The celebration Tuesday of the 50th anniversary of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) should have been a joyful and lighthearted affair. Dozens of journalists from all parts of the European Union had traveled to Brussels to share memories, new projects, champagne, and petits fours.
However the conference hosted by the European Parliament to assess the state of European journalism quickly took on a somber tone. Two days earlier, Greek voters had elected 21 deputies of the Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn) party. Known for shaved-head militants dressed in military uniforms, Hitler greetings, and aggressive rhetoric, the far-right party is no friend of the free media.
On Monday at a press conference in Athens, a thuggish-looking militant ordered journalists to stand as a sign of respect for the "leader," Nikolaos Michaloliakos (as shown in video above). Most journalists did so; those that refused were expelled from the room. A few weeks earlier, anonymous commentators on the party website had posted death threats against Xenia Kounalaki, foreign editor of Kathimerini, Greece's leading broadsheet, who had written a damning profile of the party for the German weekly Der Spiegel.
At the opening of the AEJ conference, Anni Podimata, vice-president of the European Parliament and a member of the Greek socialist party PASOK, did not mince her words, warning against the threat of the far right in Greece but also in other European countries -- in France in particular, where the National Front came in third in the first round of presidential elections.
Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda and the head of EU media policies, endorsed Podimata. The Dutch centre-right liberal official also strongly denounced the far right. "These incidents show that we have to think harder about how to protect journalists themselves -- and anyone who uses his right to speak up -- from physical or verbal violence," she said.
While taking care to underline that "by international standards Europe does quite well," Kroes also addressed "other challenges to media freedom and pluralism," in particular the nagging Hungarian media law. "I continue to call on the Hungarian government to implement the judgment of the Hungarian Constitutional Court that ruled parts of the media law unconstitutional and to swiftly address the concerns raised by the Council of Europe in its upcoming assessment of the law, which is prepared in reference to European norms, such as the Convention on Human Rights," she said.
But Kroes also highlighted the limits of the European Commission's competence and power to push member states to amend controversial national laws. "Many, including NGOs and Members of the Parliament, expect more than we are currently capable of," she said.
Although Doris Pack, a German Christian Democratic MEP and chair of the influential Committee on Culture and Education, expressed her caution toward more EU intervention in national matters, the other members of the panel, chaired by AEJ President Eileen Dunne, disagreed. William Horsley, international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at Sheffield University and AEJ media freedom representative, as well as Renate Weber, a Romanian liberal MEP and a leading member of the Civil Liberties Committee, pleaded for a bolder interpretation of EU treaties. Underlining the key role of the press in a democracy, Weber argued that the European Commission, based on key provisions of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Treaty of the European Union, "could go further" to defend press freedom in member states.
In my speech I also relayed this more liberal exegesis of the treaties. "Why is the EU so sure of her prerogatives when it comes to question a state subsidy to a national airline and so hesitant when she has to address political, legal, or constitutional measures that compromise civil liberties?" I asked. Paraphrasing the slogan of the famous French satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné, I added: "Contrary to electric batteries, freedom only loses its energy when we do not use it."
Hailing from many different corners of the European continent, most participants were also keenly aware that attacks on press freedom in one European country inevitably impact all member states. Bad examples tend to cross borders and inspire control freaks in neighboring governments.
"Whenever there is censorship anywhere there is censorship everywhere," Columbia University President Lee Bollinger stated last year in an event marking CPJ's 30th anniversary. "All of the press is 'our' press."
"All the European press is our press," I concluded. "What happens in the Hungarian Parliament, in the Elysée Palace, in the British House of Commons or in the mean streets of Naples matters to us all and affects us all."