April 20, 2018 / 5:18 PM / 3 months ago

Europe's public broadcasters fight back on cash, bias

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Public broadcasters in Europe are fighting funding cuts promoted by populist politicians and commercial rivals as well as pressure from governments trying to use them for propaganda, the head of their association said on Friday.

The European Broadcasting Union, representing 73 members in 56 countries, is taking governments in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and elsewhere to task for failing to respect the independence of public media.

EBU director general Noel Curran told Reuters that sanctions against members - including suspension from the organization - could not be ruled out, though he emphasized the problem was not coming from the journalists themselves but from governments.

EBU membership involves accepting core values that include being independent of political influence and offering a plurality of views — values the organization says are under threat in some member countries.

“We are absolutely concerned with what is happening in Poland, in Hungary, in Turkey,” said Curran, who took the EBU role last year after running Ireland’s public broadcaster RTE.

“We are trying to take a really pro-active approach and we have not been shy about criticizing governments,” he said in an interview, referring to pressure on public media ranging from the arrests of journalists to discouraging opposition views.

“Going into sanction with any member if the appropriate reasons are there is an option. But ... we need to be careful here that we don’t start associating everyone who works in these organizations with a government line and a government policy.

“Are we to say ... ‘We’re just going to cut you loose.’ Is that what we say to the reporters? ... This isn’t being driven on the floor of newsrooms, it’s being driven by government.

“We need to be ... prepared to criticize actions that we feel restrict freedom of the press and we need to offer support to broadcasters.”

BUDGET PRESSURE

Lobbying and educating to defend the role of public service media and raising concerns with the Council of Europe human rights body was part of the EBU’s response, he said. This week, for example, the Geneva-based EBU called on Ukraine’s parliament to amend a law it said threatens editorial independence.

While eastern Europe is a focus of concern over direct political pressure, the EBU was also worried about a trend in wealthier western states to cut funding for public broadcasters.

Noting an end to a mandatory fee to fund public TV and radio in Denmark and a 20-percent budget cut for Danish broadcaster DR and a Swiss referendum last month which failed to end the license fee, Curran said hostility from rising “populist” parties and more concerted lobbying by cash-strapped commercial media were threatening public funding.

Right-wingers in Denmark and Switzerland drove both moves.

Acknowledging that public broadcasters may in the past have been “a bit arrogant” towards commercial outlets, Curran said the focus now was to promote a “healthy media ecosystem” in which public media played a role and also to strengthen the presence of public media’s news on the main online platforms.

Editing by Richard Balmforth

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