By: Mary Elgin
As I walked around the various offices of Reuters, France Télévisions and many more, I realized just how different the press in the countries of the Czech Republic, France, Belgium and Italy really is. Everything from Slate’s system of productions to McCann Erikson’s tolerance for dogs was intriguing to see. However, there was one topic that these four countries didn’t go into a lot: censorship. I thought it would be extremely interesting to investigate a little more how these four countries stack up against one another in terms of how much freedom journalists have to write and how many restrictions are put on them.
In the past century, the Czech Republic had very little press freedom. The Nazis invaded what was called Czechoslovakia at that time not only physically but also journalistically with the creation of the Central Censorship Commission. After the war ended, the Communist Party eventually took over in a monopoly of propaganda and information that expanded across Eastern Europe. This didn’t end until the complete breakdown of the Soviet Union.
Things were much better for the Czech Republic after it broke off from Hungary and Slovak into its own country. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, censorship was abolished and a free press rose into prominence in the Czech Republic as well as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Other Eastern European countries such as Armenia and Georgia have not been so lucky; there’s been resurgence in censorship crackdown. Even though the Czech press deals with challenges like any other democratic society, the country has managed to achieve a competitive news environment. Part of this comes from economic success. The Czech Republic, becoming a member of the European Parliament in 2004, flourished and was allowed to develop strong levels of economic growth and allowed more political diversity.
For France in the 20th century, a great many forms of censorship were implemented. Like in the United States and other countries, censorship in France was stricter during World War I. For instance, a postal censorship was put into place as an attempt to control the French citizens’ confidence in the chances of winning the war. And during World War II, of course, the French were under Germany’s thumb after they were invaded and had many restrictions on them.
Since that time and even to this very day, the press is relatively unhindered by law in France, although there are occasional pressures that are put on them to prevent the publication of material that goes against the interests of the government and wealthy, influential industry groups. For example, Agence France-Presse is a news agency is technically independent from the government, but a lot of its revenue comes from sales to government. The fact that a lot of the French press depends on advertisements for income also poses a challenge to its journalistic independence. However, there are exceptions. A newspaper called Canard enchaîné is notorious for its severe watchdog reputation, which batters away against the will of the French government and for not having advertising like mainstream French news organizations.
The freedom of the Belgium press can be traced back all the way to their constitution that was constructed in 1831. Three articles, including Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Information clauses, had been set aside for freedom of the press in “Belgians and Their Rights,” the Belgian equivalent for America’s Bill of Rights.
However, even thought the media is constitutionally protected to be free and independent, journalists still find themselves constantly bogged down by lawsuits and being forced to reveal controversial sources. Starting in 1999, journalists and media outlets increased their insurance policies to cover any penalties they might be sidled with in the future. Being fined by the courts often happens. Although censorship is technically nonexistent, cases where Belgian courts rule against journalists in instances of libel and source confidentiality have become more and more frequent in the past decade or so, especially when involving public figures. But while Belgium’s print press is free from extreme governmental control, audio and visual media is subject to the state, since it’s run by the state. The government also hasn’t done much in the past in terms of limiting media monopolies, although they were legally banned in the late 1980s.
Italy, in comparison to Belgium, hasn’t been so lucky in its past. Although press censorship stretches far back in Italian history, the Fascist era was the time that influenced the country the most. News came directly from the government and would be adapted to the various forms of news outlets. After fascism ended, the democratic republic that Italy had become still kept the foundations of fascist law on press.
Today, the Italian media is still overtly politicized; most Italians prefer online sources to others, considering it to be much more reliable. Before 2004 in the “Freedom of the Press” report, Italy was classified as “Free,” but was downgraded to “Partly Free” after 20 years of so-called failed political administration. Since then, Italy’s unstable press status has changed back and forth. In recent years, Silvio Berlusconi, billionaire tycoon and four-time prime minister, owns three of Italy’s biggest television networks. And although some problems in the country have been credited to him, he has caused Italy to rise in the ranks in regards to press freedom, partly due to the fact that his three television networks are free of political analysis. In Italy, the most effected way to gain control over the media in through series of lawsuits.
Each of the four countries (the Czech Republic, France, Belgium and Italy) has their different standards of censorship and what is tolerable. They come from diverse histories and cultures and have their own way with dealing with the press, some being more restricting than others. This was a very unique experience for me to see how the journalistic and historical differences of these four countries stacked up to one another, as well as compare them to what I know of the United States. It will forever be apart of my life, not only as a journalist, but as a person too.