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New European Charter Lays Down Guidelines For Press Freedom

Joerges notes that the press in Eastern European EU members such as Bulgaria and Romania face stronger commercial pressures than in the West, even before the current recession.
Joerges notes that the press in Eastern European EU members such as Bulgaria and Romania face stronger commercial pressures than in the West, even before the current recession.
In the German city of Hamburg on May 25, 46 journalists and editors in chief from 19 countries signed the "European Charter on Freedom of the Press."

The charter establishes basic guidelines for protecting the press from government interference and ensuring journalists access to sources of information. The document's creators hope the charter's adoption will become a condition in future EU accession negotiations.

RFE/RL correspondent Bernd Volkert spoke to Hans Ulrich Joerges, a chief editor at Germany's "Stern" magazine, who initiated the charter project.

RFE/RL: Your charter breaks down into 10 articles that lay out fundamental principles of freedom of the media. Which, in your mind, are the most important points?

Hans Ulrich Joerges:
First of all, protecting journalists from being spied on, and having their editorial offices subject to eavesdropping and other attempts at exposing their sources for stories that are potentially explosive -- particularly political stories. Second, the freedom of journalists to collect and distribute information, including abroad. Third, the freedom of all European citizens to gather information from all news sources, including those abroad.

These are some of the essential points. Additionally, there is the protection of journalists from economic pressure. Many journalists today, especially during the economic crisis, are under pressure not only from their governments or political organizations and parties, but also from companies that try to put pressure on the editorial offices through advertising revenues. These points are at the center of the charter.

RFE/RL: You are personally responsible for penning the first draft of the charter. How did you come up with the idea, and what stages did the document go through before a final version was produced? The process was reportedly rather difficult.

I got the idea two years ago after a conversation between chief European editors and the European Commission in Brussels. These talks take place regularly. The European commissioner for information society and media, Viviane Reding, uses the opportunity to keep herself up to date on what European journalists are thinking about.

The meetings are usually routine. But this time, I got involved in a conversation with colleagues, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, and I learned the amount of pressure they work under. So I made a spontaneous proposal: let's work out a European charter for freedom of the press. The European Union can't do it -- that's not their business.

So at lunch, we talked to representatives of the publishers' and journalists' associations that are based in Brussels. They agreed to negotiate such a charter.

So they did that for two years, but in the end, they couldn't arrive at an agreement. They failed largely because of a question of whether freedom of advertising should be included in the charter. The publishers were in favor of that, but the journalists' associations were against it. So instead of just leaving that issue out, they let the whole charter fail.

I have to confess, I was very upset about this. Some of my German colleagues and I took it upon ourselves to make this a concern of the journalists themselves. And we succeeded. The associations negotiated for two years; but from the time we started until the signing in Hamburg, we took just three months. You can see how quickly these things can work if you take the direct route and keep out all these terrible bureaucracies.

European Solidarity

RFE/RL: So the charter has been signed. What comes next?

First of all, the charter will be released on the Internet, so that all interested European journalists can sign it. In effect, the charter is meant to offer journalists in different countries -- particularly in Eastern Europe, where they have to withstand significantly stronger pressure than in Western Europe -- the chance to invoke the charter if it is violated. They should be able to say that something is a violation of the European Charter on Freedom of the Press.

Joerges is unequivical in his support for the publication of the Prophet Muhammad catoons.
But we in Western Europe shouldn't harbor any illusions either. There may be repeated violations of the charter, under any number of conditions. No one is free from the possibility that they will get in trouble, not even in Western Europe.

Talking to my Eastern European colleagues, I realized how strong the pressure is that they are exposed to. So I also realized that it's high time for us in Europe to unify journalistically, not only politically, and that we don't necessarily have to stop at the borders of the European Union. We've actually invited colleagues from Russia, Belarus, Turkey, Serbia, and other European countries that aren't EU members. It's not our task to divide Europe -- quite the contrary. We have to unite Europe. And if colleagues have problems and invoke the charter, we in the other countries have to be ready to support them in a show of solidarity.

We also want to hand over the charter to the European Commission, probably at the beginning of June, with the expectation that it will abide by the charter and implement it within the European Union and make it a condition in new EU membership negotiations. I'm curious to see what the reaction in Brussels will be.

RFE/RL: You've described the emphasis that the charter puts on the EU. But in the past few years, new issues have arisen that put the EU into a global context -- for example, when the publication of Prophet Muhammad cartoons in a Danish newspaper sparked violent street protests in many parts of the Muslim world, with Islamic groups trying to put pressure on Danish and European media to block further publication of the cartoons. What is your stance on such issues?

Representatives from "Jyllands-Posten," the Danish paper that originally published the Muhammad cartoons, were present at this week's signing. To me, there's no question that in such a case we have to defend "Jyllands-Posten" or any other paper exercising its free-press rights according to our European understanding of the freedom of the press. That's a point I don't even want to discuss. That's part of the pressure exerted on the press. And even sharp criticism -- criticism that may hurt individuals -- belongs in the realm of press freedom."

Bringing Together East And West

RFE/RL: In saying that, don't you raise the European Charter's mission to a global level?

We don't want that. That would be presumptuous. We're glad that we managed to do it in Europe. If European media come under pressure globally, we have to support them. And then there will be global complications.

But the charter doesn't claim in any way to take this on. Maybe, at some point, the charter will be a model for similar agreements in non-European countries. And maybe -- this would be our strongest hope -- someday we'll arrive at a global charter on press freedom. But that's a long way away.

We're glad to have brought together Europe -- especially Eastern and Western Europe. We really had very interesting discussions, full of new insights for me and other colleagues from Germany and Western Europe.

For example, our Russian colleagues were very insistent that we incorporate a protective clause against the judiciary into the charter. But this wasn't possible, since we in Western Europe are usually protected by the courts, rather than needing to be protected from them. That is an experience that's very particular to Russia.

Colleagues from Bosnia wanted to include protection from religious communities. But this, again, isn't possible in Western Europe. We tried to include it by phrasing it in very general terms. But in Europe we certainly can't explicitly state in such a charter that we want to be protected from the churches. That would be too extensive.

RFE/RL: Reading the charter, one gets the impression that you envisaged different scenarios in which freedom of the media could be curtailed. These seemed to include instances of economic pressure and commercialization, particularly in Western Europe.

That's a misconception -- I actually believe economic pressure to be much stronger in the Eastern European countries, gathering from what I heard from colleagues from there. They feel very strong pressure -- especially now during the crisis, when advertising revenues are shrinking -- to soften their political reporting, and to publish front-page advertisements in formats that wouldn't be possible in Western Europe at all. It's my impression that economic pressure on the media in Eastern Europe is much stronger than here in Western Europe -- and it's strong enough already here.

We Western Europeans put more emphasis on issues like the surveillance of editorial offices, and attempts by the state, intelligence agencies, or police authorities to go after us to reveal our sources in individual cases. That's a big problem for us in Western Europe, in Germany.

We had a big discussion about data retention in Germany and Europe, which can be used to record journalists' phone contacts. We had a big discussion in Germany on online searches, which our journalists wouldn't have been explicitly excluded from. Police authorities and intelligence services could go onto our computers to find out what we have saved there, or with whom we communicate. From our point of view, this has been the main emphasis.

RFE/RL: So-called new media, like the Internet or the blogosphere, aren't mentioned specifically in the charter. But those things are open to their own possibilities for censorship and intervention.

We did take that into account. In our final discussions on the charter, we made changes to include journalistic media in all its forms. This refers explicitly to online media as well.

For example, we did object to the introduction of an obligation for online media to be licensed in a way that would put online media under state surveillance. We had a rather big discussion about it [at the signing]. And we've been looking for formulations to include all media -- including online media.

RFE/RL: Since your charter has a stated European perspective, there are no representatives included from the Middle East or Central Asia. Do you have any plans regarding these regions, which have significant free-press problems of their own?

No. Not at all. We're limiting ourselves to the European region. And Asia and the Middle East are not regions we are targeting. We don't limit ourselves to the European Union -- this would be a big mistake. So for this reason we've included Turkey, as a candidate country for the EU, and also the Balkan states, which are not yet members of the EU, as well as the European Union, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. That's enough. This is already a large-scale framing of Europe, and we don't dare to take on more.

RFE/RL: But if, for example, journalists from different countries want to sign the charter on the Internet, would you welcome that?

No, we wouldn't welcome it. In such a case, I would tell those colleagues to go ahead and sign their own charter in their region -- or country, if it's not possible to extend it to the whole region. The European charter can serve as a model, if it is acknowledged by our colleagues in other countries.

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