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Štefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy

Opening address at the High-Level International Conference on Freedom of Expression

Speak Up! Freedom of Expression Conference

Brussels, 6 May 2011

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen.

I am honoured to address you today.

This conference focuses on one specific but vital set of values, that of freedom of expression and of the media. These are part of the very foundations on which our Union is built.

You all know that accurate, reliable information is vital in countries undertaking political and economic transformation. It can make the difference between success and failure.

Sadly, most of you also know the dangers and difficulties which are faced in ensuring freedom of expression.

We are here today to acknowledge your courage and professionalism and to hear you experience and opinion as to how best defend these freedoms.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our 2010 enlargement package showed that freedom of expression and the media were issues facing stagnation or worse - a retreat from previous achievements.

To be a Member of the European Union means meeting our exacting standards. There can be no slippage and we are deeply concerned by these developments.

The media often faces serious challenges. Addressing such challenges wherever they exist is an obligation derived from the values set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Charter of Human Right.

Vice President Kroes has explained the mechanisms in place in the European Union to curb the worst excesses. Press and media freedom is also a central element of the Copenhagen political criteria for accession.

I believe that there are three main points of concern:

1) Political interference;

2) Economic pressure and

3) Violence against the media.

All three represent attacks on the very heart of your democratic system and on our shared values.

First, a strong legislative framework is needed to contain the threat political interference poses to freedom of expression.

Across the Western Balkans and Turkey, media legislation is in place. Media specific laws are generally good. However, other laws can and do impact on media freedom, for example, concerning defamation. It is important to maintain a balance: to guard against defamation is acceptable; the practice of criminalisation is not.

Having the legislative framework is necessary, but not sufficient - implementation lags far behind and requires more attention.

Economic pressure is increasingly of concern to us. All media face commercial pressures. However, across the region, we hear increasingly about indirect pressure being brought to bear when journalists get too close to someone's vested interest.

Another concern is media ownership. Where organised crime and corruption is a serious challenge, it would be naïve to think that the media sector is exempt.

To combat such pressure, we need transparency to see who the real owners are. We also need a plurality of the media.

When political interference and or economic pressure do not succeed, - violence and intimidation are often used. All too often, we have seen journalists either murdered or violently attacked. All too often, the assailants are not caught.

The European Union continues to press for positive results in combating all forms of harassment. We expect credible investigations, indictments and trials; we expect protection to be provided. We expect a change in culture where attacks hiding behind "patriotism" or "national pride" are treated for what they are: criminal acts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Where information is omitted, distorted or falsified our democratic system is weakened.

Freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and a need for professionalism. There is a need for self-regulation, to maintain and improve standards and beyond that a legislative safety net. It is a difficult balance to achieve a balance, but one which we must all seek to achieve.

Within this room, I am preaching to the converted: you know far better than I the power of freedom of expression, and the threats which it faces.

Our challenge here is to harness that power and to combat the threat, because threatening freedom of expression threatens the foundations on which our Union of values is built.

I assure you that the European Commission is and will remain committed to this issue:

We listen to you and we work with you.

We raise serious threats to these fundamental freedoms of expression with your authorities.

We help ensure that the law respects and supports these freedoms and does not suppress them.

We work to ensure that journalists cannot be attached with impunity.

We work to help you improve the standing and standards of your profession.

Thank you Michael for indicating that we will adopt important conclusions at the end of this conference, as it is important that this is not just an ad-hoc conference.

We work to ensure that journalists, and indeed all citizens, can "Speak out" freely and without fear.

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