BY Cilla Benkö

Media Freedom under threat in Europe

The importance of free media for democracy can hardly be exaggerated. Still, we can see a development across the world where the very cornerstones of liberal democracy are being challenged in a way they haven't been for a very long time.

Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index shows a worrying trend as several EU member states have plummeted down the list. An undeniable consequence of sweeping restrictions to media freedom. It is easy to understand why increasingly authoritarian governments, such as in Hungary and Poland, want a media that is more loyal to power. It is a way of controlling the news and avoiding criticism.

Free independent media is pointed out as part of an elite in opposition with the rest of society. By repeating these messages, both in Europe and across the Atlantic, populists look to devalue journalism's opportunities to be an independent force that contributes to democratic life.

Czech President Miloš Zeman thought it would be a good idea at a press conference to hold up a replica Kalashnikov assault rifle with the inscription “For journalists” in October 2017.

Statements that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago now pass virtually unnoticed because the tone of debate has escalated and attacks on the media have become part of public discourse. Step by step, the boundaries of what is possible to say and do are being shifted.

But there are more ways to seek to control the media, another option is legislators shrinking the mission and narrowing the focus of public service media.

In Austria and Greece, public service broadcasters ORF and ERT are being accused of having left-wing-bias. In Denmark, the government has recently cut the budget by 20 percent and instructed Public Service broadcaster DR to focus on spreading Danish culture and Christian values.

In France, President Macron is calling for tougher regulation and reduced funding. In Sweden, there are voices promoting increased monitoring of content, questioning public service political independence, wishing for limited missions and diminished budgets for the public service broadcasters.

I strongly believe that we must safeguard the broad remit of public service media, otherwise we risk diminishing its relevance - and undermining its universality.

I am concerned about the advance of authoritarian politics. I am concerned about the populist narrative looking to devalue the importance of quality journalism. I am concerned over budgets being cut and over politicians wanting to influence media content. And I am very much concerned about the unsafe work environment where journalists are being threatened and even murdered for just doing their job.

I am more convinced than ever before that our countries – and our democracies – need journalism, need media freedom and need public service media at its very, very best. In Sweden, and across Europe.

Research clearly states that people living in countries with strong public service media, alongside commercial media, have greater knowledge about politics and society than people living in countries with more commercialised media systems. Impartial news and information that everyone can trust, content that reaches all audiences and that reflects all views – that brings communities together.

And that is more important today than it has been for a very long time.

This speech was given by Cilla Benkö, CEO and Director General at Swedish Radio and INSI Board member, on 7 February 2019 at the Swedish Embassy in Paris during a lunch seminar hosted by Veronika WandDanielsson, Swedish Ambassador in France.

Image by AFP