It’s time for the EU to step up on freedom of expression

An Index on Censorship report, "Time to step up: the EU and freedom of expression", calls upon the European Union to practice what it preaches on freedom of expression. The report criticises the EU for failing to protect whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden and not doing enough to deal with political interference into the workings of the media as seen most egregiously in Berlusconi’s Italy and in the UK after the Leveson report.

The report points to archaic laws that need reform such as national insult laws common across the continent. It also raises concerns that defamation is criminalised in 24 of the 28 EU member states, with the Romanian parliament voting to re-criminalise insult and defamation just yesterday.

The report calls for the European Commission to act where it has clear powers, in particular to prevent media monopolies and to help deal with conflict of interests between politicians and state broadcasters.

Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship said: “Under the Lisbon Treaty, the EU has powers to deal with breaches of the right to free expression. No EU member state defended Edward Snowden as a whistle-blower, the EU failed to issue a strong collective statement against mass surveillance and unjust laws such as criminal defamation or national insult laws prevalent across the continent have not been repealed.”

He added: “Media freedom in particular has come under attack – from exemplary  damages being forced on the British press, Berlusconi’s politicisation of the Italian media through to the Hungarian government’s clampdown on their media – all in states that have signed up to strong human rights commitments. While the EU likes to talk about the importance of ‘European values’, it is failing to practice what it preaches.”

While the EU contains some of the world’s best places for free expression such as Finland, Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, the report notes that other countries such as Italy, Hungary, Greece and Romania lag behind new and emerging global democracies.

The report also analyses how well the EU is doing to protect freedom of expression externally with criticism of the lack of unity of member states particularly towards Russia and China.

Harris notes: “The lack of unity between member states towards Russia and China is hampering its ability to project fundamental freedoms such as the right to free speech. The EU has a hugely positive role to play in the world, as the home to some of the world’s best places for freedom of expression and as the world’s largest trading block with huge economic leverage. It is beginning to take a more proactive stance with more funding for human rights defenders and targeted sanctions on Belarus, but it can do so much more to support freedom in its neighbourhood.”

Key recommendations:

  • After recent revelations about mass state surveillance, the EU must develop a roadmap that puts in place strong safeguards to ensure narrow targeted surveillance with oversight not mass population surveillance and must also recommit to protect whistle-blowers
  • The European Commission needs to put in place controls so that EU directives cannot be used for the retention of data that makes mass population surveillance feasible
  • The EU has expanded its powers to deal with human rights violations, but is reluctant to use these powers even during a crisis within a member state. The EU must establish clear red lines where it will act collectively to protect freedom of expression in a member state.
  • Defamation should be decriminalised across the EU
  • The EU must not act to encourage the statutory regulation of the print media but instead promote tough independent regulation
  • Politicians from across the EU must stop directly interfering in the workings of the independent media
  • The EU suffers from a serious credibility gap in its near neighbourhood - the realpolitik of the past that neglected human rights must be replaced with a coherent, unified Union position on how to promote human rights.


For more information please call Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship on +44 7974 838468 or mike@indexoncensorship or +44 (0) 207 260 2662