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‘The Invisible Hand of Media Censorship in the Balkans’

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Antoinette Nikolova, founder of the Balkan Free Media Initiative, presented the main findings of a report entitled: “The Invisible Hand of Media Censorship in the Balkans”. The report is the first report of the Balkan Free Media Initiative which was launched in the Brussels Press Club (12 October). The report shines a light on the situation in Serbia, North Macedonia and Bulgaria, but there are wider lessons to be learnt for the EU and wider Europe. 

The report looks at how commercial practices employed by state actors can undermine objective journalism, control public discourse and help governments consolidate political power acting as a threat to democracy.

The report examines three methods used to control media markets: Control of public broadcasters and regulatory authorities; lack of transparency in ownership, the enabling of control of media outlets by governments or their proxies; and, a culture of clientelism through government advertising and/or grants. 

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One of the speakers at the event Peter Whitehead of Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) said that state control of the media was particularly pervasive in Balkan states.  The report looks at state control of the media through different commercial practices. While the report focuses on Balkan countries, it has certainly been witnessed elsewhere in Europe. 

Peter Horrocks OBE, formerly of the BBC World Service and member of the UK’s media regulatory body Ofcom called on the European Union to do more in the field of competition policy to address the situation. 

EU Reporter spoke to Radan Kanev MEP (EPP, BG) about the situation in Bulgaria. Intimidation of journalists and physical violence are well-documented, at the recent protests in Sofia in 2020, Dimitar Kenarov was detained and assaulted by police there was no satisfactory redress. Recently, editor of Euractiv Bulgaria, Georgi Gotev, an outspoken defender of independent reporting on Bulgaria, who chaired Tuesday’s launch was attacked on a street in Brussels, the assailant was not identified, but it appears to be another act of intimidation. 

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Kanev described the report is a very strong document, maybe one of the most serious pieces of research into the Balkan media market. Kanev says the EU needs to stop support for programmes for the media where the money is channelled through the executive, he thinks this should be administered directly by the European Commission. 

Bulgaria will hold elections for the third time this year on 14 November. 

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Media freedom and pluralism: Launch of the media ownership monitoring project

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On 27 September, the Commission launched the EU-funded Euromedia Ownership Monitor. The monitor, coordinated by the Paris Lodron Universitat Salzburg, will provide a country-based database containing information on media ownership, as well as systematically assess relevant legal frameworks and identify possible risks to media ownership transparency. Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová said: “It's getting increasingly difficult to understand who owns the media in the EU. This cannot be the case, because in democracy people deserve to know who provides them with information. This new tool will help inform the understanding of the media market and future policy initiatives.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “As a key pillar of our democracies, it is crucial to address and highlight the existing threats to independent media. We remain determined to present new initiatives such as the Media Freedom Act and increase our support for projects promoting transparency in the sector.”

This new tool will inform policy and regulatory assessments and initiatives dedicated to supporting media freedom and pluralism. It will pinpoint where media ownership lies, making potential concentration issues more visible and thereby increase the understanding of the media market. The amount of EU support dedicated to the project is €1 million and the project is expected to last until September 2022. Furthermore, a second call for proposals will be published in the coming weeks.

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The beneficiaries of this pilot project have been selected following a call for proposals, targeting stakeholders working in the field of media freedom and pluralism at a European, regional, and local level. This initiative is part of a broader effort in the field of media freedom and pluralism, as outlined in the European Democracy Action Plan. More information on this and other calls related to the field of media, either ongoing or under preparation, is also available here.

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Hi-tech cooperation between #China and #EU has huge potential

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China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives would stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence – writes Colin Stevens.

BRI seeks to revive the ancient Silk Road trade routes to link China with other countries in Asia, Africa and Europe through building a trade and infrastructure network.

The vision includes creating a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia.

China’s colossal infrastructure investments promise to usher in a new era of trade and growth for economies in Asia and beyond.

Increasing Chinese influence in Europe has been a growing source of anxiety in Brussels in recent years.

So, what are the implications of China’s growing influence as a global actor for the EU and its neighbours? We asked a range of experts for their views.

Sir Graham Watson, a former senior UK MEP, is among those who support the exciting initiative while at the same time warning that the EU needs to be closely involved.

Sir Graham, formerly a Liberal deputy, said, “The EU should embrace an initiative which will improve transport links across the Eurasian landmass and not allow China to own it entirely. To realise its full potential, this initiative must be a two-way street.

"Rather than allow the PRC to buy up and monopolise infrastructure such as the Port of Piraeus we should be investing in it together. Only that way can we tame China’s expansionist ambitions and tie it down into co-operation.”

Similar comments are voiced by Fraser Cameron, Director of the EU-Asia Centre in Brussels who said that China had “learned some important lessons from the first two-three years of the BRI, especially on financial and environmental sustainability.”

He adds, “This means that the EU, with its own connectivity strategy, could now consider partnering with China, as well as Japan and other Asian partners, to develop infrastructure projects of benefit to both continents.”

Paul Rubig, until recently a veteran EPP MEP from Austria, told this site that the “whole world, including the EU, needs to be part” of the BRI.

He added, “The scheme connects people through infrastructure, education and research and stands to benefit European people greatly

“The EU should be investing in the BRI because it will be a win win for both sides, the EU and China,” said Rubig who is closely involved with SME Europe

Similar comments were aired by the vastly experienced Dick Roche, a former Europe Minister in Ireland, who said, “BRI and the EU’s involvement in it makes perfect sense. It will help re-establish our historic connections with China. Yes, there are some differences between the two sides but BRI is in the mutual interests of the EU and China. Europe can play an active role in the initiative by maintaining dialogue with China.

"That is the best way forward and not by following the U.S approach to BRI. The U.S stance is a backward step and will achieve nothing.”

Roche, now a Dublin-based consultant, added, “If you look at what is happening in China now compared with 50 years ago the progress that is being made, including benefits brought about by BRI, are incredible.”

BRI investment began to slow in late 2018. Yet by the end of 2019, BRI contracts again saw a big uptick.

The U.S has voiced opposition, but several countries have sought to balance their concerns about China’s ambitions against the BRI’s potential benefits. Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe have accepted BRI financing, and Western European states such as Italy Luxembourg, and Portugal have signed provisional agreements to cooperate on BRI projects. Their leaders frame cooperation to invite Chinese investment and potentially improve the quality of competitive construction bids from European and U.S. firms.

Moscow has become one of the BRI’s most enthusiastic partners.

Further reflection comes from Virginie Battu-Henriksson, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who said, “The starting point for the EU’s approach to any connectivity initiative is whether it is compatible with our own approach, values and interests. This means that connectivity needs to respect the principles of sustainability and a level playing field.

“When it comes to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the European Union and China should share an interest in making sure that all investments in connectivity projects meet these objectives. The European Union will continue to engage with China bilaterally and in multilateral fora to find commonalities wherever possible and push our ambitions even higher when it comes to climate change issues. If China fulfils its declared aim of making the BRI an open platform that is transparent and based on market rules and international norms, it would complement what the EU is working for - sustainable connectivity with benefits for all involved.”

Elsewhere, a senior source at the EU foreign affairs directorate noted that the Belt and Road Initiative “is an opportunity for Europe and the world, but one that must not only benefit China.”

The source said, “EU unity and coherence are key: in cooperating with China, all Member States, individually and within sub-regional cooperation frameworks have a responsibility to ensure consistency with EU law, rules and policies. These principles also apply in terms of engagement with China's Belt and Road Initiative.

“At the EU level, cooperation with China on its Belt and Road Initiative takes place on the basis of China fulfilling its declared aim of making the BRI an open platform and adhering to its commitment to promoting transparency and a level playing field based on market rules and international norms, and complements EU policies and projects, in order to deliver sustainable connectivity and benefits for all parties concerned and in all the countries along the planned routes.”

At last year’s EU-China Summit in Brussels,  the two sides’ leaders discussed what they called the “huge” potential to further connect Europe and Asia in a sustainable manner and based on market principles and looked at ways to create synergies between the EU's approach to connectivity.

Noah Barkin, a Berlin-based journalist and a visiting fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, noted that when Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, visited Brussels in December, he delivered a key message to Europe.

"We are partners, not rivals," he told his audience at the European Policy Centre think tank, calling on the EU and Beijing to draw up an "ambitious blueprint" for cooperation.

Such cooperation is happening right now - thanks to BRI.

Business Europe’s “China Strategy”, recently published, points out that the EU is China’s most important trading partner, while China is the EU’s second most important trading partner. Total bilateral trade flows in goods grew to EUR 604.7 billion in 2018, while total trade in services amounted to almost EUR 80 billion in 2017.

And, says Business Europe, "here is still plenty of untapped economic potential for both sides."

The strategy notes that the EU is China’s most important trading partner, while China is the EU’s second most important trading partner. Total bilateral trade flows in goods grew to EUR 604.7 billion in 2018, while total trade in services amounted to almost EUR 80 billion in 2017. And there is still plenty of untapped economic potential for both sides.

The Chinese and European economies have benefitted tremendously from China’s accession to the WTO in 2001.

It says, “The Chinese and European economies have benefitted tremendously from China’s accession to the WTO in 2001.The EU should continue to engage China.”

Many new opportunities have already emerged as a result of new infrastructure that has been completed along the Belt Road route.

For example, Italy and China have worked to strengthen their relations and cooperation on the digital economy via a “digital” silk road and tourism.

A digital silk road is seen as a significant part of BRI. China, with the largest number of internet users and mobile phone users in the world, stands at the world’s largest e-commerce market and is widely recognized one of the top players in big data.

It is this huge market that seasoned observers like Watson, Rubig and Roche believe the EU should now try to tap in to, including via BRI.

The European Institute for Asian Studies cites the Budapest-Belgrade railway link refurbishment as a “great” case study to gain a better understanding of the BRI.

The project is part of the 17+1 Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It had been announced in 2013 but was stalled on the Hungarian side until 2019 due to EU tender regulations. The project has progressed differently on the Hungarian side than it did on the Serbian side as a non-EU member, due to the EU’s intervention, says the EIAS report.

“A digital silk road is a significant part of BRI. China, with the largest number of internet users and mobile phone users in the world, stands at the world’s largest e-commerce market and is widely recognized one of the top players in big data.

But, clearly, there is more to do to realise its full potential.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China (European Chamber), compiled its own study, The Road Less Travelled: European Involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Based on a member survey and extensive interviews, the report highlights the “peripheral” role currently played by European business in the BRI.

Even so, hi-tech cooperation between China and EU has huge potentials, and dialogues and mutual trust are keys to forming closer digital ties between the two sides, Luigi Gambardella, the president of the China EU business association, said.

China. by way of further example, successfully launched the twin Beidou-3 satellite last September, contributing to the digital Silk Road initiated by China in 2015, which involves helping other countries to build digital infrastructure and develop internet security.

Commenting on the digital Silk Road, Gambardella said it has the potential to be a "smart" player in the Belt and Road Initiative, making the BRI initiative more efficient and environment friendly. The digital links will also connect China, the world's largest e-commerce market, to other countries involved in the initiative.

Andrew Chatzky, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says, "China’s overall ambition for the BRI is staggering. To date, more than sixty countries—accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population—have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so."

"Analysts estimate the largest so far to be the $68 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a collection of projects connecting China to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. In total, China has already spent an estimated $200 billion on such efforts. Morgan Stanley has predicted China’s overall expenses over the life of the BRI could reach $1.2-1.3 trillion by 2027, though estimates on total investments vary," he said.

The original Silk Road arose during the westward expansion of China’s Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), which forged trade networks throughout what are today the Central Asian countries. Those routes extended more than four thousand miles to Europe.

Today, BRI promises to, once again, put China and Central Asia - and maybe the EU - at the epicentre of a new wave of globalisation.

 

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#EuropeanCinemaNight2019 - Free screenings showcase best of European film

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The second edition of theEuropean Cinema Night, an event celebrating the best of European film by offering free screenings, is going to take place from 2 to 6 December in cinemas across the EU. Organized by the Commission, under the Creative Europe MEDIA programme, and Europa Cinemas, the first network of cinemas focusing on European films, the initiative aims to connect European filmmakers, local cinemas, and the EU with film lovers all around Europe.

Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said: “Cinema is one of the best ways to celebrate the diversity and richness of our European culture and reinforce links between people through their shared passion for film. The European Cinema Night is not only an initiative to pay tribute to our artists and their creativity; it's also an example of how the EU can bring independent cinema closer to Europeans. We will continue to cherish and support our cultural and creative sectors, which are a key part of our economy and society, and a real asset for the future of Europe.”

Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Commissioner Tibor Navracsics said: “Very positive feedback on the first edition of the European Cinema Night shows how eager Europeans are to discover and better understand each other's cultures through cinema. By attending these free local events, people can share emotions, perceptions, and ideas they get while watching a film also made accessible to other citizens from across the continent. Enabling people to enjoy more films from other European countries is part of the EU's ongoing effort to build cohesive communities and a shared sense of belonging.”

Following the success of the first edition of the European Cinema Night, which took place in December 2018, the number of cinemas and cities participating has expanded: 54 cities will be involved, compared to 34 last year. The films have been chosen by local cinemas to allow them to adapt the programme to the interests and specifications of their diverse audiences. The programme features over 40 European films released in the past year and supported by MEDIA, including Les Misérables, The Truth, The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Il Traditore. After each of the screenings, viewers will have the opportunity to meet directors, producers, and critics to discuss the film. Representatives of the Commission will also be present to explain more about the MEDIA programme and its importance to support the European audiovisual landscape.

Background

Since 1991, the European Commission has shaped Europe's audiovisual sector, contributing to is competitiveness and to cultural diversity in Europe, through the MEDIA Programme. One of its most substantial actions is providing financial support to the distribution of European films outside their country of production. Every year, on average over 400 films are made available to audiences in another European country with MEDIA's help.

The ‘European Cinema Night' is part of an outreach strategy focusing on audiences and aiming to enhance knowledge of the MEDIA Programme and the topics it covers, while involving citizens. In addition, it helps to promote European audiovisual works across borders as well as cultural diversity. The initiative also complements the EUandME campaign, which uses a series of five short films focused on mobility, sustainability, skills and business, digital and rights to show how Europe makes a difference.

More information

European Cinema Night

List of screenings

Creative Europe MEDIA Programme

 

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