Free media and freedom of expression

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty spoke about free media and freedom of expression at the UN-EU High-level Policy Dialogue on ‘Protecting the safety of journalists, Media freedom and pluralism in the European Union: challenges and opportunities’. The event took place in Brussels on 24 February 2022.

Question from moderator:

Considering the role of the Agency as a bridge between international, regional, EU and national standards and frameworks, what are the key aspects you would like to point to ensure that efforts by policymakers at different levels serve to promote and implement freedom of expression and information for all?

Before I answer your question, I would like to make two preliminary observations.

The first is that I was in this room in November 2016 for the European Commission colloquium on media pluralism. On that day, almost six years ago, we listed problem after problem. And I would say that for the first time in an EU setting, we flagged the gender dimension of the intimidation and harassment of journalists.

And I mention it now not only because I am sitting more or less where I sat down then, but also because I have a sense that things, I am afraid to say, have grown worse than back in 2016. That is to emphasize the high importance of this meeting.

My second preliminary observation is of course about Ukraine. Like all speakers today, I cannot help but have Ukraine in my mind this morning and indeed the journalists of Ukraine who have brought to us everything that we know about the situation.

It brings my mind back to when I worked in the former Yugoslavia, during the war, and how very closely I relied on and worked with journalists in order to do my job – I was then working for the UN.

I recall the high-quality information that the journalists provided to us. I recall the value of quality journalism in tackling fake news. And, of course, I recall the high danger in which journalists operated. I remember for example sitting with the editor in the bomb ravaged office of the Oslobođenje newspaper in Sarajevo.

So, it is with all of these thoughts in my mind that I stress my solidarity with the Ukrainian media this morning.

I have mentioned some functions of journalism back in the early 1990s which persist today. But I would add others that have become much clearer since then.

One of those is the role of journalism in helping us interpret the deluge of primary data that has become ubiquitous today. The role of journalism in providing solutions to problems, the so called ‘solutions journalism’, which plays a very important social role. And finally, I think of journalists as Human Rights Defenders – again a role and a function that has been clarified in recent years.

So, if you forgive me with those preliminary remarks, I now come to your question. I would suggest that there are four areas where we need to invest in and enhance cooperation.

The first is among international organizations. It is really impressive to hear how much is already happening. How much law, policy and other initiatives are being rolled out by the UN, the Council of Europe, the EU itself, UNESCO, OECD and others. This is all incredibly impressive. It is a major investment of energy for good.

But of course, we can do so much better if we work together. So, the first level of complementarity and cooperation that I would suggest is across the international organizations. It is in that spirit that I applaud the longstanding cooperation of Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression.

We in our own small way at the Fundamental Rights Agency seek to support this cooperation through the biennial Fundamental Rights Forum that took place last October. It had multiple sessions around issues related to journalism and the media.

The second level of cooperation where I think that we need to maintain a strong investment is inter-state cooperation. In the specific EU context, I am thinking about European law-making, which needs to be delivered urgently. I also think of the need for cooperation for the investigation and prosecution of crimes against journalists. Frankly, its too easy to get away with these crimes and given the trans-border nature of many criminal acts, it is imperative to strengthen inter-state cooperation.

Another dimension of inter-state cooperation concerns expanding the list of Eurocrimes. We at the Fundamental Rights Agency welcome the initiative of the French Presidency to develop a new Eurocrimes list to tackle hate speech and hate crime. We think that this is another tool in the toolbox in defence of journalists. (Albeit it will have to be crafted with great care, so that it does not transcend the parameters for freedom of expression.)

The third of the four areas where we need to enhance cooperation is between public and private actors.

I do not have much that is original to say about this, other than that we have to keep investing in it on multiple levels, for example, on the level of engagement with journalists and with journalist organisations. That is why I welcomed indeed in 2016 that the journalist organizations were very strongly visible in the EU meeting on this topic. And I appreciate that they are present today, as well.

But of course, the public-private discussions need to be with industry as well as with journalists. I am not referring here just to the traditional actors, but also the platforms, however they designate themselves. Their role is critical and central, and so they must engage.

The fourth and final cooperation to mention today is that of authorities with the general public in defence of strong, quality, free media.

I would like to present you some data, which is new, in this regard. We at the Fundamental Rights Agency did a Fundamental Rights Survey of Europe’s general population.

We surveyed across the EU 27 Member States significant survey samples - in total 35,000 people. Among the hundreds of questions we asked them was ‘What are the most important indicators for democracy?’.

Free media came up as second in the list of the most important indicators for democracy, only beaten by the indicator of free and fair elections.

Secondly, we asked the same survey respondents to tell us ‘How important is a free media for a healthy society’ and 75% on average across the EU said that free media is of high importance for a society.

That is a very encouraging number. It is a good basis on which to build partnerships with our general populations, our communities, our society, in standing up for independent quality journalism.

However, I have to flag a concern. I gave you the 75% as an EU average, but the figure is worryingly low in some EU Member States. It is only in the mid 50%, so just half of the respondents, and therefore half of those societies, in three countries: the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania.

Let me conclude with a commitment of the Fundamental Rights Agency that we will continue to partner with the organizations within our societies in defence of strong, quality, free and safe journalism.

We will, for example, continue to provide the space, the convening space, such as the Fundamental Rights Forum.

We will continue to identify trends and patterns relevant to the safety of journalists through our periodic surveys.

We will continue to improve access to our survey data for data mining by data journalists. And we will of course continue to invest resources in relevant applied research.

Right now, to take three examples, we are researching how most effectively to tackle disinformation including in support of quality journalism. We are embarked on research regarding online content moderation, which is impeding journalism in many places. And third, we will continue to develop toolkits to support quality journalism around sensitive fundamental rights issues, such as migration.

Thank you.

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