Thomas Hammarberg: Let's not overreact to Leveson

The inquiry's findings will be of great interest, not just in the UK, but all over Europe

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Media freedom and diversity are vital for the development of informed and democratic societies. Yet, in parts of Europe today, state authorities refuse to issue broadcast licences to independent TV channels, and newspapers that criticise the authorities are prevented from buying newsprint. Journalists have been threatened, jailed or murdered, just for doing their jobs. Elsewhere, media pluralism is in worrying decline. Combined with partisan political agendas, monopolies can distort or block democratic debate and freedom of speech. Italy under Silvio Berlusconi was an example of the dangers of combining state and corporate media dominance in the same hands.

The global economic crisis has wreaked further havoc on the traditional media – which, in turn, has influenced the quality of journalism. Harsh market forces have cut down investment in training and investigative journalism. This has created a temptation for illegal and unethical activity in some newsrooms, as the phone-hacking scandal in the UK has demonstrated.

The decision to set up a special inquiry into the practices and ethics of the British media was important. The findings and recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson will be of great interest, not only in the UK, but all over Europe. Public outrage is legitimate when the ethics of journalism are abandoned in pursuit of money and political influence, and when the press exercises power without responsibility. However, the abuses carried out by News International – outrageous as they were – should not be used as an excuse to curtail media freedom.

The media community must listen carefully to the concerns now being expressed. An urgent discussion is needed on how self-regulation can be strengthened. Unfortunately, existing systems have not been particularly effective in most European countries. Self-regulation should be seen as a solemn promise by the media to be accountable to the public and to correct mistakes. But governments must, in response, be restrained in their approach to the media and the work of journalists.

Though reporters and editors are not megaphones for particular interests – not even the defence of human rights – ethical journalism and human rights protection have evolved hand in hand. Ethical journalists serve the public's right to know and resist any pressures to distort, be they from owners, business interests or political forces. The dramatic changes in the media landscape must be seen in the spirit of human rights. Our democracies need free and diverse media.

Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights. His new report into media freedom is titled 'Human Rights in a changing media landscape'

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