Media freedom requires that the state must stay out of the ring
By William Horsley, Media Freedom Representative of the Association of European Journalists and former BBC correspondent
Once, it seemed that things could only get better. But then somehow they got worse again. That is my shorthand summary of the path of media freedom in the past 15 years.
In 1989 a lone Chinese man blocked the path of a column of tanks near Tien An Men square. It was a telling gesture, coming after the mass sit-in protests had been violently crushed. A new generation showed it wanted an end to the lies of an all-powerful one-party state. Half a world away a hopeful generation in Europe, too, risked everything to end a world of lies orchestrated by communist party propaganda machines. From Warsaw to Leipzig and eventually Moscow the dominoes fell. They were the first televised revolutions against censorship and oppression.
It has taken another generation to excavate the truth about that modern dark age in Europe, and the truth is still half-hidden. Yet in the 1990s media freedom did enjoy a sort of golden age. A forest of new media titles and TV channels sprang up. Foreign investment poured in and a hundred flowers bloomed, creating diversity of opinion and often the makings of a real citizens’ democracy.
Among the first signs of a reverse was the re-capture of the main Russian TV channels into the hands of the Kremlin and its allies. It was a prelude to a new ‘vertical’ of state power which had little time for dissent or for individual rights if they stood in the way of the mighty state. In Ukraine and Georgia the Orange and Rose revolutions were a late flowering of popular demands for free elections and an end to systemic corruption protected by a skein of lies. Before long, though, both those movements were tarnished or went into reverse.
Enter then the age of the oligarchs as media moguls, and the fusion of political and media power. The age of kompromat and paid-for articles and widespread self-censorship. And the start of a new climate of intimidation, physical violence and judicial harassment, directed at inquiring or critical journalists in many parts of the former Soviet Union, south-eastern Europe and elsewhere. The agents were both state officials and organised crime gangs.
Today the collapse in the market value of journalism in the Internet age is weakening ‘legacy media’. But the most deadly threats to media freedom all over Europe are still governments’ misuse of anti-terrorism laws to protect those in power; failures to ensure the independence of media regulators; casual police violence, politicised justice systems and blanket surveillance of communications which deters investigative journalism.
The future of media freedom depends partly on the journalists and media themselves, who must re-learn the value of their work and up their game. But above all the governments of OSCE participating states must show the courage to stand up again for free expression and their own citizens’ right to know. They must unlearn the political expediency which has been allowed to become the norm in Europe. And recover the spirit of 1989.