On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, media watchdog Reporters without Borders says European countries should be doing more to respect press freedom, not least by eliminating prison sentences for media offenses.
There's still much room for improving press freedom
In its annual report, the group slammed an increase in "formal questioning of journalists, searches of media premises and seizures of documents" in Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy. It said France had taken "a dangerous step backwards" by creating new press offenses punishable by prison sentences.
The organization also expressed concern about "extra powers of requisition" granted in 2004 to police, state prosecutors and examining magistrates, which do not require a judge to be present during searches of journalists' homes.
Top marks for Scandinavian reporters
The report described the 'Perben law', named after French Justice Minister Dominique Perben, "a major threat to the privacy of sources and to independent and investigative journalists who keep a lot of material in their homes".
On a more upbeat note, the Paris-based watchdog had high praise for Scandinavia, which it described as a region in which press freedom is "sacrosanct" and "strongly protected and defended by law".
Italy is a "special case"
In Italy, the group singled out the conflict between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's political and personal financial interests as a "special case" on the continent, but also attacked the Italian courts for hindering press freedom.
Berlusconi's (photo) position as both head of government and a media empire that includes three of Italy's four private TV networks "continues to threaten the media's independence," the report said.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi
But it saved its sharpest rebukes for the country's judiciary, hitting out at ongoing prison sentences for media offences and what it said were efforts by the Italian courts to strip the right not to reveal journalistic sources. Reporters without Borders said the restrictive libel laws in France and Italy led journalists to engage in self-censorship.
The report said that Turkey, which is due to begin European Union membership talks in October, has made improvements to its media laws in line with EU demands, but added that arbitrary imprisonments still force journalists to practise self-censorship.
A need for safe havens
Reporters without Borders praised the Balkan states for making improvements to press freedoms, although one journalist was killed in Serbia-Montenegro last year. A total of 53 reporters lost their lives and 100 more were imprisoned in 2004, statistics which prove the need for safe havens for persecuted writers.
One such project is "Writers in Exile", which is run by the PEN centre in Germany. Michael Klaus, who oversees the project says it is crucial for writers who have been imprisoned in their home countries, to be able to leave once they are released. "We know that writers who have been imprisoned once face the threat of being arrested again soon their release," he said.
PEN: Poets, Essayists, Novelists, was founded in England in the 20s
"Writers in Exile", which is funded by the German government, offers six persecuted writers the chance of a safe haven in one of five cities around the country. They can stay as long as they feel the need to, which for some is just six months, but for the majority turns into a period of several years.
It is not simply a question of providing writers with a peaceful environment from which to pen their thoughts, but a matter of all-round support. "Many writers have been through traumatic experiences such as torture or mock executions," Klaus said. "For the first six months it's a matter of re-equipping them with an ability to survive."
Besides PEN, Amnesty International, the Hamburg Foundation for the Politically Persecuted and the Heinrich-Böll Foundation also support hounded writers.