Let me first thank everyone who has been involved in the organisation of this event and for the great honour to be able to host an event with such a high calibre of speakers.
Unfortunately, we hear news about journalists bill ill-treated or killed on a daily basis – Today, for example, we have heard of Pakistani media workers killed by the Taleban. But we do not even have to go beyond Europe to hear the devastating news. I will speak about three different cases: an EU Member State (Finland), which is one of the champions of media freedom in the world, an EU applicant state, Turkey, and a non-EU/non-neighbourhood state, Bahrain. These are just a few examples, and many others would deserve to be raised.
Press and media freedom in Finland: what are we doing right?
Year after year now, Finland is heading the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, granting the country the title of the country that respects media freedom most in the whole world. Article 12 of our constitution guaranteed the freedom of expression and access to information. Greatly influenced by the Finnish enlightenment thinker and politician Anders Chydenius, the world’s first Freedom of Information Act entered into force in 1766 in Finland, which was then under the occupation of Sweden,. The law abolished political censorship and gave the public access to government documents.
Despite this revolutionary act, Finland faced some serious challenges in the field of freedom of expression after its independence from Russia in 1917. During the period of ”finlandisation” during the Cold War, the Finnish government attempted a balancing act between the two power blocks, and media freedom was often restricted. Today, however, journalists, media outlets and online operators are allowed to operate freely, with only some exceptions on defamation and child pornography. The government actively pursues incidents of defamation of religion or ethnicity, but efamation suits are extremely rare.
Finland has often been called a dreamland for newspapers, as there are great traditions like the early morning distribution system of quality newspapers. Finland ranks third in the world for newspaper circulation per capita. Altogether, the small country of 5.3 million people published around 200 newspapers, most of them concentrated with large media conglomerates. Broadcasting used to be dominated by the public broadcaster Yleisradio and the commercial MTV, but two new broadcasters have emerged alongside them. There are 67 commercial radio stations.
In Finland, the Internet is open and unrestricted. As the first country in the world, Finland announced access to Internet to be a human right, i.e. it became a legal right for every Finn to have a 1MB broadband Internet connection. Nevertheless, web publications must name a responsible editor-in-chief and has the obligation to archive published materials for 21 days. Finnish law also guarantees every citizen the right of reply, the correction of false published information – which also includes Internet publications.
All this sounds rosy, but does not mean there are no problems concerning media freedom in Finland. For instance, the interpretation of the new Freedom of Expression in Mass Media Act has raised some controversy, and there have been several recent court cases and verdicts concerning the media, which have been considered questionable. The problems are, however, minor compared to even some EU countries. But let me now speak of a special interest of mine, an EU applicant country, Turkey.
The case of Turkey
Turkey is a country that I have been interested in for years. I have been critical and encouraging of developments in Turkey at the same time, and I have had a special interest in the issue of ”defaming Turkishness” or the Turkish nation.
If not before, problems of media freedom in Turkey came to the limelight of global media channels during last summer’s Gezi protests. A popular anecdote is that the main television broadcasters in the country did not show the mass protests and the police violence on the streets, but broadcast a penguin documentary instead. Up to 70-80 journalists were fired or forced to take leave during the unrest, and at least 64 journalists were imprisoned during the first weeks of the protests according to the main opposition party. Also foreign media outlets were publically attacked by the government.
The alarming situation has only worsened after the protests, and we have witnessed heated anti-press rhetoric, the firing of leading journalists, threats to restrict online speech, and a series of physical and legal assaults. Turkey is, at the moment, the world’s biggest prison for journalists, and imprisoned more journalists this year than China and Iran, for example. The country imprisoned 49 journalists altogether. Turkey has fallen six places to be the 154th in the World Press Freedom Index. According to the most recent annual Freedom House report, Turkey is declining in the field of freedom and rights, and is mainly due to an increase in the political pressure exerted by the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP. Turkey, an EU applicant, is ranked as ”partly free” with a rating of 3.5 out of 7. This places Turkey in the same category as, just to give a few examples, Libya, Pakistan, Mexico Indonesia – and another topic of today, i.e. Ukraine. And this is a country that aspires to be a regional role model.
The media, formerly seen as the guardian of Kemalism, i.e. secularism in the governmental sphere in Turkey, orchestrated a concerted campaign against Prime Minister Erdoğan in 2003, and ever since he has been careful to eliminate his opponents in the field. The argument of the government is that most of these imprisoned journalists have been detained for ”serious crimes” such as membership in a terrorist group not related to the practice of journalism. In a report by Amnesty International, it was called that Turkey repeal Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code on the denigration of ”Turkishness, Article 318 on the alienation of the public from military service as well as the revision of the Turkish Anti-Terror Law. Based on accusations for terrorism or extremism, several Turkish journalists have gotten life sentences. The OSCE Media Freedom Representative has said that the fight against terrorism has been misused to silence provocative or opposing voices in society, and that the severity of the sentences is alarming. Together with the Criminal Code, the Anti-Terror Law allows for the arrest, detention and sentencing of journalists on terrorism charges for doing their work.
Also the corruption scandal, which has raged in Turkey since December, involves the media greatly, and not just as an independent observer of the scandal. The main investigative journalists of the corruption scandal were accused of treason. The fact that Turkey has a poor record on media freedom is not aided by the fact that the number of conglomerates owning media outlets not willing to criticise the government is vast. The government has thus not just silenced individual journalists, but it also co-opts media outlets through public tender offerings and business deals. This has led to a great deal of self-censorship, too, which raises the question of the responsibility on the part of the media, too. The Prime Minister’s argument has become that the critical media are part of a ”conspiracy involving foreign powers”. This raises the question of media ethics too, not just the responsibilities of the governments.
Finally, the proposed amendments to the Turkish Internet law now under consideration in the Parliament puts freedom of speech at further risk, and Turkey is already a country that blocks several Internet sites.One wouldn’t think this could still happen in the 21st century. And still, we are rewarding Turkey with continued EU membership talks and possible visa liberalisation as announced in November-December last year. In the case of Turkey, we have the membership carrot, but it doesn’t seem like we are using it very much. Media freedom should have been a subject of discussion during Erdoğan’s visit to the European Parliament last week.
Our latest reports and resolutions of the European Parliament have of course criticised Turkey for its breaches of the freedom of expression, but it is up to the Member States and the Commission to decide on the talks. Which brings me to the question of what we MEPs can do about the issue in non-EU countries, if it is quite a challenge even in applicant states.
What can politicians do in the case of non-EU countries, not even countries in the direct neighbourhood: the case of Bahrain
Yesterday, my office had a meeting with a civil society organisation concerned about Bahrain’s human rights record. Bahrain ranks even below Turkey, and many others as 165th in the world for press freedom according to Reporters Without Borders. This means that the country has fallen 66 places over the last four years. In the Freedom House ”Freedom of the Press” report Bahrain has the score of 86/100, which places it among the bottom ten countries in the world. Altogether, 44 journalists and 22 media outlets have had their travel restricted to Bahrain since February 2011.
Moreover, journalists, bloggers and other social media users are intimidated, arrested, harassed, and tortured on a regular basis. The media outlets are state-controlled, and if not, they practice nevertheless great self-censorship. This has opened a space for most reporting being done by amateurs, social media. Nevertheless, a single tweet can cause five years of imprisonment or a fine of up to 10,000 euro.
So what instruments do we have at our use in our foreign policy? The EU has a Digital Freedom Strategy for its foreign policy, a Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, we have installed an EU Special Representative for Human Rights, High Representative Ashton has spoken on behalf of the EU on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, and the EU has also Joint Communication on Human Rights and Democracy at the Heart of EU Action. We can also fund programmes through the external financing instrument for the promotion of democracy and human rights worldwide, i.e. the EIDHR.
An important instrument the European Parliament has at its use is more of a rewarding kind: i.e. the Sakharov Prize. Moreover, the Parliament gives resolutions on the Freedom of Press and Media in the World. Yesterday’s meeting on Bahrain brought a good toolbox to my attention – and it is very important that interest groups give us MEPs suggestions when they are in touch with us.
I was asked for help to inform the government of Finland about the need to have a Human Rights Council Resolution on Bahrain, sending a letter to High Representative Catherine Ashton with a number of MEP colleagues, to make statements on the upcoming Gulf Cooperation Council meeting and the lack of a human rights agenda thereof, as well as to propose a so-called ”human rights urgency” in my political group. I gladly take up such initiatives, and I strongly encourage NGOs to be in touch with my office and other MEPs for such initiatives, as well as events like these. Thus, I am glad to present the other speakers of this event.
Presentation of the speakers:
Ala Abu Dakka: is currently the programme manager of the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), Ala’s job entails designing, planning and implementing advocacy strategy and campaigns for GNRD, lobbying European institutions, other member states and wider stakeholders to promote GNRD interests. Prior to joining GNRD, Ala worked at the International Council for Human Rights, where he was involved in the drafting of an urgency resolution of the European Parliament with Korhola’s office. Moreover, Ala had his first publication Human Rights in Flames in 2012. He also worked under the UNDP Rule of Law Programme in the office of the Palestinian Minister of Justice, and the USAID funded organisation, Carter Center.
Ricardo Gutiérrez: is the General secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, he worked at the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir for 23 years. As a board member of the Belgian journalists’ union (AJP-AGJPB) and a delegate of the Belgian general trade union (SETCa-FGTB), Gutiérrez has been a long-time campaigner for union rights.
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News, English service; he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society.
James Wilson is the founding Director of the EU Ukraine business Council and is the Director of Fipra Ukraine, a leading communications consultancy in Ukraine. He has 8 years of working in Ukraine, and represents a number of leading companies from Ukraine with business interests in banking, iron, steel, agriculture, hotels, tourism, telecoms and other sectors. the Council has offices in Donetsk, Kyiv and Crimea in addition to its headquarters in Brussels.