Europe’s media freedom is under threat – not only from Hungary, but now also from Poland. On 7 January 2015, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed one of the most contentious media laws in the history of the European Union.
President Duda’s government flouted several fundamental EU rights and signed legislation to allow the government to appoint the senior management of public broadcasters. He also introduced a number of controversial amendments to the country’s constitutional court.
Despite international uproar, the new media law came into force the following day. In response, on 13 January, the EU Commission decided to take action against Poland under the so-called “Rule of Law” framework, and launched a “preliminary assessment”.
Following the probe, a recommended course of action will be suggested, and Poland’s voting rights could be suspended from the EU Council, as laid out in Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty.
The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) welcomes this unprecedented move as an important step in protecting media freedom in Poland. As it is a new tool for the EU, the Commission might also want to consider the impact such an assessment could have on Hungary where President Viktor Orbán has made a concerted effort to muzzle the press.
As a member of the EU, Poland must respect of the rule of law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Article 11 of this Charter is the guiding principle for media freedom in Europe. It states:
11.1: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
11.2: The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.
It is clear that Poland’s new media law violates these core principles – despite its commitment to respect them on joining the Union.
According to the new law, the Minister of Finance has the right to appoint and sack senior figures in the public media. Understandably, journalists working in the public media are fearful that dissenting from the government’s view will result in purging, with politicians effectively in charge of newsrooms.
Time to show leadership
In 2013, the European Commission published a report on media freedom and pluralism written by experts at a High Level Group. Amongst the many recommendations in the report, there are two regarding the public media. They are:
Any public ownership of the media should be subject to strict rules prohibiting governmental interference, guaranteeing internal pluralism and placed under the supervision of an independent body representing all stakeholders.
The Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the main EU legislation in this field is committed to safeguarding the independence of national media regulators.
It is high time for the EU to show leadership. If not, Europe’s media will find itself on a slippery slope downwards, closely followed by our democracies – and not to mention the credibility of the EU.
Lessons must be learned from the past. In 2003, the EU allowed Italy’s then Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to control the media in such a way that if Italy was applying for EU membership, it wouldn’t have fulfilled the criteria.
In 2011, Hungary passed a media law giving a centralised council the authority to impose fines of up to €700,000 on media houses that publish content considered to be against the public interest or common moral values. Again, the High Level Group report is very clear on the importance of media self-regulation.
If we let media freedom fall in Poland, where will be next?
How can we ensure the Turkish government respects media freedom if we do not take action against an EU member state? Therefore, it is up to the Commission to reaffirm the importance of the EU’s fundamental values by following-up the decision taken on 13 January.
Poland has argued, with the support of one of the country’s journalists’ organisations, that the new law is a temporary measure designed to “clean up” and update existing media laws, ironically to bring them into line with European standards. They say the amendments will be voted on later and that the situation could improve within a few months. However, this cannot in any way justify what the Polish government has undertaken.
In such a situation, it is extremely important to stick to the principles. This is why we urge all international organisations and institutions, as well as national organisations and institutions in Poland, to do the same.
This is an extended version of an article that first appeared on the EFJ website.