Press Freedom 2010: An EJC field guide


“I fear the newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets,” said Napoleon Bonaparte about 200 years ago. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad felt the same, press freedom in Iran would be a whole lot stronger.

But Iran is not alone in preying on the media, joined by at least 40 states worldwide including Libya, Tunisia and Egypt in the European Neighbourhood. So who is tracking developments?

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) posts regular updates on predatory regimes. But its main reference work is the press freedom index, covering 175 countries on everything from violence against journalists to censorship to media pluralism.

EU media: Commercial and political pressures
Some might say: “Who cares about dictators, even on our doorstep? European media have enough of their own problems, as revenues drop and papers go bust. And European countries always top the RWB list so aren’t we doing enough by setting an example?”

“Not really” is the answer. Press freedom is steadily getting worse in several EU countries: in 2009, the Czech Republic passed a muzzling law, while France and Slovakia dropped to 43rd and 44th place. Italy, stuck between Berlusconi and the mafia, barely makes the top 50, while Bulgaria is 68th because of high-level corruption, a culture of self-censorship and a spate of attacks on journalists.

A similar story for two EU candidate countries: Croatia in 78th place and Turkey 122nd. In the latter, thousands of people have been charged under laws that forbid the media from ‘damaging Turkish identity’ or ‘insulting a public official’.

Some have even been murdered like Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin, allegedly by state security forces. (For more on Turkey, please see our interview with journalism lecturer Mahmut Çinar.)

Charters and emergency services: Life support for journalists
So what’s being done to protect journalists? In June 2009 Commissioner Reding and 48 chief editors launched the first European Charter on Press Freedom.

Based on 10 key articles, the idea is that “if colleagues have problems and invoke the charter, we in the other countries have to be ready to support them in a show of solidarity,” said founder Hans Ulrich Joerges, from Germany’s Stern magazine, speaking to RadioFreeEurope. 

Going further, Joerges wants the charter made “a condition in new EU membership negotiations”. A suggestion from the EJC: why not include it in the annual action plans of the European Neighbourhood Policy Instrument (ENPI)?

Working journalists can sign the charter online to add weight to the campaign, or start a petition calling on the EU to make the charter legally binding for all member states.

The EU also funds emergency services run by RWB and other media groups, providing helmets and bullet proof vests, financial, health and legal support, a rapid response hotline, and help with visas if forced into exile. To help support their work, consider buying RWB merchandise like the 25th anniversary photography book.

Fighting back: Technology and training
Applications like Tor are used by journalists and bloggers in countries like Zimbabwe, where until recently discovery meant torture and death. Tor uses “a network of virtual tunnels” – multiple, random relays – which make tracking extremely difficult. Despite its complex back-end, it is easily launched from a standalone package, which opens a tailored Firefox browser. The main problem is speed, so if you have spare bandwidth and want to help journalists in danger consider running your own relay.

Skype is a widely used piece of software providing encrypted communications. Italian police have even complained about its effectiveness, as mafia gangs switch from wiretapped phones to ‘uncrackable’ Skype. Admittedly, some users of Skype and Tor may have criminal intentions, but this doesn’t negate the needs of other users.

On a personal level, and given the massive changes in the industry, journalists have to be on top of their game. This is central to the work of EJC, covering everything from innovation seminars to investigative journalism training in Armenia. Together with codes of ethics, these schemes help reporters make the most of new platforms while respecting the principles of good journalism.

To push the agenda further, EJC has drafted its own ‘European Code of Journalism Ethics’—a combination of British, French and German rules. This remains work in progress and needs refining by journalism groups both within Europe and perhaps also the EU Neighbourhood.

For this and the issues mentioned above, solidarity is key. Journalists need each other and depend on networks for information, training and protection, above all in repressive regimes. Taken together, all these measures can push the agenda for press freedom while safeguarding the industry, as we know it, for future generations.


Slideshow: Iran 2009: Never forget the bloggers, journalists and photographers who risked their lives alongside the protesters. Creative Commons images borrowed from Flickr (Masterarasmus and Steve Rhodes).