EU bows to Chinese censorship demands on press freedom day
by Francesco Guarascio
In the past, the EU was under the impression it could help to spread democratic norms – like press freedom – to autocratic regimes, now it has become supine in the face of Chinese demands and power
The European institutions could not find a better way to celebrate yesterday's World Press Freedom Day than bowing to the Chinese disrespect for democratic values and accepting China's decision to hold no press conference on the occasion of the visit to Brussels of vice-premier Li Keqiang. Following a refusal from the Chinese authorities, the European Commission dropped plans to organise a press briefing. This runs contrary to the usual tradition of allowing journalists to pose questions after top-level meetings in the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Union executive. Commission President JosÚ Manuel Barroso shook hands with Keqiang and discussed a number of issues with him, but nobody from the media was permitted to ask him for an account of what was said.
Meanwhile, the president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy maintained the same approach and gave no press conference after his one-to-one meeting with the Chinese vice-premier. In a note issued after the talk, he confined himself to the usual bureaucratic jargon - stating that the meeting was "fruitful" and that "the EU and China should keep working together to deepen our relationship in the future". Only a brief reference was made to human rights and other pending issues with China. The sizeable Brussels press corps reacted harshly. The daily media briefing held at midday in the commission headquarters was dominated by questions over the press coverage black-out imposed on yesterday's high-level meeting. It was easy to spot and underscore the paradox - that the self-proclaimed transparent European institutions were adapting to Chinese anti-press rules on the very day when the world celebrated press freedom.
"Today is world press freedom day, but unfortunately for much of the world it is just another day without media freedom or even freedom of speech," the president of the International Press Association or API, in Brussels, Ann Cahill in a statement read yesterday in the EU press room. "A free media, free speech and the accountability of our leaders is part of our democracy. However, we must question this now as once again the EU institutions appear to roll back or hide these fundamental principles in deference to other regimes."
The response from the commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen certainly did not put out the fire. "You have had an unprecedented opportunity to exercise your freedom in the press room with this statement; I gave you the floor 100 percent today as an indication that we have the position that press and media freedom and freedom of expression is not negotiable," she said. "We do practice what we preach, but we also have to be real about the partnerships that we have." Immediately on Twitter, Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph Bruno Waterfield wryly tweeted: "EC spokesman says EU press freedom is alive and well because API can make statements complaining about its absence." In her statement, Cahill also called for Barroso to give a press conference after the meeting even without his Chinese counterpart. But Barroso did not appear in front of the press at all yesterday.
This is not the first time that the European institutions have bowed down to anti-democratic regimes "in some sense of misplaced courtesy or diplomatic nicety," added Cahill. Barroso's commission stands accused of having tightened links with many dictators, especially in resource-rich Central Asian countries. A recent visit to Brussels by Uzbekistan's strongman Islam Karimov – who has been in power for decades - raised protests, but no press conference was arranged following his high-level meetings with top EU officials. Oddly enough - in the last EU-China Summit held in Brussels in October 2010, the Chinese appeared to have accepted the idea of a press conference. It did not take place in the end as Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was warned that there were five Chinese journalists working for anti-regime media, which are banned in China, waiting for him in the press room. The risk of embarrassing questions was too high for the briefing to be allowed.
The unwelcome journalists were initially banned by EU security officers from entering the Justus Lipsius building, where the council has its headquarters and where the EU-China Summit was being held. Once they were allowed in, the press conference was cancelled. "This was the first time that we were stopped at the entrance, despite the fact that we have our EU press badges and we regularly attend to council meetings," Epoch Times correspondent Lixin Yang, one of the journalists temporarily prevented from accessing the building, told PublicServiceEurope.com. "We saw Chinese officials handing in to EU officials a paper, which we believe was the blacklist of journalists that the Chinese authorities wanted to ban."
This time, the European organisation was cleverer and no press conference was scheduled at all. Once it was felt that by engaging with anti-democratic regimes and asserting 'soft power', Europe could help to promote its values – almost by osmosis. The process is certainly underway, but in reverse. Autocratic regimes are now spreading their anti-democratic norms to Brussels, rather than the EU implanting the seeds of democracy – including a free press – into the worldview of regimes like the Chinese powerhouse. It is a worrying trend and one that Europe should be fighting against.