Democracy & Justice

Op-Ed: Euronews, Orbán, Fico — media freedom is in peril across the EU

On 11 April, the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) passed its final vote before becoming law in the EU. The same day, it came to light that the 2022 sale of Euronews had in fact placed it under the control of investors closely allied with Hungarian prime

by Eva Simon, Jonathan Day

Two weeks after this revelation, the Fico government approved a law bringing Slovakia’s public service media under political control, in direct contradiction with the EMFA.

Finally, at the end of April, the latest edition of the annual Liberties Media Freedom Report was published, confirming the dangerous state of media freedom throughout the EU and warning that the EMFA is far from a panacea.

The findings of the report, which tracks developments in media freedom in 19 EU member states, make clear why the EU felt it needed to act. Attacks on journalists were widespread last year, from France and Germany to Croatia and Greece.

Harassment and vexatious lawsuits known as SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits of public participation) remain commonplace.

Some governments refuse critical journalists access to public events or buildings. Public service media face funding cuts and influence from politicians; in Hungary, they are part of the government’s propaganda machine. Media ownership concentration is heavy, but transparency about exactly who those owners are remains low.

The Euronews story shows us how the ownership of even large, EU-level news companies can remain shrouded in secrecy. Roughly two years removed from its sale, we are only just beginning to understand who’s ultimately in charge there. Media ownership transparency is a first step towards accountability and makes it possible for people to understand who controls the news sources they rely on. Hidden influence on media outlets also creates a less pluralistic media landscape, preventing people from having access to a plurality of voices, forming their opinions, and making informed decisions at the polls.

EU institutions have taken note of the bloc’s declining media freedom and pluralism, and there has been new legislation aiming to reverse the slide.

Most prominent, of course, is the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA). The EMFA sets out minimum standards that, while important, leave much still to be done by member states and national and EU-level authorities.

'National security' loophole

It bans the use of Pegasus, Predator and other spyware against journalists — but creates a national security loophole that is ripe for abuse. It requires some media ownership information to be published at the national level, such as names and addresses, including their beneficial owners, direct or indirect but does not create a centralised EU-level database of media owners and their affiliation to politicians, leaving it to national regulators to determine how and how much data is made transparent.

It requires fair and transparent allocation of state advertising expenditures but with limited safeguards, leaving it to member states to require more transparency and determine a stricter legal framework for the transparent, non-discriminatory allocation of state advertising.

Clearly, the EMFA is not enough to fully protect media freedom and pluralism, even when combined with the Anti-SLAPP directive and other extremely important legislation, which again sets only minimum standards for protecting journalists.

The Fico government’s decision to gut the independence of public service media so soon after passage of the EMFA makes clear the need for close and continuous monitoring.

Restoring and protecting media freedom across the EU requires strong cooperation between the EU and member states. The European Board of Media Services, a new and independent body made up of national media authorities, assisted by the EU Commission, will be tasked with ensuring the consistent application of the EMFA.

It will fall on national and EU regulatory bodies to enforce the EMFA and the Digital Services Act, which regulates the online environment to create an accessible, transparent and safe space to access information and express opinions. Member state governments must make sure those regulatory bodies remain independent, and pass new laws with further safeguards where EU law falls short.

Civil society, self-regulatory bodies and journalists’ associations must play an active role in monitoring the implementation and laws and policies and how they work in practice. The Treaty of the EU sets out an obligation for the EU institutions to “maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society,” and elaborating a well-functioning dialogue with civil society should be on the agenda of the next commission.

The events of just the last months make clear that EU legislation will not be enough to resuscitate media freedom in the EU, especially in member states where the government views a free press as its adversary.

With this information, EU and national officials will have a clear understanding of how best to work together to secure a truly free and pluralistic media landscape in Europe.

This op-ed originally was published in EUObserver.



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