European Western Balkans

Speak-Up! 3 Conference; Opening speech by Johannes Hahn

BRUSSELS, 04.11.2015. – Opening speech by Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement NegotiationsDistinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted that so many journalists, media analysts and decision-makers have come here for this third edition of the Speak-Up! Conference. Along with the many representatives of international, national and regional organisations dealing with freedom of expression, your very presence shows how much you care about this key issue.

This is the third time that the European Commission hosts the event. And I am delighted to hear that people who participated in the previous editions of the conference are present – this shows the importance you attach to the discussions here.

The first Speak-up! event back in 2011 sent out a clear message that media freedom is fundamental to enlargement policy and underlined the importance of the media community as interlocutors for the Commission. Your view counts!

The second event – in June 2013 – was devoted to a thorough analysis of the different challenges of freedom of expression. The discussions at that conference led the Commission to formulate a comprehensive policy approach to follow media developments in the region, but also to form the basis for EU assistance to address persisting challenges. The main conclusion was that the media issues in the enlargement countries require a long term engagement from the aspiring countries and the EU.

I have heard it said that the EU has “lost its interest” in media freedom in the Western Balkans and in Turkey. There, we have seen worrying developments in the last weeks in the run-up to the elections, such as the intimidation of journalists in various forms.

Let me be very clear: Freedom of media is at the core of the EU integration process and is not negotiable!

I firmly believe that

  • one cannot have a properly functioning rule of law in a country in some areas, and then at the same time have many court cases where judges rule against journalists – only because they have been critical about government officials;
  • one cannot claim to have efficient law enforcement and proper protection of every citizen, if journalists still have to live in fear and perpetrators are not prosecuted;
  • one cannot claim to have a transparent competitive market economy and at the same time tolerate non-transparent ownership of media (where sometimes nobody knows who the real owners/final beneficiaries are); one cannot have a transparent, professional and non-politicised administration guided by rules and at the same time huge amounts of public money spent in media without any accountability.

    In other words: a deteriorating media situation impacts the overall readiness of the accession country to join the European Union. The countries of the EU prosper because they are places where there is great personal freedom – the freedom for each individual to make their own choices.

    Media freedom is an essential pillar for this kind of society. It makes countries stronger. It goes hand in hand with the other fundamentals that we talk about so often – rule of law and economic governance.

    Threats to free journalism are complex. Media working today both in the EU and in the enlargement countries face major challenges. Vested interests often make it difficult for independent media to survive financially.

    Concentration of media ownership can undermine the diversity of messages that are necessary for a vibrant democracy – limiting the possibility for independent journalism and fostering self-censorship.

    It is more important than ever for people to have access to a variety of objective, good quality and independent information. This is true for voters everywhere and perhaps even more so in countries going through an important transition.

    No source of information will ever have the whole picture: so a diversity of voices is essential.

    However when we observe the media landscape in the enlargement region, we see fewer and fewer diverging opinions in media, at least in some countries, less investigative stories and even the disappearance of popular critical TV shows. Does it mean that governments work flawlessly or that there are no more corrupt business practices to investigate? This is rather doubtful.

    Today’s flourishing online and social media is a great contribution to our democracies. And citizens’ media can play an important part. However, not all sources can be read with the same degree of trust. This is why we must continue to support professional journalism and the training of journalists.

    This also means overcoming the often “digital” attitude in public discussions, of being either entirely “for” or entirely “against” something or someone, to be either a “winner” or a “loser”. I would sometimes like to see more “nuance” for a real independent, impartial and non-partisan media landscape

    This will foster a true dialogue and a culture of compromise, which is key for a developed democracy. I would go even further: citizens need quality journalism to nourish their critical thinking. This is what being a European is all about!

    More efforts are needed to ensure the political and financial independence of public service broadcasters, to strengthen regulatory agencies and foster functional media self-regulation. And there is a need to prevent informal economic pressure on the media, including through increasing transparency of media ownership, preventing its excessive concentration and ensuring transparent rules on procurement of government advertising are in place.

    These issues deserve really serious attention from those in charge, because the economic and financial situation of mainstream media in Europe in general is far from satisfactory. The economies in Europe are largely recovering from the recent financial and economic crisis, but the advertising markets – the main source of life for pluralistic commercial media – are very far from the pre-crisis levels. Under these circumstances the governments should stick to transparent rules and practices while using public money to promote pluralistic, public service content.

    Unfortunately, while the legal framework for freedom of expression and the media is largely in place in the enlargement countries, the law enforcement and the reality remains an issue of serious concern. In some countries it has continued to deteriorate. Sometimes governments themselves contribute to a climate of fear which demonises journalists critical of government policy as traitors, leading to self-censorship.

    Here, governments have a clear responsibility: They need to guarantee a safe environment where different opinion can be expressed and where all citizens have access to factual and objective information.

    But not only governments have to assume their responsibility, also civil society and media representatives have important roles to play in holding governments to account when it comes to media freedom.

    The countries that have chosen closer relations with the EU have to live up to European standards in the media field. It’s a challenge. But the alternative is a weakened process of state building, without democratic control, with limited scrutiny of corruption and public opinion dangerously exposed to misinformation and even to pressures from abroad.

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    Again, as stated back in 2013: media freedom challenges require a long term engagement to resolve them, an engagement from the countries aspiring EU accession and from the EU institutions.

    Soon, the Commission will adopt this year’s enlargement package. Freedom of expression and freedom of media play a central role in our enlargement strategy for this Commission mandate. We will issue recommendations for action over the next 12 months and we will provide support for those actions in line with the guidelines developed as a follow-up to the SpeakUp!2 conference.

    You know far better than I the power of freedom of expression, and the threats which it faces. Our challenge here is to harness that power and to combat the threat. I assure you that the European Commission is and will remain committed to this issue.

    Thank you.

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