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EU failing to protect journalists: rights group

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(BRUSSELS) - The European Union has failed to tackle challenges to press freedom within its borders, notably from the hardline government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a rights group said Tuesday.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said in a report that Brussels should do more to make member states defend media rights and that the EU's institutions were "poorly equipped" to take such action.

"By not holding member states to account, the EU has failed to forcefully and consistently defend press freedom," the organisation said, adding that some countries "backslide on their democratic commitments."

In Hungary, state media had become "pro-government mouthpieces", state advertising was used to "reward friends and punish enemies", independent journalists had been marginalised and freedom of information laws had been tightened, the New York-based CPJ said.

But the EU had largely "procrastinated" instead of taking on Orban's right-wing adminstration over the issue of press freedom, apart from low-level disciplinary action and European Parliament resolutions.

"Although Orban's challenge was viewed as a direct attack against journalists and a fundamental EU value, it was not met with resolute action," it said.

Across the EU, journalists also faced threats from criminal libel and blasphemy laws, surveillance that threatens their sources, and violence such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks by jihadists on the satirical magazine in Paris in January.

This failure to act by the 28-nation bloc stood in contrast to its insistence on press freedom as a key issue with candidates for membership, such as Turkey and the Balkan states, the CPJ said.

"It undermines the EU's capacity to defend press freedom outside its borders by providing authoritarian states with ready-made alibis for their own repressive policies," it said.

The group said the EU should take steps such as suspending member states' voting rights when they violate media freedom.

It could also use its wide-ranging regulatory powers in areas such as public broadcasting and digital issues to reinforce protections for journalists, it said.

The EU said it promoted media freedom, but that responsibility ultimately lay with countries.

"We stand for media freedom and we promote media freedom, but the regulation of media activities is something that is reserved according to the treaties for the member states," spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said.

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