Tech & Rights

EU Must Act as Countries Copy Putin’s Playbook to Control Media

With Russia’s propaganda machine in full swing, we are seeing first hand the devastating consequences of allowing free media to fall under government control.

by Jascha Galaski & Jonathan Day

The Russian media landscape has made it easy for Putin to unleash an important weapon in his war against Ukraine: propaganda. The media is owned almost entirely by the state or by oligarchs close to the Kremlin. Independent journalists are silenced. And although EU nations have come together to sanction the Russian government, several are at the same time trying to emulate its control over the media.

According to a new report by the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, with the participation of 15 civil society organizations (CSOs) across the EU, there has been a steady decline in media freedom and pluralism in the EU in the last year. In some cases, governments have been threatening media freedom as part of a broader strategy to dismantle the rule of law and democracy.

The EU must implement safeguards to protect the media in Europe and ensure a free and pluralistic media environment. The European Media Freedom Act (MFA) that is currently under preparation by the Commission will provide a good opportunity.

In several EU countries, there are concerns about a high concentration of media ownership and political pressure on independent media and public service media. In Hungary in particular, government-friendly businesspeople have purchased influential news outlets, the public service media is under government control and members of the national Media Council are loyal to the ruling party.

There are also worrying trends in terms of non-transparent public funding of the media and undue control over it through subsidies. In Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, governments only support media outlets that are in line with their ideologies. Economic pressure, caused by lower state subsidies and advertising revenues, and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has also affected the media, especially smaller outlets and less commercially viable forms of journalism.

Journalists face an increasingly unsafe environment, even in countries with strong democratic records, including verbal and physical attacks, legal harassment and smear campaigns. Corrupt politicians and powerful businesspeople use strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPPs, to intimidate and silence journalists.

In several countries, laws disproportionately criminalizing speech make it difficult for journalists to do their work. In Ireland, defamation laws have a chilling effect on journalists investigating corruption. In France, a bill purporting to strengthen respect for the principles of the Republic, passed in February 2021, compromises the work of journalists and others who try to expose police violence.

Safeguarding media freedom and pluralism is of crucial importance to all of us. Without independent and quality journalism there is no one to keep an eye on the government, weakening the accountability of elected representatives. When journalists refrain from investigating and exposing wrongdoings and reporting about matters of public interest, citizens cannot make informed decisions about public matters, including when they go to the ballot box.

Fortunately, the European Commission has many tools to safeguard media freedom in the EU. The MFA provides a good opportunity to address the threats mentioned above.

First, to improve media ownership transparency, the MFA should provide a publicly available database on ownership structures, detailing the whole chain of media companies, both at national and European levels. To ensure fairness and transparency in the allocation of public funds, state subsidies should be subject to review. Further, the MFA should require that the process for appointing members of national media regulatory bodies be democratic and transparent.

Second, the MFA should require Member States to put in place safeguards to protect journalists and media workers. The Commission should come forward with a proposal for an EU Anti-SLAPP Directive that supports journalists against abusive lawsuits and punishes SLAPP litigants.

Third, the Commission should find a balance between data protection and freedom of expression rights, to avoid the GDPR being used against journalists who report on illegal practices of the government. The Commission should also pressure Member States to bring laws criminalizing speech in line with international human rights standards.

Finally, to ensure that the MFA does not become a toothless tiger, we recommend establishing an overarching European body, the Board of Media Freedom, to monitor compliance of Member States.

Media freedom and pluralism in the EU are deteriorating. In most countries, we are still far away from a government-controlled media landscape, as is the case in Russia. But in others, we are dangerously close. We must not sit and watch passively as media freedom and pluralism is under attack. Otherwise, we will one day wake up to realize that access to independent, quality journalism has vanished.

This op-ed originally was published on EUObserver.

See Liberties' policy recommendations on the Media Freedom Act here.


Further reading on this topic:

Liberties Media Freedom Report 2022 Shows Worrisome Decline in Media Freedom Across Europe

How The EU Can Use A Can’t-Miss Opportunity To Protect Media Freedom

Systemic threats make media freedom decline across Europe: Report 2022

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