Almost one person in two in the world does not have access to freely reported news and information. As Europeans, we can count ourselves lucky that we enjoy "this freedom that allows us to verify respect for all the other freedoms."
In the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), our continent is by far the one where freedom of the press is the most widely observed. But let us not turn a blind eye on the fact that, in recent years, a dam has burst and this cornerstone of our democracy has been seriously damaged.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul made us aware of the sometimes horrifying violence inflicted by some countries on journalists.
However, Europe is not immune. In Malta, Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered because of her investigations into a money laundering scam. In Slovakia, Jan Kuciak was killed because he was investigating a large-scale tax evasion scheme. These murders are among the most serious attacks on press freedom. They are also the symptom of a deep-rooted problem.
Journalism in Europe has been weakened by relentless, and often hyped-up, anti-media rhetoric by some political leaders, either in power or hoping to get there. Coverage of the yellow vest protests in France has provoked a profound dislike of journalists, sometimes going as far as rape threats directed at reporters.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban uses similar distrust to his advantage when he recites the "fake news" argument to justify his refusal to speak to media outlets that do not support his own party.
We cannot resign ourselves to this situation. Specific problems have been identified on which Europe can take strong action. Legal harassment, for example. Some people abuse the law to launch multiple civil or criminal proceedings, applying such pressure on journalists that they manage to silence them. This problem can be solved in 2019 if the European elections drive up some political will to strengthen freedom of the press throughout the continent.
EU commissioner needed
Like all public policies, the protection of freedom, independence and diversity of journalism must be embodied. We are campaigning for the next European Commission to appoint a commissioner with a clear mandate to take on this challenge. From Bucharest to Madrid, from Nicosia to Stockholm, from Dublin to Vienna, civil society needs a high-level representative to whom it can turn whenever this essential freedom is violated.
He or she would maintain a robust and continuous dialogue with member states, carrying concerns about the right to reliable news and information beyond our borders and initiating necessary EU legislative reforms.
We will be able to judge the extent of the commissioner's ambition by the way in which he or she uses — or does not use — the political weapons available for the battle. There are many ways of breaking away from the well-trodden paths. For example, RSF has proposed using competition policy, an important lever for the Commission.
It is time to overcome conflicts of interest caused by corporate mergers, giving businesspeople an opportunity to divert news media from their proper function to serve a private agenda or those of their friends in government.
We call on all candidates running for the European Parliament in Strasbourg to ensure the Commission leadership acquires such political will. We need MEPs to bring the legal framework up to date. Another example: The liability regime of online platforms for their content management policies is established in a 20-year-old directive. It is time to update and uphold this framework laid out by the e-commerce directive to keep up with new technological challenges to roll out a Europewide regulation which would enact rules that favor the freedom and reliability of news and information.
Press freedom must be defended
Freedom of the press is at the heart of the democratic aspirations that brought the members of the European Union together. By defending it, Europe is protecting its political model, both internally and against external threats. It must equip itself with the real means of defending its values.
Europe can also provide new democratic guarantees in the areas of communication and information, which now rely too much on online platforms' policies. This is the hope of the European heads of state and government, who supported, with other international leaders, the International Initiative for Information and Democracy in November 2018 based on RSF's Commission on Information and Democracy.
To the same end, Europe can also enact real financial and administrative powers of sanctions to punish international predators of press freedom as the last session of the European Parliament asked.
During this campaign, some speak up for a "Europe power;" some stand up for a "Europe protector." The time has come to breathe new life into a strong political union and make freedom of the press a core value of the EU, putting it at the heart of the bloc's treaties and institutions and at the forefront of today's campaigns.
Christophe Deloire is secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders