The erosion of European journalism

Caroline Lees describes the work of the European Journalism Observatory, and what it is has observed.

Since it was established in 2004, the European Journalism Observatory (EJO), a not-for-profit organisation and network of 14 language platforms set up to share media research across borders, to foster press freedom and media accountability, has witnessed a fundamental change in the challenges facing independent journalism.

Thirteen years ago media freedom was taken for granted in Europe’s liberal democracies. The only concern in 2004, according to Stephan Russ-Mohl, EJO founder and Professor of Journalism and Media Management at the Università della Svizzera italiana, was the then Italian prime minister and powerful media owner, Silvio Berlusconi.

Few could have anticipated how Europe’s political and media landscape would change. Press freedom in all but two European Union member states declined between 2013 and 2016, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international non-governmental organisation which measures global and regional trends in media freedom. In the same period, Germany and the United Kingdom each lost four points on the RSF’s press freedom index, which is composed of key indicators such as the rule of law, self-censorship and media independence. Hungary dropped nine places in the index rankings during the same period whilst Poland and Italy both dropped 20 places. This is, the RSF argues, the “progressive erosion of the European model”.

The deterioration is blamed on a number of factors, including the rise of extremist political parties and a growing intolerance of dissent. RSF also cited an increase in deliberate misinformation, or propaganda, spread via social media networks. This has undermined traditional media and sometimes led to the targeting of individual journalists.

“Today it is increasingly easy for powers to appeal directly to the public through new technologies, and so there is a greater degree of violence against those who represent independent information,” Christophe Deloire, RSF secretary general, said when the report was released in 2016. “We are entering a new era of propaganda where new technologies allow the low-cost dissemination of their own communication…. On the other side, journalists are the ones who get in the way.”

Growing hostility towards the press is evident from the number of attacks against journalists reported across Europe in the past 12 months. In Germany, reporters have been banned from covering far-right party conferences amid allegations they are lying, repopularising the term “Lügenpresse”.  Reporters in Italy and Germany have been spat at and punched while covering populist rallies.

There have also been official moves to restrict or intimidate journalists. Poland’s government is attempting to limit media access to parliament and in Romania the names of journalists who had used social media to publicise recent demonstrations were read out at a government press conference. Under proposed United Kingdom legislation, journalists who obtain leaks from official sources could face imprisonment as ‘spies’.

The growing power of private technology companies, who own the most popular social networking platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter is another concern. Some have called for these companies to ban propaganda, fake news and illegal hate speech on their sites. Others claim this amounts to censorship by unaccountable corporations. Yet across Europe, a recent voluntary code of conduct, between private technology companies and the European Commission, has been agreed, to censor “illegal hate speech” on social networking sites.

Meanwhile the new US president has regularly turned to Twitter to circumvent the media, repeatedly telling his 28 million followers that journalists are liars, who write “fake news”.

There is little doubt many of the attacks against journalism are intended to undermine the credibility of independent media and stifle informed public debate, both online and off. Can journalism defend its reputation?

Academics, free speech campaigners and organisations that promote journalism, such as the EJO, can help. By ensuring there is ongoing open and transparent conversation around media practices, research and politics. Such a conversation can help develop common ground across borders which could, eventually, lead to the development of European, or global, professional and free speech standards.

The EJO is in a unique position to support journalism in Europe. Its 14 language platforms are based in universities and research institutes in Europe’s liberal states, its emerging democracies and authoritarian regimes: Albania, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia (based in Riga, Latvia), Serbia, Ukraine, and in the UK at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. There is an Arabic Journalism Observatory, in Tunisia, publishing in Arabic and in French. The network also has partners at the University of Oregon, in the United States, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary.

Each site generates its own content, usually contributed by local academics, researchers or journalists. The aim is to make research accessible beyond academia. Stories are written for a wider audience, including working reporters and anyone with an interest in media and media business. Articles are then translated across the network in up to 14 languages and through the site and social media, can develop an online debate.

Recent articles include one from Romania about a team of four sports journalists whose work has exposed many examples of government corruption, and caused dozens of public figures to resign. It reached international audiences when it was widely translated across the network. Another story charted the role of independent journalism in Romania’s recent anti-corruption demonstrations.

Stories of media oligarchs in Bulgaria, protests against proposed press laws in Poland, and photojournalism in Czech Republic were also translated and shared recently, along with research on the difficulties of remaining impartial as a local journalist reporting the war in Ukraine, and how newspapers deal with compassion fatigue everywhere.

Articles on data journalism education in Italy, new innovations and trends from the UK, best-practice in Germany, as well as opinion pieces from top media commentators, including for example Alice Antheaume, deputy dean at Sciences Po Journalism School and Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School are translated and shared on sites across the network.

In 2016, a cross-border collaboration, across eleven EJO platforms, looked at how Europe’s media covered Brexit in the weeks after the vote, another collaborative research project examined the migration crisis coverage. The most recent examined European media’s expectations for America’s new president, Donald Trump. Most articles are based on original research, such as a project in Romania entitled “Who owns the internet?” and another from the Russian EJO site looking at how pro-Kremlin coverage in Latvia’s Russian media is often the result of untrained, under-resourced and unmotivated journalists than deliberate policy.

The EJO does not expect to change government policy, but hopes to encourage dialogue and an exchange of ideas across cultures. Stephan Russ-Mohl explained the EJO’s mission: “Media experts and media researchers still know very little about the journalism cultures and media systems in other European countries. There are very few ways to learn about practices in other countries or to create a common European standard of professionalism.”

But can such an approach make a difference?

Andrejs Berdnikovs, editor of EJO Russia, which is based in Riga, Latvia, has stressed the importance of outside scrutiny of media policy. “The situation in the field of media freedom in Russia and former Soviet states differs substantially from that in most European countries. It cannot be properly understood outside the context of the current information warfare and disinformation efforts carried out by the Kremlin. EJO Russia is trying to look at the current challenges to freedom of speech and freedom of the press in these specific circumstances of hybrid threats and information warfare.”

Another EJO editor, Adam Szynol, of the Polish EJO, and assistant professor at the Institute of Journalism and Social Communication, Wroclaw University, said that in Poland, where in 2017, public service broadcasters have been accused of behaving like the propaganda arm of the current ruling party, an outside organisation playing a “watchdog” role, is important.

But he said organisations such as the EJO were unlikely to have an immediate impact. “Polish political elites will not listen to any outsider’s point of view, until one million people are protesting on the streets.”

“While the EJO might not significantly influence public opinion, its ambition is to reach academics, media researchers, journalists and individuals, and so have a soft impact on educators, newsmakers and other opinion leaders,” Syznol said. “By reaching key thinkers and practitioners, the EJO, and similar organisations might make a difference in the long run.”

When the EJO was founded, its aim was to be a ‘window to the west’ to show emerging democracies best practice examples from media in liberal democracies. While this work has continued, the picture from western Europe has become less optimistic. Stories about proposed UK government press regulation, attacks on the press by the new US administration and on journalists in Germany and Italy, are presenting a gloomier picture of the state of the media than they did in 2004.

As a result, the EJO is having to gradually change its mission, as Stephan Russ-Mohl says, “Now we have to fight again for a free press in the west”.

Caroline Lees is the editor of the European Journalism Observatorys English language site.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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