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AEJ Belgian Section: Session on Media Freedom Provides Two Views on Dangers to Media Freedom

SPEAKERS: Ambassador Tornjorn Froynes, Council of Europe Ambassador to the EU Institutions and William Horsley, AEJ Media Freedom Representative and chair of the AEJ UK Section

The AEJ's Belgian Section marked World Press Freedom Day 2009 on Monday May 4 with a meeting in Brussels on "Media Freedom in Europe", focused on the work being done by the Council of Europe, the main watchdog for protecting human rights and freedom of expression in Europe.

Ambassador Froysnes, who represents the Council of Europe in its relations with the EU, acknowledged the risk that in multiple ways new laws passed by nearly all the 47 Member States could infringe on the fundamental right of free expression and free access to information by the media. He said the European Court of Human Rights had consistently interpreted Article 10 of the European Covention on Human Rights in ways that give protection to journalists from undue interference of pressure from state powers.

He also affirmed his belief that ministers of all the Member States will adopt a new Resolution at the forthcoming meeting in Reykjavic, Iceland on May 28 and 29, promising to undertake regular reviews of national anti-terrorism laws to ensure they do not infringe Council of Europe standards.

But William Horsley, the AEJ's Media Freedom Representative, who sits as the AEJ Observer on the Council's Steering Committee on the Media, described the plight of the European media in the face of sweeping anti-terrorism laws since 2001 as "bleak and deteriorating fast". He quoted from expert studies by advisers to the Council of Europe including "Speaking of Terror" by the leading human rights lawyer David Banisar.

Banisar's study, which is available online, concludes that "journalists have been placed under pressure in many jurisdictions, with detentions, shutting down of newspapers and prosecutions." William Horsley warned that some governments are seeking to water down their commitments to uphold freedom of expression, including journalists' rights to maintain the confidentiality of their sources. Some have adopted harsh new measures that leave journalists open to new types of criminal prosecution. And unauthorised or unlawful surveillance and wiretapping are also on the rise.

Horsley also drew attention to the dark assessments of the condition of media freedom and the media industry as a whole, from other organisations such as Freedom House, the IPI and the International Federation of Journalists. He noted that the International Press Institute has launched an appeal to EU institutions to take firm action against barriers to the free flow of information and the growing political interference by governments in the provision of news and information through the media.

William Horsley also called for more vigilance and self-scrutiny on the part of the European Union's institutions, including the Commission, to counter the severe dangers to media independence in Europe.

Journalists from many different countries attended he Brussels AEJ meeting and the discussion ranged over serious problems for media freedom in Russia, the Balkans and Italy. The event was chaired by Peter Kramer, the Secretary General of the AEJ.