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European Journalists Sound the Alarm on Press Freedom

Lack of press freedom is most often linked with countries like China, Arab dictatorships or African states. But in Europe the situation is also problematic, a study has shown.

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What is the situation of press freedom in Europe?

"Goodbye Media Freedom?" is the title of a recent report published by the European Journalists Association. Members of the organization researched the state of press freedom in 15 European countries for one year. Their results show that politics and the business world tamper with editorial procedures, that journalists are intimidated and threatened with prison sentences, that pubic service broadcasting is in crisis all over Europe and that the independence of the media suffers from advertising pressures and media concentration.

Anti-terror legislation also endangers press freedom, said Fabrice Pozzoli-Montenay, General-Secretary of the European Journalists Association, adding that governments can now tamper with journalists' work, listen in on their phone calls, read their emails or track their Internet use.

"The legislation is being used to control information in areas that sometimes have nothing to do with fighting terrorism," said Pozzoli-Montenay. "Thanks to this anti-terror legislation governments can now get to informants."

East European states sometimes more transparent

The Council of Europe is working on a convention concerning the access to information. Also included is the publishing of secret documents that are in the public interest. France is opposing such a move whereas Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia, and Macedonia support it.

Entscheidung über Veröffentlichung von BND-Spitzelbericht

Who is making the editorial decisions in European newsrooms?

"In some cases eastern Europe goes further than western Europe," said Helen Darbishire from the organization Access Info in Madrid.

In Romania, for example, Internet sites exist where the assets of people holding public office are published, Darbishire added.

"This way, you can see if someone getting rich during their time in office," she said. "In western European countries like France or Spain there is no such obligation to publish something like this."

France sharply criticized

France is considered a special case. Not only does a "culture of secrets" prevail, but according to Darbishire, the close relationships between journalists and politicians, who often went to the same elite schools or live in the same Parisian neighborhoods, raise questions.

"France is the only country in the world where industrial corporations own opinion-making media outlets and thus can have a direct influence on information," said Pozzoli-Montenay. "This is not very good for press freedom."

According to the report, French journalists often complain that it is difficult to obtain information about certain companies -- especially in the pharmaceutical, construction and insurance industries.

"Bosses are more likely to bend to the demands of a shareholder than support their journalists," said Pozzoli-Montenay. "We consider that extremely dangerous."

False reports lead to scandals

Journalisten vor dem Reichstag

Press freedom has also been raised as an issue in Germany

Trust in the French media is also suffering because of false reporting. One example is the text message that President Nicolas Sarkozy allegedly sent to his ex-wife before his new marriage stating, "If you come back, I'll annul."

The message was fabricated. Then in the beginning of May, the death of a well-known TV host was reported. The erroneous news was taken from the Internet without verification.

Stephane Siohan from the Paris-based Journalism school CFPJ sees the situation critically, "We are working on projects that are trying to encourage journalists to look behind the mirror."

Siohan added that the aim is that reporters carry out their profession with the highest degree of accuracy and honesty with regards to sources and the verification of information.

Problems in Germany as well

Germany fares rather well in the European comparison but challenges to press freedom also exist according to Darbishire.

"In Germany, journalists were threatened with lawsuits and possibly even prison sentences because they published information about secret CIA flights," she said.

That journalists can be threatened with a prison sentence because they uncover that their government allows flights that violate human rights would be expected from a communist or totalitarian dictatorship but "not from a modern European democracy," said Darbishire.

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