ANN CAHILL: Rights and civil liberty freedoms decrease again

FOR the fourth year in a row, freedom in terms of political rights and civil liberties have decreased in the world, according to the international organisation, Freedom House.

This, the organisation says, is the longest continuous period of decline for global freedom in the almost 40 year history of its report.

According to the Washington-based body, just 46% of the world’s 194 countries, with about the same percentage of the global population, are receiving information deemed to be independent about what is happening in their country and what is being done on their behalf.

That leaves a whole lot of people and countries that are hearing just one side of the story.

But there are growing concerns that the urge by governments to control what people are being told is manifesting itself not just in Europe, but within the European Union.

A petition is being drawn up by members of the European Parliament to object to laws being written in three EU countries: Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.

There have been concerns about several of the Balkan countries for some time, with pressure on journalists in candidate and would be candidate countries including Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.

Where media are not under the direct political control of the party in power, they are coming under pressure to conceal issues or are punished when they reveal issues. Such was the case in Albania recently when a TV station was found guilty and fined substantial sums of money after exposing a former minister’s abuse of power.

The International Federation of Journalists has complained about the failure of police and the public authorities in Albania to respond when journalists’ safety has been threatened as a result of their not supporting the authority’s policies.

Control is not just exercised by threats but also by favour and this has been observed also in Macedonia where selected media have received substantial advertising from government in exchange for supporting government policy.

Journalists appear to be under even more pressure in Serbia, a country anxious for EU membership. Media ownership is a big issue and even the murder of journalists has remained unresolved, as editors are increasingly appointed by politicians and government officials.

Croatia is a little better, but EU officials believe that in reality they are just better at managing the public perception of what they are about rather than acting in the best interests of a free media.

Serbia, Croatia and Albania, aware that the EU are considering such matters in their continuous evaluation of the country for membership of the EU, modify their behaviour. They change laws and tick the boxes to make it look as they there is no censorship. But they continue to try to control what the public know by other means — including subsidising compliant media and by having much of the media owned by those in power. The issue of media freedom may come to a head in the EU over the coming months, however, as Romania has made a case for controlling media on the basis that it has officially identified the media as a potential threat to national security.

The country’s president has initiated a National Defence Strategy which described the media as a security threat and vulnerability for Romania, claiming that press campaigns spread false information about the activity of state institutions. This has been adopted by the Romanian Supreme Defence Council that has passed on the strategy to the Romanian Parliament.

In Hungary, where the ruling party has a two thirds majority and, therefore, enough to change the constitution, they are pushing through plans to place key media outlets under government supervision. Similarly in Bulgaria where the government appears to be continuing efforts to control media. According to Freedom House, press freedom in the country remained under fire and lost ground last year.


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