Media freedom and pluralism – diversity of opinions and voices, variety of sources, wide range of available formats, lack of concentration of ownership – are eroding in countries across the EU, according to Liberties’ new Media Freedom Report 2022. This is having far-reaching consequences on European democracy, which relies on balanced and well-informed public debate made possible by the flow of accurate and unbiased reporting from free and independent media.
But there is hope to stop the backsliding: the European Commission is formulating the EU’s Media Freedom Act (MFA), a new set of rules, which can set in place a number of safeguards to protect media freedom across the Union. By doing so, it can also help protect democracy and rule of law in Europe.
Myriad threats to media freedom
Government takeover of the media has been well documented in countries like Hungary and Poland, where the largest media outlets have been bought by friends of the ruling parties or come under political influence through changes in management or control of funding. Critical outlets have been similarly bought and then shuttered, or harassed with new, undue regulations.
Public service media (PSM) is a particularly concerning area. PSM should be free to fulfill their mission to provide people with publicly supported but editorially independent news. Beyond providing information – in forms accessible to different groups of vast audiences, including children – they also represent cultural attitudes and foster and promote shared values. These aims are unreachable when PSM is taken over by the government and turned into a mouthpiece to disseminate only those views supported by the ruling party.
Smear attacks, harassment and frivolous lawsuits known as SLAPPs intimidate independent journalists and have a chilling effect by causing them to self-censor and stop pursuing cases of corruption, environmental degradation and other nefarious acts. These attacks happen both offline – sometimes culminating in murder, as happened in 2021 to Dutch crime reporter Peter R. de Vries – and online, where social media platforms have become platforms for personal attacks and threats. The majority of harassment that German journalists experience, for example, happens online, with the result that some choose to self-censor.
How the EU can help right the ship
The Media Freedom Act will be an opportunity to fight back and better protect the freedom, independence and safety of those who deliver good quality journalism. There are a number of concrete steps the EU can take to achieve this aim, namely:
- The MFA should require that the appointment process of members to national media regulatory bodies be democratic and transparent. It should also set out basic standards for selection criteria, including proven expertise in matters of media regulation and independence from political influence or ties that cause a conflict of interest.
- To protect media pluralism, the MFA should create a transparent European database that includes information about the entire ownership chain of media outlets, including owners who have an influential ratio of shares or voting rights in the company. All media should be obliged to report reliable, up-to-date information to the database, which should be accessible to the public free of charge.
- Importantly, transparency requirements should not apply to bloggers and citizen journalists to ensure anonymity and avoid hate crimes against journalists.
- In order to ensure a fair and transparent distribution of funding, the MFA should define the basic principles of granting state aid and subsidies to media companies. These should include political impartiality, transparency of the funding, accountability, eligibility, and feasibility. Relatedly, member states should be required to periodically report on the distribution of state aid and subsidies to the media.
- The Commission should closely monitor the implementation of the EU Recommendation on the protection, safety, and empowerment of journalists and related EU legislation, such as the protection of persons who report breaches of Union law (Whistleblowing Directive), in close consultation and cooperation with civil society and media representatives. Similarly, protection for journalists facing strategic lawsuits against public participation is urgently needed.
- Moreover, annual monitoring of the status of media freedom and pluralism in the Member States should form part of the Commission’s annual Rule of Law Report, for which Liberties has contributed its own report. However, the benchmarks in the Commission’s Rule of Law Report regarding media freedom should be clearer and more specific.
The ongoing war in Ukraine is a lesson in the power that comes from controlling the media. Putin’s propaganda is convincing people in Russia and elsewhere that his war is in some way justified, that Ukrainians aren’t victims but aggressors. In Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and elsewhere, EU governments are seeking similar control over their national media landscape. Public service newsrooms are no longer free to run the stories they want to run, to report the facts as they find them, as damning as they may be. This means problems like bad governance and corruption remain hidden, and citizens are deprived of their right to access information to make an informed decision during elections.
The EU will soon have a chance to remedy the situation. It should view the Media Freedom Act as a tool to not only support and safeguard media freedom, but to protect European democracy itself. Without informed citizens and free and fair elections, democracy withers and authoritarianism takes hold. And, as we are witnessing, the consequences of this can be horrific.
If you are interested in more recommendations on the Media Freedom Act, read our full policy paper here.
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