Democracy & Justice

Liberties Media Freedom Report 2023: Free Media’s Decline Continues Across Europe

Political pressure on public service media, high ownership concentration, abusive lawsuits targeting journalists: our second annual report on media freedom in the EU finds little improvement over the last year.

by Liberties.EU

The Liberties Media Freedom Report 2023, released 24 April, shows media freedom and pluralism in decline across the bloc. It reveals physical attacks, often by the police, and abusive lawsuits against journalists are on the rise, data protection rules are abused to restrict freedom of information, unchallenged ownership concentration threatens media pluralism, and national security is being used as a pretext for laws that restrict free speech.

Compiled by more than 20 civil liberties organisations from across the EU, the report presents evidence and analyses key developments in media freedom and pluralism, safety and protection of journalists and freedom of expression and information in 2022, when media markets have been shaped by not only landmark regulations such as the adoption of the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act or the European Media Freedom Act proposal, but also by Russia’s invasion (and disinformation) of Ukraine and elections in several member states.

The report also urges EU lawmakers to pass the strongest possible European Media Freedom Act. This regulation, currently working through the legislative process, could dramaticlly reshape Europe's media landscape for the better. The EU should also make use of and fully enforce its existing tools to support media freedom and pluralism.

Pluralism down, ownership concentration up

The report makes shows that media pluralism continues to decline. Access to diverse sources of news and editorial analysis allows people to consider many ideas and opinions and make up their own minds about issues of public interest. With concentrated media ownership, there is a risk that media outlets can be used to push a specific agenda or political view or business interest, often to serve as a tool of the owners.

We are currently seeing this in many EU countries. In the Czech Republic and France, media ownership is heavily concentrated in the hands of a few powerful people. In Hungary, the government’s control of the media landscape, either directly or through friendly oligarchs, remains unchanged.

This is why media ownership transparency is essential. People should be able to know who owns the news sources they rely on and which forces — political, business, or other — have the power to curate and shape the news they consume.

Governments continue to pressure public service media

The last year saw political changes that could have serious consequences for media freedom, both good and bad. In Slovenia, media freedom suffered significantly during the previous government of Janez Janša and his moves to control the public service media (PSM). In November 2022, the new government adopted amendments to depoliticize the PSM, giving hope that its editorial independence can be restored.

But the report also warns that the election results in Sweden are concerning, as the new right-wing government has increased pressure on the PSM, claiming it is biased and threatening it with budget cuts. There’s also concern that a new law targeting foreign espionage may have a chilling effect on the work of investigative journalists.

Another concerning tactic to increase control of the media is the weaponizing of state advertising. Public funds are channeled to government-friendly outlets, starving independent media of vital source of income. In Poland and Hungary, no rules whatsoever exist to ensure a fair allocation of state advertising. For years, pro-government media outlets have received significantly higher financial support – a trend that continued in 2022. Complaints that the distribution of state-funded advertising in Hungary is misused were rejected by the European Commission.

Abusive lawsuits target journalists

The Liberties Media Freedom Report 2023 shows that journalists continue to have to deal with physical and verbal attacks, harassment, intimidation, hate speech and smear campaigns. Violence is particularly prominent during protests and on the internet – women disproportionately targeted.

An increasingly common practice is the use of abusive lawsuits, also called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), by powerful politicians, companies, judges and others to silence critical voices. In Croatia alone, the Croatian Journalists’ Association recorded more than 950 active lawsuits against media outlets and journalists in 2022, with plaintiffs seeking more than EUR 10 million in damages. Like most other EU countries, Croatia has no rules in place to stop this legal harassment.

How we can right the ship

Media freedom and pluralism must be better protected in the EU. They form a precondition of stable democracy, and it is not a coincidence that in countries where free media face existential threats, so too does democracy itself.

The EU has a variety of tools to lay the foundation for true media freedom and pluralism. Liberties' recommendations to EU institutions include:

- Support the strongest possible version of the European Media Freedom Act

- Ensure transparency in media ownership

- Strengthen independent journalism

- Pass a robust anti-SLAPP Directive

- Closely monitor and report on media freedom related violations

Read the full Liberties Media Freedom Report 2023 to learn more about the current state of the media across the European Union and what the EU can do to better protect journalists and media freedom.

More on this topic:

Read the Media Freedom Report 2022 here.

Liberties' policy brief on the draft European Media Freedom Act.

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