THE BLOG
16/11/2011 17:26 GMT | Updated 15/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Journalists and the European Project

The European Union - warts and all - has largely been constructed by politicians, albeit with the help of technocrats. But the media also have an important role to play in the evolution of the ongoing European project, as delegates to the 2011 Association of European Journalists (AEJ) Congress held in Bucharest over the weekend were forcefully reminded.

Of course, in Britain the media's stance vis-a-vis the EU has largely been negative, with publications such as the Dail Mail and the Daily Express regularly pouring out their anti-Brussels bile. Mercifully, the AEJ provides a haven for those of us British working journalists who believe in the European ideal, while at the same time critically examining the gap between the ideal and the reality.

The choice of the Romanian capital as the location for this year's Congress was significant, as it reminded delegates that all too often we take for granted freedom of the press in EU countries - in contrast to the situation in so many other parts of the world - whereas in fact there are many shortcomings in our own European space.

The perceived abuse of power and influence by media owners such as Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi are well-documented, but in several countries of Eastern Europe, including Romania, the situation is even more acute.

Oligarchs in several post-communist societies have seized the opportunity to build media empires whose output does not respect the norms of accuracy and objectivity those of us who have worked for Reuters or the BBC, for example, would aspire to.

Indeed, the Romanian Foreign Minister, Teodor Baconschi, who gave a short keynote address to the Bucharest AEJ Congress, said he no longer watches TV News because it is so untrustworthy.

Most of his compatriots do rely on the TV, however, and have no other regular source of information with which to compare it.

Mr Baconschi therefore concentrated his remarks on the second part of the Congress's theme, 'Freedom and Responsibility of the Mass Media', encouraging media workers to stick to standards and principles. There are independent journalists in Romania - indeed their association was our host at the Congress - but not all of them find it easy to get published, which is why several rely more on online media, blogs and social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

A similar situation exists in Ukraine. But elsewhere in the EU's Eastern Neighbourhood, things are often much worse. Moldova still does not conform to all of the norms set out by the Council of Europe, which is the relevant body relating to European standards of Freedom of Expression and human rights. Things are so bad in Belarus that it is not even a member of the Council of Europe currently. Even in Turkey, 66 journalists are now in prison and hundreds more are subject to criminal prosecutions.

We heard testimony from colleagues from all of those affected countries and a common message from them was the need for journalists across Europe to campaign for the implementation of norms theoretically signed up to by their governments. Lobbying of national governments, as well as of the EU and the Council of Europe, was urged. It is true that all these institutions could be doing much more to promote and safeguard not only journalists but also the public's right to information and responsible media coverage.

In a chilling finale to the AEJ Congress, participants were shown a film recording the atrocious persecution of free thought during Romania's Communist era, including Ceausescu's long dictatorial rule. In the early 1950s, many senior former politicians, bishops, writers and thinkers were sent to prisons where they suffered appalling treatment, including torture and often death.

And even those who were not incarcerated were often spied on by the Securitate, the national security service which had a huge network of informers, many of whom were forced to collaborate.

The EU grew up in post-War Europe not just so that War between member countries would become unthinkable but also so that oppressive ideologies such as Communism and Fascism would be kept at bay. Healthy and pluralistic media - including the growing phenomena of citizen journalism and social networking - are essential for this to succeed. That means that journalists have a duty not only to report accurately what is going on in the world, including the EU, but also to champion the ideals of freedom and responsibility to which the transnational institutions are in theory wedded.