The past two weeks have been discouraging for Europe’s journalists. On April 9, George Karaivaz, a Greek reporter and blogger, was shot dead outside his home. While there is as yet no indication his death was linked to his reporting, it was redolent of the killings of Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 and Jan Kuciak in 2018. Both investigative journalists seem to have been targeted for digging into financial impropriety by powerful people in their native Malta and Slovakia.
In the following week, a number of other events have underscored the precarious situation for independent journalism is many EU countries. In Hungary, regulators handed an FM frequency previously taken away from the independent Klubradio to a rival before the radio station’s legal challenge had been exhausted.
In Poland, the latest extension of potential government influence over the media — a state-controlled company’s takeover of a regional newspaper group — has been temporarily suspended by a court at the behest of ombudsman Adam Bodnar. Bodnar himself, however, has been ordered to step down by the constitutional court packed with government loyalists. (His term has expired but the government and opposition have not agreed his replacement, as required.)
And in the Czech Republic, a slate of new governors for the public broadcasting company has been decried by the opposition, supported by international media organisations, as beholden to the ruling parties. If their fears were borne out, it would pave the way for a government apologist similar to what Poland’s public broadcaster and much of the Hungarian media have become.
Idiosyncratic as they may be, these observations illustrate a sinister trend: that independent journalism is becoming harder and more dangerous to practise in parts of Europe. According to Reporters Without Borders, the deterioration of media freedom in some of its member states means the EU “has largely lost its leadership capacity”. While such problems may be worse elsewhere in the world, a region wanting to “promote its way of life” must secure the conditions for an independent, critical fourth estate at home.
Much of what autocrats and oligarchs fear about an independent press is its ability to shine a light on their self-dealing in managing the economy and public budgets. That means the fight for an independent and effective judiciary, and that for media freedom, go hand in hand. The new rule of law conditions on EU budget funds is a good step — if not far enough — in the right direction. More investigative and prosecutorial resources to tackle anti-corruption would amplify the work of good journalists and let them know someone had their back.
The ability of journalists under pressure at home to work from other countries should also be improved, in the way Warsaw functions as a base for Belarusian journalism. The EU should increase its funding of independent cross-border journalism, as well as for local-language services of international media houses. Radio Free Europe — funded by the US Congress — should not be the only game in town for a Hungarian-language press free from pressure.
Media freedoms are not a luxury; without them democracy and good policymaking wither. Mere expressions of concern from the EU and the rest of Europe are welcome, but too little and too late. Against those who would undermine public scrutiny, the best defence is a good offence.