Why do journalists use square brackets
The 'enemy journalist' has become an ideological bracket
In the Reporters Without Borders statistics, Europe comes off quite well overall in terms of freedom of the press and the media. Is that your opinion too?
Europe is doing well, and rightly too. The front runners in terms of freedom of the press can be found in Europe. These are Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, for example. But Europe is only doing so well because it looks better here than on other continents. But that doesn't mean that everything is going well in Europe. Nor does it mean that there is no questionable development. Reporters Without Borders also noted that the situation in Europe has worsened year after year.
Can you fix this with concrete examples?
There are a number of countries where press freedom has deteriorated in recent years, and there is one country that worries us particularly much - Hungary. A small country, actually, but Viktor Orbán is a negative role model for anyone riding the wave of authoritarianism. For example, the Polish government is trying to imitate the Orbán model. The Hungarian head of state has 80 percent control of the country's media. That shows how far you can go within the EU without being seriously sanctioned.
What is this development based on? Why this tightening in recent years?
In Eastern Europe in particular, there was a turning point in the decade towards nationalism and towards right-wing populism. These movements evoke an image of the enemy, and this image of the enemy is called a journalist. When these movements are in government, they begin to dismantle democracy. The free press is part of it because the press is also one of the checks and balances. The first victims on the way are always the public service media. This can also be clearly observed. For example, we are currently seeing the transformation process in the Czech Republic, where the government is trying to subdue public service broadcasting and transform it into a PR tool.
How does it work in practice? You say 80 percent of the media in Hungary is under state control. Surely it won't be the case that the Orbán government goes and says, well, now I'll appoint an editor-in-chief, who will then enforce the state line.
Yes, yes. That also runs through the personnel selection. The influence on the appointment of line-loyal staff is immense, especially when it comes to filling influential positions in the public sector. Governments like those in Hungary and Poland intervene directly. In Hungary, oligarchs close to the government bought media and then fed this media into a so-called Central European Press and Media Foundation, or Kesma for short. And this foundation is close to the government and fills important posts with supporters of Viktor Orbán. There are also direct agreements and instructions from the government about what is to be reported and what is not. This is empirically understandable for anyone who takes a closer look at how individual messages are spread about Orbán. You can see that they are then presented hundreds of times in a similar form in the most varied of daily newspapers, radio and television programs. This has to do with the fact that these media all actually operate under the same roof and are under the control of the government.
In the European Union, violations of the rule of law that take place both in Hungary and in other Visegrad countries are more or less tacitly tolerated. Can you also see this effect in the restriction of freedom of the press and the media?
Definitely. Of course, Hungary should never have gone as far as it has already gone. Fortunately, in Věra Jourová, we now have a very strong EU Commissioner who is passionate about freedom of the press and the media. And now we'll see how far that goes. In terms of the distribution of competencies, it is still the case that the EU cannot intervene in national media policy simply because it is not authorized to do so. But of course there are other means. And these other means are now being tried out, we have a test case in front of us, so to speak. As is well known, there is the recovery instrument, »NextGenerationEU«, which is making 750 billion euros available to get the industry back on its feet after Corona. And that also includes the media industry. The governments in the EU are now submitting their plans and the Commission is examining them. The European Parliament will also see these plans. Of course, it will appear that some governments want to feed their own propaganda machines with the money that is actually intended for independent media. We will then be able to understand what protests this triggers on the European side and whether there is a possibility of restricting this procedure or completely preventing it. The announcements have been made, both by the Commission and the European Parliament, that they will do just that. And I hope that will be kept.
In practice, would that mean that certain funds would be withheld or reclaimed if there were blatant violations of the freedom of the press?
Yes, exactly that. There is talk of conditionality in the European area. This means that subsidies are linked to the observance of European values. I think that's absolutely right. You can only join one club and be a member of it if you agree to the house rules. And if you violate the house rules, you are thrown out. Of course, this must also apply to the EU. I believe that this conditionality is actually a sharp sword and that you can proceed with it.
Now everyone is looking closely at the Eastern European member states of the EU. On the other hand, there are also restrictions even in the large core states, such as France, if they are also "sold" differently, for example as a security law.
Of course, we have a special situation due to the pandemic. And the pandemic has meant that in many countries there are restrictions on the freedom of the press and also on access to information. This is particularly blatant in some states that have deliberately used the pandemic to further dismantle civil liberties. But of course that is also a phenomenon that we see in all other countries. You just mentioned the situation in France. The confrontation between journalists and the police is particularly dramatic in France. There it should be forbidden that the media can publish photos of police operations. Of course, that doesn't work at all. In 2019 we presented the instrument of the Press Freedom Police Codex. That was a first foray, especially with a view to France, because we can see that there, freedom of the press is also being damaged during demonstrations and clashes with the police.
You gave the keyword Corona. Verbal attacks on journalists have been increasing for years. In the pandemic, physical attacks, equipment destruction and the like have evidently increased. Is that just my impression?
We can fully understand this empirically. We have been doing the study »Feindbild Journalist« every year since 2015. And for the past year 2020 we have established a record number of attacks on journalists in Germany. That was a total of 69 physical attacks. And 71 percent of those took place in what we call pandemic-related gatherings. In plain language: These were mostly demonstrations by lateral thinkers. What we are now seeing is that this image of the enemy journalist, which actually became known from the Pegida movement, has actually spread to other milieus and groups, i.e. it forms an ideological bracket outside of the right-wing and right-wing populist context. That of course makes it even more dangerous than before.
Is that a trend only in Germany?
This also applies to other countries. In other countries there is the additional problem that this image of the enemy is fueled by the political class. So when you read the latest statements by the Slovenian Prime Minister to individual journalists whom he insults and threatens on social media, then, to be honest, I feel dizzy when I think about the fact that Slovenia will now take over the Council Presidency in the second half of 2021.
These are the visible effects of the line »enemy image journalist«. Some media freedom restrictions work more subtle. In Germany, for example, it is problematic that some large media are apparently supplied with better and more information, especially from government circles and authorities.
I can't say much about that, we haven't investigated that. But from my point of view as a political journalist, I can contribute something, as I worked in this job myself. It is obvious that the government in Germany defines communication tasks for itself and then looks at which media can best implement these communication tasks. And this implementation is not based on the most even and fair distribution of access and information, but that is quite selective. One might wonder why, for example, the Chancellor always allows Anne Will to interview her and not someone else. That is why it is all the more important that we have something like the federal press conference, which is run by journalists and which invites politicians. Both the federal press conference and the state press conferences are open to everyone. And there a kind of basic supply of information, including political information, is ensured.
What if journalists have to defend themselves against the authorities? How can that work?
So the first point is: journalists have to learn to talk about themselves. They don't like to do that, but actually prefer to talk about their topics. That goes without saying, it's their job. But to talk about their work itself, about their own production conditions, about the limitations of their research - that has now become necessary. Also to mobilize the public when it comes to violating the freedom of the press. We as the ECPMF operate the platform www.mappingmediafreedom.org There is also a form where you can enter violations of media freedom, for example, and we will then check it. This is a means of drawing attention to the situation. What else can you do? I believe that the media companies also have a very strong duty to train their workforce, for example against online hate speech, which unfortunately often affects women. These can be traumatizing experiences. Media companies have to train their employees how to use it. And media companies also have to take care of the protection of journalists, not just permanent employees, but also free ones. This is very important to me because most of the time these simply fall through the cracks.
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