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Viviane Reding

Member of the European Commission responsible for Information Society and Media

The importance of freedom of expression for democratic societies in the enlarged European Union

Press conference on the occasion of the conclusion of a Framework Agreement between the International Federation of Journalists and WAZ Mediengruppe
Brussels, 9 July 2007

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am grateful to be with you today for a historic occasion: the conclusion of the first ever cooperation agreement between the International Federation of Journalists with an international media company. The scope and objective of the agreement is a very special one: to secure and strengthen the freedom of the press in the enlarged European Union.

To some, it may seem evident that the freedom of the media is well respected throughout the European Union. It may seem as if the freedom of journalists to report and to write is beyond question in all 27 countries and in all publishing houses. But as the EU Media Commissioner and as a former journalist, I believe that the freedom of the media and media pluralism are values and principles that are far too easily forgotten. And that they need permanent reminders from all parties concerned, especially by publishers, and journalists themselves.

This is why I welcome the commitment of WAZ-Gruppe made in the framework agreement with the International Federation of Journalists to the freedom of the press and to the freedom of journalists to do their job without undue interference. I understand this as referring to undue interference from any source.

The freedom of the press and of the media in general is at the heart of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, drawn up in 2000 by a European fundamental rights convention. You are doubtless all familiar with Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, that succinctly summarises the foundations of our European media system, but allow me at this occasion today to recall the wording of this important provision:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected."

This provision contains everything that goes to make up Europe's media policy. We can say that because of Article 11, the EU's media is built on three main legal pillars comprising:

  • freedom of expression
  • freedom of the media
  • and media pluralism.

Today, I would like to provide a few explanations on the first of these three pillars, which is also at the heart of the framework agreement concluded between the International Federation of Journalists and WAZ-Gruppe: freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is one of the most important fundamental rights of our European democracies. It is constitutionally protected in all EU Member States and for years has also been recognised as a European fundamental right by the European Court of Justice.

I myself am a journalist by profession, so for me it goes without saying that the right to freedom of expression must be at the heart of every media system. Our democracy should be a "market place of ideas and opinions" where the best solutions are freely discussed and argued about. The freedom to express one's opinion – whether verbally, in writing or in pictures – without state or other restrictions is just as imperative for this as the right of journalists to be able to carry out their work unhindered and to be granted access to all important information and events.

Even if the freedom of expression is already an indisputable part of European constitutional understanding, the EU's media policy can contribute towards encouraging the development of this freedom as well as its practical effectiveness in the European Union.

For example, in negotiations with accession applicants the European Union has for years made respect for the freedom of expression a central basic prerequisite for joining the EU.

The cross-border work of journalists in the EU is also a particularly important practical example of exercising the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the EC Treaty. At the same time the work of journalists serves the freedom of having cross-border access to information, an elementary basic prerequisite for effectively exercising the freedom of expression. Because without freedom of information, freedom of expression often remains meaningless.
Cross-border freedom of expression and freedom of information in the audiovisual sphere have been promoted in Europe since 1989 by the "Television without Frontiers" Directive, which allows cross-border transmission of television channels in accordance with the law of the country of origin and without the receiving country being able to prohibit that transmission. Nowadays this freedom is often regarded as a purely economic process. But let us never forget that it is based on the assertion of one of the European Union's central fundamental rights.

I am pleased that over the past few months the European Parliament and the Council have accepted the Commission proposal on continuing and confirming the important principles of the "Television without frontiers" Directive in the age of new media. The new "Audiovisual Media Services without Frontiers" Directive, agreed by the EU institutions in May with Germany chairing the Council, extends cross-border freedom of expression and freedom of information to on-demand services regardless of how they are transmitted. This is of central importance not only for Europe's single market, but also for the formation of a democratic and pluralistic opinion and information area in Europe.

The new "Audiovisual Media Services without Frontiers" Directive contains an important new media-law aspect of the freedom of expression: the right to short extracts, which in future is also to apply across borders in the audiovisual sphere. Even a small Estonian channel will therefore be able to transmit the most important pictures from a football match in France, even if they are subject to exclusive rights. I regard this new cross-border right to short extracts as an important improvement for the opinion and information area which is coming together in Europe.

Even if freedom of expression and freedom of information may appear self-evident to many in Europe, these freedoms nevertheless require constant confirmation. Let me give you only a few illustrations why.

• It is just a couple of weeks ago when politicians in a major EU Member State called for the BBC children series "Teletubbies" to be banned, for the strange reason that it would encourage homosexuality.

• I recall the terrible fate of the Hungarian journalist Iren Karman, who recently was beaten up in Budapest by so-far unidentified people after having started to unveil a mafia-style system of corruption.

• I also think of some of our immediate neighbours whom we Europeans have to keep reminding about the importance of the freedom to hold opinions. I think especially of Russia, where citizens and journalists certainly cannot always exercise the freedom of expression as it is recognised in the European Union. The fate of Anna Politkowskaja sadly comes to our mind.

  • And lastly I think of China, which I visit regularly and where I just as regularly give warnings about respecting freedom of expression and freedom of information.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Freedom of expression and freedom of information are not luxuries to be indulged in only at the end of social development. They are the starting point for the development of a free and democratic society.

We Europeans must be adamant about this in our dialogue with third countries. At the same time we must ensure that our own European media systems set a strong example of freedom of expression and freedom of information.

I therefore welcome the fact that a few weeks ago in Brussels a group of European editors-in-chief from Germany, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania initiated the idea of drawing up themselves a "European Charter of Press Freedom" in time for the next world press-freedom day on 3 May 2008. There have been already a number of similar initiatives, and what we are celebrating here today is another example for this. I welcome that journalists as well as publishers reaffirm the importance of the freedom of expression in such a cooperative way. Whenever asked, I will follow such efforts closely and provide my personal support if this is considered desirable and appropriate.

I began by quoting Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Let me also close my intervention in the light of this important European provision and with an appeal to all those who will be negotiating in the weeks to come Europe's new reform treaty that will now replace the Constitutional Treaty: the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which represents the result of decades of European political efforts, must become legally an integral part of the future treaty. In a few concisely-formulated Articles – on the freedom of expression and on other fundamental rights – the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights reflects what Europe is: a space in which the individual can develop in freedom, but a space which is at the same time bound by value concepts common to all of us Europeans.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights symbolically shows that Europe is certainly not just a large free-trade area, but a political union. That is why the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights must form legally an integral part of the new reform treaty.

Thank you for your attention.

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