Democracy & Justice

What is the European Media Freedom Act? Why Is It Needed?

What is the European Media Freedom Act? What is its purpose? When will it be launched? What new rules will it bring?

by Jascha Galaski

What is the European Media Freedom Act?

The European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) is a new legislation that will regulate the media environment in the European Union (EU) and ensure the protection of media freedom and pluralism. The European Commission included the EMFA in its 2022 work program.

A properly functioning democracy relies on free and pluralistic media. In a healthy media landscape, diverse media companies give a voice to people from all groups of society. Citizens can form opinions based on different perspectives and make informed decisions, including who they will vote for in the next elections.

Independent, investigative and quality journalism keeps an eye on politicians and powerful businesses and make sure that wrongdoings are reported, and perpetrators held accountable.

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Now, the Commission has prepared a first draft of the EMFA for presentation to the public in mid-September. Earlier this year, it published an open public consultation so that anyone can have a say, be it journalists, media outlets, big tech corporations, non-governmental organizations, watchdogs or individual citizens.

Why is it needed? What is its purpose?

There are multiple threats to media freedom in Europe. They include economic pressure, government-controlled media authorities and public service broadcasters, a high concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few powerful people, online attacks, physical violence and abusive lawsuits against journalists, and unfair allocation of state subsidies.

Let’s have a closer look at them.

- Economic pressure: Many news outlets, in particular smaller media publishers, struggle financially. There are different reasons. Some outlets have not been able to adapt their business model to the digital age. Others have been victims of abusive lawsuits that drain their financial resources or have suffered from a reduction in public funds. The Corona pandemic has only made things worse by pushing some local media into bankruptcy and others under the control of national or international players.

- Political pressure: In countries with authoritarian leaders, independent journalists, media organizations and public service broadcasters are put under serious pressure. These attacks range from a reduction or withdrawal of public subsidies, to a withdrawal or refusal of licenses. Some governments also exert pressure on the national media regulatory authorities responsible for enforcing media rules by replacing board members with people who are loyal to them.

- Online and physical violence: Independent media organizations, watchdogs, investigative journalists and their sources have faced smear campaigns, harassment, online and physical violence, hate speech and death threats. These attacks often lead to self-censorship.

- Abusive lawsuits: Journalists and the press are also regularly the victims of abusive lawsuits, also called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). These lawsuits, usually filed by powerful people who are afraid that their criminal acts will be revealed, aim to intimidate journalists and the press and pressure them into silence.

- Ownership concentration: In a healthy media landscape, there are many different media actors from all sides of the political spectrum, with different worldviews and opinions on social issues. However, when only a few powerful people control most of the media sector, they can push their views and limit the public’s access to other viewpoints. In many countries, even those who enjoy a high rating in the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index from the NGO Reporters Without Borders, media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few big players.

- Interference in editorial decisions: Editors in media organizations should be free to make decisions, regardless of whether the owner of the newspaper agrees. Otherwise, media coverage could be biased. In some countries public service media captured by the state avoid publishing views that are critical of the government or news that reflects badly on authority bodies.

How will it support media pluralism?

The Commission aims to tackle those issues and support media pluralism with the planned European Media Freedom Act. Priorities include:

  • protecting independent media, such as the press and journalists and their sources, from public and private interference, and to safeguard editorial independence;
  • safeguarding media pluralism, to ensure that citizens have access to a large variety of information and perspectives;
  • increasing transparency when it comes to the money that governments distribute to the media, including the allocation of state advertising;
  • increasing transparency of media ownership, to clarify who actually owns which media outlet; and
  • securing the economic sustainability of the media sector.

What is the revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive and how is it connected to the European Media Freedom Act?

The Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) is the legal framework that establishes general principles for a safe and pluralistic media environment in the EU. The Directive regulates television broadcasting and, since 2010 when the fourth version of the AVMSD entered into force, also on-demand services such as Netflix or Sky.

In 2018, the EU adopted the revised AVMSD, which imposed new rules and responsibilities for content regulation on big online platforms. The AVMSD also includes rules on the strengthening of media regulators, ownership transparency and editorial independence.

The European Media Freedom Act is building upon the revised AVMSD. Instead of reinventing the whole thing, it addresses the issues that the AVMSD failed to cover.

What changes will the European Media Freedom Act bring?

There is still some way to go before the EMFA is adopted and enters into force, but we can already anticipate its future impact on the media landscape in the EU. It is likely that the EMFA will bring more financial stability and opportunities for growth to smaller media companies. It is also expected that the EMFA will bring greater transparency on the allocation of state advertising and on media ownership.

However, its success will depend on the proper enforcement of the rules. National media regulatory authorities are likely to be allocated the enforcement and supervision role, supported by the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA) who will also coordinate EU-wide efforts. This is sensible, but in those countries where authoritarian leaders have placed pro-government people at the head of national media regulators, the EMFA may end up being a toothless tiger.

The EU is committed to the values of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. A strong EMFA would support these values, because a free and plural media system is integral to implementing these values. A properly functioning democracy relies on balanced and well-informed public debate, which in turn is made possible through a free and plural media. The media make use of, but also help to fulfill for the general public, the right to access information and freely exchange opinions and information. Free and pluralistic media is also a prerequisite for free and fair elections at the national and EU levels.

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