”The European Commission will accept no deviation on the part of candidate countries from European Union standards on freedom of expression and the media,” Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said in his speech at the Speak Up! Freedom of Expression and Media Conference in Brussels on 6 May. ”In the Western Balkans and Turkey, freedom of expression and the media are under threat. Too often, journalists have either been murdered or violently attacked,” said the Commissioner, adding that he would put these issues at the heart of the accession process.
Štefan Füle cited political interference, economic pressures and violence against the media as major issues of concern. He added that implementation of media legislation in Western Balkans and Turkey lags far behind. In particular, Turkish legislation is not in line with the European Convention on Human Rights, and does not sufficiently safeguard the freedom of expression, the Commissioner added.
“I am also concerned that there are journalists detained while the evidence is not made available,” Štefan Füle said. “These are important questions we need to address,” he added.
Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said that the EU expects its neighbours and potential future members to commit to the principle of freedom of speech. “We must speak up much louder in the name of freedom of expression and the media,” she said. She acknowledged that the EU is sometimes “limited in how far it can go”.
Commissioner Füle formulated the same thought. “We are not the one writing the laws” in the Balkans or Turkey. He explained that the acquis communautaire, or body of EU laws, treaties and agreements, offers limited scope for the Commission to give direction to candidate countries on legislation and standards relating to freedom of expression and the media.
Nevertheless, freedom of expression and the media are crucial aspects of the political Copenhagen criteria, which set out the standards a country must meet if it is to be eligible to join the EU. Stefan Füle said “we try to get the best out of this extremely important point”. He explained that he would like to see in the next set of enlargement progress reports a description of the status of freedom of expression and the media in the candidate countries, accompanied by a “roadmap” setting out the short, medium and long term steps that will be taken to ensure that rights are safeguarded.
Sašo Ordanoski, journalist from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and consultant on media issues, advised the Commission to be more outspoken on freedom of expression and the media. “Politicians in the Western Balkans don’t react if they are criticised behind closed doors in a diplomatic way,” he said.
”You have to know that the Commission is not God and can not do everything. We will try to find ways to promote projects. The proposals for follow-up of this conference will be sent to the Prime Ministers of your countries and I will continue to raise the issue publically and openly on every occasion,” Commissioner Štefan Füle concluded.
Concrete follow-up activities are being finalised now. They will be published once they are ready and sent to the Governments.