Reporters Without Borders yesterday released its 2010 World Press Freedom Index. Thirteen of the EU’s 27 members are in the top 20 in terms of press freedoms, but some of the other EU nations are very low. The European Union has had a reputation for valuing and respecting human rights, and new data suggests that reputation is at risk.

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RSF’s Top 10 in Press Freedom Index

“We must salute the engines of press freedom, with Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland at their head,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard. “We must also pay homage to the human rights activists, journalists and bloggers throughout the world who bravely defend the right to speak out.”

Many Northern European nations, such as Finland, the Netherlands and Norway, have remained at the top of the ranking thanks to their strong protections for media institutions and journalists. But overall the freedom of expression model in Europe is weakening, and part of the reason is an ongoing effort to implement online content filtering, restrict file-sharing and other related measures.

Along with those developments, Ireland is still punishing blasphemy with a 25,000 Euro fine, the U.K. continues to keep outdated and worrying defamation laws on the books. Plus, Italy and France have seen their political leaders interfere with press activity. It seems that the legislative aspect is the most significant when it comes to Europe losing its world leader human rights status.

EU’s Gallo Report

As I mentioned in my previous post for MediaShift, Reporters Without Borders is concerned that France might sacrifice online freedom for the sake of security by implementing a new Internet filtering system. The goal of the legislation is to limit access to pedophile and porn sites. Filtering is a widespread practice today in Europe, and can be very harmful to Internet users if badly implemented. It can also have a chilling effect on freedom of the press.

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The groups La Quadrature du Net is protesting the Gallo Report

In late September, the European Union adopted the Gallo Report, which made several suggestions about how the EU can better defend intellectual property rights and combat piracy. For Reporters Without Borders, the measures outlined in the report represent a repressive approach that violates the right of Internet users in part because it ignores the fact that legal file-sharing exists and fosters online creativity.

“The Gallo Report is an illustration of the will of the entertainment industry to try to impose private copyright police,” said Jérémie Zimmermann, founder of the advocacy group La Quadrature du Net. “Repressive schemes such as the ‘three strikes’ policies and other Internet access restrictions negate fundamental rights, such as the right to a fair trial, the freedom of communication or the right to privacy.”

EU members have begun implementing the Gallo Report, in spite of court rulings that go against its recommendations. Earlier this month, Ireland’s High Court in Ireland ruled against three major record labels who wanted to see a “three strikes” policy implemented against Internet users who possess or share illegally downloaded content.

“The High Court ruled that laws to identify and cut off Internet users illegally copying music files were not enforceable in Ireland,” according to the Irish Times.

However, the biggest ISP in the country is still implementing a three strikes policy by sending warning letters to those identified as illegal file-sharers. So does France, but Mark Mulligan, an analyst with research firm Forrester, told the BBC it is unlikely to happen in the U.K.

European Decline

When it comes to Internet filtering, file sharing and related issues, Europe is home to varying policies and laws. That’s why one of the problems with the Gallo Report is how vague it is. This leads to a situation wherein nations in Northern Europe can be at the forefront of press freedom and online rights while its neighbors rank much lower. The two issues are of course closely related in the Internet age.

Overall, press freedom in Europe is on the decline, and we are far from reaching a consensus on how free European citizens can be to use the Internet.