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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Speak-Up!2: Loud wake-up call for improving media freedom in Western Balkans and Turkey
Speak-Up! 2 Conference on Freedom of Expression and Media in the Western Balkans and Turkey
20 June 2013
Very warm welcome to everybody,
Just over two years ago, at the first Speak Up! Conference, I underlined the European Commission's strong commitment to freedom of expression. Today's event is a concrete example of that commitment. Now when I look back, we promised to work in between these two conferences and to continue with the process to deliver on higher standards of the freedom of speech and media.
The strength of democracy is a precondition for a candidate country to become a true contribution to the European Union as a project of strong democracies. Freedom of speech is a basic fundament of the democracy. If you want to learn about the state of democracy in a country, look at the media freedom, you will get quite a picture.
You will not see among us today representatives of the Member States. Does it mean that there is no link between what we are debating today and what is the situation in the Member States? No, this is absolutely not the case. There is a link. I believe that when it comes to a public broadcaster in any of the Member States, the European Commission and indeed all of us, need to have a clear and strong stance on that, ensure full compatibility with the EU Treaties and not only exercise political correctness.
Our message today to the authorities not only in the countries in the Western Balkans and Turkey but also in the member States is: no double standards. There are the same standards for the candidate countries and member states in this area. Do not underestimate the importance of our discussion today to reflect a basic question: do we have European legislation, the acquis, in this area strong enough? Is it complex enough? Do we have a monitoring system within the Member States to match the high standards and requirements the European Commission is repeating again and again in meetings with representatives of the candidate countries?
The deafening silence of the mainstream media in the first days of the recent protests in Istanbul and in other places and the worrying use of police actions against the media only serve to underline how much this conference is needed.
We're not starting from scratch. We have the conclusions of the 2011 Speak Up conference as a reference point and they will serve as the basis for our discussion on the progress achieved since 2011 and will help in identifying where additional efforts are needed. I am also delighted that for the first time, representatives of state institutions, authorities from the enlargement countries – those on whom we depend for correct action - are here today.
Allow me to turn now to the work that we have been doing in the European Commission to implement the 2011 Speak Up conclusions.
Our focus has been on
a. Political support, ensuring that freedom of expression is a priority in the European Union accession process at all levels; and
b. Financial and technical assistance to support implementation of the key principle of freedom of expression and media working with partners in the media sector.
Let me give you some concrete examples of the political support that we have been providing:
1. We have used our agreements and structured dialogues (i.e HLAD, Positive Agenda) with the enlargement countries to monitor developments, identify priorities and support government efforts to reach European Standards.
2. We have strengthened our cooperation with the relevant international and regional organisations, in particular the Council of Europe and the OSCE.
3. Our Delegations have intensified their dialogues with governments and journalists in candidate and potential candidate countries; and
4. We have given a high priority to media freedom issues in our annual progress reports and Strategy Papers. They also feature high on the agenda of the accession talks dealing with fundamental rights and freedoms.
If you ask me what was the biggest contribution of the first Speak Up! Conference, I would say it was establishing a stronger link between the freedom of media and the accession process.
Since then we have taken new approach to the chapters 23 and 24 that cover the issue of freedom of expression and freedom of media and extended as much as the acquis allowed it, the interpretation of the acquis for these chapters, introducing something that was not so common before - track record. That means not only ticking the boxes of tasks and adopting legislation, but focusing on implementation of the reforms and new laws.
This approach has not only focused negotiations on this fundament of democracy, it has also brought credibility back to the enlargement process. This was one of the biggest contributions of the first SpeakUp! conference.
On the financial and technical assistance side we have been able to provide funding for the European Broadcasting Union to strengthen public service media in Balkan countries.
We have also streamlined IPA assistance to the media to facilitate networking and exchanges of best practices on media self-regulation and judicial practices.
Let me mention one particular initiative. We have decided to establish a European Commission award for excellence in investigative journalism.
So what comes next? The legislation is in place but what about implementation? Is it just a question of a little bit of work here and there or is there something that needs to be fixed systematically? Let me outline our analysis:
First, cases of violence against journalists are a continuing problem and the threat of violence is still leading to self-censorship in the region. Some of you here today have been victims of such violence. I'd like to mention Vijesti Director, Zeljko Ivanovic and Veran Matic from the Serbian B92. Perpetrators of such violence against journalists must be held accountable. There should be no impunity. Authorities need to step their efforts in investigating new and past cases. Serbia's initiative to form a commission to investigate unfinished cases of violence against media representatives is a good example of the first positive step that can be taken.
Second, there is a persistent risk that state power could be used against freedom of expression which is very tough on journalists, especially those with limited means. On the positive side together with our partners, we have succeeded in decriminalising the defamation laws most frequently used to silence critical journalism and spread self-censorship. (Turkey addressed two most problematic laws according to which a journalist could face imprisonment). This was the first and most difficult step in systematically addressing and safeguarding freedom of expression.
Now we need to work together to find ways to ensure that those implementing the amended laws – judges and prosecutors - use them in a way that protects the individuals' fundamental rights to express themselves freely as opposed to protecting the state and its officials.
Third, in most enlargement countries, media markets don’t work properly. The regulatory agencies in charge of enforcing fair market completion are, with very few exceptions, not performing well. This leaves the door open for political interference in the work of journalists.
Fourth, public service broadcasters in the Western Balkans are still dependent on annual state budgets which are politically decided. They need to be independent, both politically and financially. This is best ensured by having clear-cut budgets and transparent rules for appointing board members so that there is no political interference.
Fifth, the quality of journalism often lags behind expected standards and there is no functional media self-regulation in place in the Western Balkans. The efforts of the European Commission and international donors to promote and put in place press councils which would deal with complaints and professional ethics of journalists were futile and limited by the fragmentation and polarization of the media community. They need to work together to present a united front and defend their common interests.
Ladies and gentlemen,
When we opened the first SpeakUp! we told you it was your conference , that we were not looking only at formulating questions but also jointly finding the answers. I'd like the conclusions from this conference to be more operational and be accompanied with a clearer framework on how to deliver on them.
Today's conference is an excellent opportunity for us to deliver a loud wake-up call in the form of dynamic conclusions. Their quality will depend on what you say so we need to hear constructive views from all angles, be they from the viewpoint of media professionals, politicians or representatives of groups whose voices are not being heard in the media or those who can't speak up freely and without fear.
You can speak up freely today. We will listen and we will take good note of your views so that they can feed into our forthcoming enlargement strategy and help aspiring countries to make the necessary progress.
Thank you for your attention.