ANN CAHILL: EU’s brave stand on press ban should be observed worldwide

THE prime minister of the country fast becoming the new master of the universe, China, called off his joint press conference with the EU in Brussels during the week, when they refused to ban a number of journalists from attending.

It was the latest example of just how difficult it is to defend your ethical principles and still do business with people and countries that are important for you and your future.

A few hours beforehand, the EU had thanked China for its support during the crisis when it bought up debt from European countries and expressed its confidence in them.

Everyone knows that while it would not suit China either, it is fast getting to the stage where it could pull the plug, and economically we would all be in trouble.

So it was no small thing that the EU authorities decided to stand up to China and insist that no properly accredited journalists could be banned from the scheduled press conference.

Officially, it was cancelled because of time constraints. But the facts are fairly clear now. It apparently started at the entrance to the council building that houses the representatives of the member states.

Chinese officials vetted journalists entering and told the security guards that four of them from two Chinese language media were a security threat.

This was followed, ironically, by the Chinese journalists in question reciting the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights to the EU security guards: “The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected”.

Once the EU authorities had received security clearance for the journalists, they insisted on allowing them attend the press conference. The Chinese authorities retaliated by refusing to participate. Unfortunately – and probably in an attempt to prevent a major diplomatic incident – the EU representatives did not go ahead on their own to give an account of the EU-China summit and take questions.

Journalists from all over the world in Brussels to report on the EU and Europe were relieved and proud of the stance taken in defence of freedom of information and hope that a similar brave stance will be taken in future against other countries who try to manipulate such events.

There have been incidents when Russian delegations carefully excluded certain media, instead taking a small cabal with them for a briefing after meetings with the EU. And last year in Prague US officials, having reluctantly agreed that US President Barack Obama would take part in a post- summit press conference with the EU officials, limited and choose the European journalists who could attend and decided who would ask questions.

In December, after the debacle of the Copenhagen climate change conference, stitched up by the US and China, the president talked to a small group of selected journalists who flew with him from the US, and the video version was broadcast to the hundreds of journalists from all over the world on TV screens in the press room some time later, when Obama was already over the Atlantic on his way home.

Those in power like to maintain control by limiting the amount of information given and delivering a story that fits their agenda.

Too frequently the difference between authoritarian and democratic regimes when it comes to honestly informing the public is a matter of extent.

The right to information must also be defended at national government and EU level, where all too often prime ministers try to cover up their past mistakes, bolster their pride or keep silent about their current plans by refusing to answer questions or spinning an untruth.

Hopefully, having taken a stand with mighty China, European leaders will observe this right more keenly themselves.


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