The EU Ponders Crackdown on Journalism

A new report calls for sweeping media controls.

President Reagan famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are these: “I'm from the government and I'm here to help.” In 2013, the European equivalent of this statement is: “I'm from Brussels and I'm going to enhance your freedom.” Surely “terrifying” is the mot juste for a new report, A Free and Pluralistic Media to Sustain European Democracy, produced by the EU's High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism, or HLG for short. The HLG, which consists of four people – Professor Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, a former President of Latvia; Professor Herta Däubler-Gmelin, a former German Minister of Justice; Ben Hammersley, a British journalist; and Professor Luís Miguel Poiares Pessoa Maduro, a Portuguese jurist – was established in October 2011 by European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes, a Dutch politician, who asked it “to provide a set of recommendations for the respect, the protection, the support and the promotion of pluralism and freedom of the media in Europe.”

Of course, the best contribution the EU could make to the “pluralism and freedom of the media in Europe” would be to keep its mitts off and recognize that it has no business mucking around in questions about what journalists do or don't do. But it's not in the nature of the EU to keep its mitts off. The EU is about sticking its nose in – about accumulating power, more and more and more of it. So when it talks about doing a better job of respecting freedom, it's really talking how about to exert its control more fully; and when it talks about promoting diversity, it's really talking about how to get the news media to fall more fully into line behind its own agenda.

The HLG's report provides a nice, slick example of how to turn freedom and diversity into their opposites. Here's the formula. Start by declaring that “a free and pluralistic media is crucial for European democracy.” Then point out that “there are currently a number of challenges which can potentially restrict journalistic freedom or reduce pluralism.” And whose job is it to maintain journalistic freedom and pluralism in the face of these challenges? Why, the government's, of course. (A neat trick, by the way, given that one of the challenges listed is “political influence.”) To this end, the HLG calls on EU member states to set up “independent media councils with a politically and culturally balanced and socially diverse membership” that would be empowered “to investigate complaints,” ensure “that media organisations have published a code of conduct,” and so on. These councils “should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or” – italics mine – “removal of journalistic status.” Yes, you read that right: these councils – in the name of journalistic freedom – should be able to stop certain journalists from practicing journalism.

And that's just for starters. The report goes on to say that while national governments bear “the main responsibility”  for monitoring and controlling media in the name of media freedom, the EU “also has an important role to play,” because, you see, the EU is obligated to uphold “the fundamental rights of EU citizens,” including the right to vote – and how can citizens vote responsibly if they don't get the information they need? Therefore, precisely in order to maintain EU democracy, the EU must assume the power to ensure that the media provide that information (which, implicitly, includes the power to decide which information the EU's citizens need and which information they don't need). After all, the HLG tells us, the media “should not be seen as sacred cows that are beyond criticism and are accountable to no one”; on the contrary, they enjoy “special rights” that come with “special responsibilities” – and it's the EU's duty to make certain they carry out these responsibilities, and to deny them their rights if they don't.

Part of the problem, the HLG makes clear, is that the media picture has become extremely broad and complex in recent years, mainly because of the Internet. All kinds of opinions are floating around the ether nowadays. Some of us might consider this a boon. The HLG views it as a problem. Why? Because, thanks to the Internet, too many Europeans are just reading things they agree with, and aren't reading what the EU thinks they should be reading. How to address this? Well, for starters, the HLG feels it's important to recognize that freedom of the press isn't exactly the same thing as freedom of speech. Freedom of the press, the HLG claims, is something that goes beyond free speech, and that not everybody should necessarily be entitled to. In a time when the Internet has flooded the market with freelancers, “the privileges afforded to journalism as a profession become very difficult to defend, if the net is cast too wide and includes practically everybody who has an opinion to express or a fact to proclaim.” So in order to protect real journalists' rights, it's crucial to define who is and who isn't a journalist – and this, too, the report suggests, should be among the powers exercised by the EU.

If the HLG is eager for the EU to do its best by “real” journalists, it's particularly concerned with a certain subcategory of journalists – namely, those who take the EU seriously and are experts on it. “The democratic legitimacy of the European Union is closely dependent...on the emergence of a public sphere which is informed about European issues and able to engage in debates about them,” the report states. “This requires, in turn, adequate media coverage of European issues and politics.” Yet the European media haven't paid enough attention to “the European dimension of certain issues,” an omission that risks “undermining...European democracy.” Both the EU and its members, then, must act to “promote pluralism in the form of increased coverage of EU affairs.” One proposal: EU-funded programs that would turn out journalists capable of covering the EU knowledgeably. The report, in a touch of good old-fashioned Kremlin-speak, actually refers to building up “cadres” of the proper kinds of journalists – and it's clear that HLC means journalists who will, essentially, be propagandists for the EU, encouraging Europeans to look upon the EU as a benign presence and to see themselves not in a national or global but in an EU context.

Bluntly put, this report is a shameless prescription for a raw EU power grab – one involving breathtaking new limitations on freedom of speech. Surveying the European media, the EU recognizes that journalists with full-time jobs in traditional mainstream organs tend to support the EU, while many of the EU's most vocal critics can be found in online media. What's going on here, clearly, is that the EU seeks to prop up the MSM by classifying its employees as producers of “professional” and “quality” journalism and by giving them subsidies, accreditation, and other benefits, and seeks at the same time to delegitimize online critics of the EU by dismissing them as amateurs and loose cannons, denying them the title of journalist, and even, perhaps, finding some way to silence them outright. This report, in short, is a brazen attempt to keep the EU propaganda flowing while reining in the armies of non-establishment writers who dare to speak the unpleasant truths about Brussels – and who have more than a few Europeans on their side.

We keep being told by the EU's champions that the supranational state is the greatest blessing ever to have happened to Europe – a magnificent guarantor of peace and freedom – and that those of us who see it as despotic by nature (and increasingly despotic in practice) are exaggerating wildly. Well, I look forward to seeing what those EU apologists have to say about this report, which demonstrates once and for all that the EU spirit is indeed the spirit of tyranny. The more the EU reveals of its plans for Europe, in fact, the more evident it becomes that the whole thing is even more of a nightmare than we ever imagined – that the concept of freedom, as we've long understood it in the United States, is utterly alien and abhorrent to these mischief-makers. They may fill reports like this one with words like “freedom,” but they use those words in a thoroughly Orwellian way – not to describe a society in which the authorities keep their noses out of your life but one in which every little detail of your existence is micro-managed in order to ensure that everything's just the way Big Brother thinks it should be. Make no mistake: this is Europe's rough beast crawling out of its cave yet again – determined to tear down human liberty with its very claws. For those who care about the future of freedom, its end can't come too soon.

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