Press freedom is Europe is facing a widespread and growing threat by "soft" censorship that includes governments' use of financial power to pressure news media, punish critical reporting and reward favourable coverage. While Europe's press is not generally threatened by the jailing of journalists or the closure of media outlets, "soft" censorship is a more subtle but significant new danger, according to new reports released Tuesday by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).
The reports demonstrate how the governments in two European countries – Serbia and Hungary – use their financial power to pressure media outlets, punish critical reporting and reward favourable coverage.
Economic pressures are especially devastating in times of economic instability and lead to unbalanced reporting and to self-censorship among media professionals, and thus constitute a real threat to press freedom, the reports found.
"Soft censorship," or indirect government censorship, includes a variety of actions intended to influence media, short of closures, imprisonments, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on media outlets or journalists.
"Although it is less visible, soft censorship can be equally insidious, and must be recognised for the very serious threat to media independence and press freedom it is today – in Eastern and Central Europe and also around the world," said Vincent Peyrègne, CEO of WAN-IFRA.
"Unlike jailings, closures and other direct attacks on press freedom, soft censorship is far more subtle and rarely generates the same level of international outrage as direct attacks on the press," Mr Peyrègne explained. "The jailing of a journalist is guaranteed to draw attention. But a tax case? If a government uses tax laws, or withholds advertising, or carries out similar measures in response to criticism, it does not generate the same level of condemnation."
WAN-IFRA and its partners, supported by the Open Society Foundations and Open Society Justice Initiative, have launched a series of reports that will investigate the practice of soft censorship worldwide. The first two reports, released Tuesday 28 January, focus on such practices in Serbia and Hungary.
"Soft Censorship: Strangling Serbia's Media" and "Capturing Them Softly: Soft Censorship and State Capture in the Hungarian Media" identify major trends and abuses, such as the biased allocation of government subsidies and advertising, evaluate their impact, and propose recommendations. The findings aim to contribute to the implementation of fair and transparent rules necessary for the development of independent media sectors.
The Serbian report, produced by WAN-IFRA and the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, shows that soft censorship in Serbia is pervasive and translates state financial power through media subsidies and advertising placements into political pressures that influence media content.
The report also shows that implementation of laws and regulations proposed in 2011 that could end soft censorship has been delayed, and the laws may be diluted or discarded. It calls for immediate implementation of these laws. "Adopting the Media Strategy and related proposals will ensure that Serbia's media serves society as a whole, not only partisan and special interests," the report says.
The Hungarian report, produced by WAN-IFRA and CIMA in cooperation with Mérték Media Monitor, concludes that State influence over Hungarian media is unfolding "slowly but surely" and has accelerated under the current government, which provides state advertising to reward friendly media and denies it to punish critical news outlets.
The study calls for implementation of a system of transparent procurement for all state advertising and the establishment of an independent body to administer and monitor all state funding to media.
The report also draws attention to the subversion of public-service media, which are being transformed into government mouthpieces. It calls for the government to ensure that Hungarian laws and practices conform to European regulations designed to safeguard the integrity of public service media.