Europe's largest journalists' group today accused political leaders of "complacency and cowardice" in the face of a growing assault on public service broadcasting in Europe. The leaders of the European Federation of Journalists, meeting in Brussels at the weekend, issued a forceful statement calling on the European Union to react over media developments in Italy and Portugal.
"The future of public service broadcasting in Europe is in the balance," said Gustl Glattfelder, Chairman of the EFJ, "In Italy the Prime Minister now exercises political influence over about 90 per cent of the country's broadcasting market and in Portugal the government is threatening to privatise the public broadcasting system."
At the same time, says the EFJ, political and commercial battles over media are raising new questions over the future of independent broadcasting in France and Spain.
"A genuine sense of crisis over the future of broadcasting is spreading from the countries on the verge of membership of the European Union into the heart of western Europe, yet the European Union remains silent," said Glattfelder. "Instead of action to defend Europe's broadcasting and pluralist traditions we have complacency, cowardice and a failure of nerve on the part of politicians."
The EFJ is seeking an early meeting with Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, and with the Spanish Presidency of the European Union to express its concerns over recent events. The EFJ leadership is further seeking action from the European Parliament and the Council of Europe and plans to launch a widespread campaign among journalists' and media unions to raise the issue at national level.
In Italy, the controversial Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a private media magnate whose government has recently appointed political allies to manage two of the country's three public television networks, has further enraged journalists after accusing two critical commentators of "criminal use" of state television against him. He also blasted a comedian who made jokes at his expense.
"We deplore such attacks by political leaders from either left or right," said Glattfelder, "Politicians may resent scrutiny, but they must live with the reality of holding power in a democracy - people test your words, question your motives and challenge your policies and when this is done within the traditions of professional journalism it is the embodiment of democracy at work."
The EFJ says that the conflict of interest by which Berlusconi exercises political power while controlling most of the country's broadcast media is a "scandal that will not go away" and is calling for the European Union to act. "We understand EU fears about the legal status of its role, but that is no excuse for silence in the face of growing concern not just in Italy but all around Europe."
In Portugal, the EFJ is backing the protests of its member union Sindicato dos Journalistas, which is fighting government plans to privatise the country's two public channels. "It is unacceptable that public broadcasting should be turned over to the cash-driven culture of commercial media without a thought for the democratic consequences," says the EFJ, "The public have a right to an information service that is not driven purely by the narrow values of the market place."
The crisis in broadcasting will be a major feature of the annual meeting of journalists associations and unions from around Europe that will meet in Brussels on June 15th when an action plan will be put forward, including plans for a European wide day of action to highlight the crisis in broadcasting.