In Europe, as in much of the world, journalism, and especially independent journalism, is facing threats on multiple fronts. Authoritarian governments are actively trying to silence critical journalists, even in strongholds of democracy like the European Union. Online news aggregators have pinched the income of journalists and news outlets such that they may no longer be financially viable. And new, creative approaches, like using the legal system, are being employed to shut down investigative reporting.
All of this is happening because independent journalism is one of the most important tenets of democracy. And when a government can control what news its citizens consume, they can control what information they have when they cast their vote. Only by protecting independent journalism can we ensure that people have a balanced, informed understanding of their government and its policies. And this is why protecting independent journalism is tantamount to protecting democracy.
What is independent journalism?
Independent journalism, also called independent media, refers to any news media that is free from influence by the government or other external sources like corporations or influential people. This includes television, newspapers, radio and online journalism. It means that journalists feel no pressure to shape or sanitize their reporting, even if it may negatively portray the government or other power entities, even the owner of the news outlet or other individuals. Independent journalism allows unvarnished facts to be shared with the public so that it may use the information to help them decide on important issues, like which politicians or policies to support or which companies are acting ethically and thus deserve their business.
Independent journalism is an essential part of democracy. Free and informed public debate is the backbone of democracy. It allows us to freely exchange ideas and discuss matters and alternative views so that we have the information we need to make good choices at the polls. When journalists are pressured to shape their reporting so that it is in line with a certain government position or corporate interest, they aren’t necessarily free to tell people all facts, or explain the whole situation as they see it.
What is the current situation of independent journalism?
Independent journalism is under threat, even in regions with traditionally strong democracies like the European Union. Authoritarian governments like those in Poland and Hungary have prioritized media capture—that is, the government taking over media outlets, either directly or through wealthy cronies buying them up, in order to ensure that their reporting supports its positions or takes aim at the people or entities the government opposes. This means that the news content given to the public may not be factual, or may be outright falsified. This in turn gives voters a distorted view of politicians, policies and generally what’s happening in their country, thus limiting their ability to make informed decisions on election day.
Independent journalism is still strong in many countries. But there is a clear schism in Europe, where independent media is under far greater threat in Central and Eastern European democracies, while Western European governments do not seek to silence critical voices by buying them up or changing regulations to cut off their sources of funding, among other tactics used by Europe’s populist authoritarian governments.
What happened to independent journalism in the last few years?
In Poland, a state-run oil company bought up one of the largest media groups in the country, Polska Press, last year. This means that its audience of more than 17 million (Poland’s total population is some 38 million) can be fed stories that portray the government and its allies positively. And a single priest who is very close with the government owns one of the other leading media companies, extending the government’s reach and further allowing the suppression of non-biased information. Like all of the corruption scandals that that priest has been involved in.
Hungary’s government has been even more aggressive. Upon returning to power in 2010, Viktor Orban’s government has attempted to silence critical media outlets in Hungary. The largest public broadcaster is now a mouthpiece of the government. In 2018 the creation of the KESMA pro-government media foundation, includes over 470 outlets previously owned by Orbán-aligned oligarchs. The creation of KESMA is a clear infringement of competition rules that even the Hungarian Media Council was prevented from analyzing the merger. Independent outlets like Nepszabadsag newspaper or Klubradio radio station were shuttered, while others were taken over by government-friendly oligarchs. There are now fewer than a handful of media companies that are not under the influence of the government.
In Czechia, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who may be leaving power following recent elections, owns a large share of the country’s media outlets. A 2015 report by Foreign Policy found that Babiš’s media holdings “regularly feature sympathetic coverage of Babiš – and criticism of his opponents.” In Slovenia, the government has been destabilizing the media environment in an effort to control news outlets. A recent report stated that the country “has seen press freedom deteriorate ever since [Prime Minister Janez] Jansa returned to power in March 2020”.
Why is independent journalism at risk? What are the threats and challenges it faces?
Independent journalism is at risk because it gives people information that may be critical of the government or other powerful elites, thus threatening their popularity and power. When governments control what the people see and hear, they are able to craft a narrative that is always fawning of the government. This helps them stay popular and stay in power. They are able to feed false or distorted news to the people, and with no counter voice to refute this “news” it comes to be seen as credible and factual by the people.
There are numerous threats independent journalism faces. Populist authoritarian governments use state-owned companies to buy up independent media outlets, thus exerting indirect but binding direction over outlets. Or wealthy friends of the government buy independent outlets and either turn them into government mouthpieces or abruptly close them. Regulations can be changed to determine which outlet gets the frequency, which outlet appears on the cable television channels, what sort of funding or government-financed advertisements a station receives, or changing the tax rate on advertising revenue in a way that makes it impossible for an outlet to survive financially.
But it’s not only governments that threaten independent journalism. The media ecosystem is also changing in a way that directly threatens independent journalism. The old financial model that supported good quality journalism was shattered by news aggregators like Facebook and Google, who have taken a lot of the advertising revenue that media outlets previously relied on. That means there’s less money for good quality and independent investigative journalism. Journalists face a race to report stories and keep up with internet news aggregators, meaning they have less time on their hands and thus rely more on press releases. They can’t check their stories and many outlets end up running the same story bought from agencies like Reuters and Agence Presse. It also means news outlets are tempted to be more sensationalist in their reporting so that they can attract a wider audience.
Another threat to independent journalism is frivolous litigation. Lawsuits known as SLAPPs—strategic litigation against public participation—are filed against independent outlets or individual journalists in an attempt to silence them. Often the claim is libel or defamation, but the intent of the lawsuit is not to win. The mere threat of expensive and time consuming legal action, even if the targeted journalist would surely win in the end, is often enough to force their silence. These cases are proliferating across Europe and pose an existential threat to independent journalism and democracy.
How would the disappearance of independent journalism affect societies?
Without independent journalism, democracy is in peril. Those who control the media control public debate, thus controlling what information voters have when it comes time to go to the polls. When government’s control the media environment, the distorted or objectively false stories they share constitute propaganda. State-sponsored propaganda and democracy have never been bedfellows.
Democracy means that the people get to decide who they want in power. So independent journalism is partly about accountability—are those with power and influence playing by the rules and doing what they’re supposed to be doing, or are they abusing their power? Democracy is also about deciding how society should be run, whether that’s deciding on how much we spend on schools and hospitals or how much parental leave should be allowed. And finding the best answers to these issues relies on hearing new ideas and opinions and debating them freely. Only then can voters make an informed decision on what they view as the best way forward. This all depends on accurate and balanced information. In other words, independent journalism.
Future prospects: how and why should and can we protect independent journalism?
There are many ideas for how to best protect independent journalism. Legal standards can make sure that media regulatory bodies are independent. Making sure public broadcasters are independent and well-funded and have a mission to educate the public also helps, as they then force private media to up their own standards. And having rules that limit how much media can be owned by one person or entity can help stop undue influence from a handful of tycoons.
But there’s also the monetary side of things. Digitization broke the financial model for independent journalism. Google and Facebook are getting advertising revenue by aggregating news that was created by others. One suggestion that has been raised is a tax on news aggregators to fund independent journalism. This would help reshape the financial landscape and create the space for independent journalism to continue despite the role of news aggregators.
The European Union is taking a hard look at the media landscape across the continent. It is aware of the rising threats to independent journalism and is making moves to combat some of the threats. New regulations against SLAPPs are on the agenda, and there is talk about how to better regulate online news aggregators. This is promising, but it is essential that action follows words. The rule of law and democracy are eroding in the very countries that seek to eliminate independent journalism. And that’s not a coincidence. The EU should take strong and concrete action to safeguard media freedom and pluralism and protect journalists and rights defenders. The newly adopted recommendation on safety of journalists is one of these measures. We also need a comprehensive Media Freedom Act including provisions to ensure pluralism, authorities and an EU-level supervisor and measures to address government capture of media systems in countries like Poland and Hungary.