe will look very bleak indeed. If we do not want to dig a grave and bury the press freedom, we have to act. We must not take the free press for granted!


This article was written within the framework of the Eurocompetence I course during the first semester of the Euroculture MA in Groningen.

Featured picture credit: Felipe Tofani, Flickr.

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