Democracy & Justice

Liberties’ Media Freedom Report 2024: Freedom of the Press Reaching Breaking Point

Media freedom and pluralism are flailing across Europe, and in some countries, are on their last legs. The European Media Freedom Act will bring some improvements, but on its own is not enough to rescue a struggling media landscape.

by Eleanor Brooks

Liberties Media Freedom Report 2024 reveals that media freedom and media pluralism are close to breaking point in many EU countries, while in others, a near-total overhaul is required to address chronic, systemic issues with only a limited number of exceptions. The continued erosion of media freedom is evidenced by widespread harassment of journalists and governments restricting access to information. Meanwhile, heavy media ownership concentration and threats to the independence and finances of public service media contribute to a shrinking media plurality.

A diverse and free media environment is crucial for democracy because we rely on independent news outlets to hold our politicians accountable and keep us informed. The pattern of declining media freedom - which shows the overarching trends documented in last year’s report remain unaddressed - goes hand-in-hand with Europe’s democratic backsliding.

Based on findings from over two dozen civil liberties organisations from 19 countries across the EU, the report covers media freedom and pluralism, safety and protection of journalists, and freedom of expression and access to information in 2023, a year when the media landscape was shaped not only by new legislation (Anti-SLAPP Directive, Digital Services Act, European Media Freedom Act), but also elections (Poland, the Netherlands, Slovakia) and regional conflicts (Russia-Ukraine, Middle East).

Additionally, this year’s report features a new chapter dedicated to the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) – a landmark piece of legislation that has myriad implications for media freedom and pluralism in the EU.

Pluralism squeezed as public service and independent media under stress

Media pluralism continues to be squeezed by concentrated media ownership and insufficient ownership transparency rules. While EMFA creates new transparency obligations, the decision to set up national databases instead of a centralised EU database will result in a fragmented overview, and the limited disclosure requirements of beneficial ownership are much narrower than those proposed by the European Parliament.

Public service media (PSM) and independent media continue to operate under increasingly financially precarious conditions, hampering their ability to deliver impartial, reliable news.

In Greece, Hungary and Romania, spending on state advertising is used to further threaten the survival of independent, critical outlets by disproportionately funnelling funds to government-friendly media.

In Ireland, France and Slovenia, the long-term funding prospects of public service media remain uncertain. Political interference remains a persistent issue in some countries; Hungary’s public media continues to operate as a government mouthpiece, and there are growing concerns about impartiality in Italy and Croatia.

A variety of reputable, unbiased established news sources exposes citizens to a plurality of perspectives and issues. This improves resilience against disinformation and is an antidote to the divisiveness that plagues social media and online news - which is amongst the reasons why media plurality is essential in a healthy democracy.

Journalists hampered by governments

Against the backdrop of the persistent widespread use of abusive lawsuits, new legislation in some countries that prioritises reputation over freedom of expression could make the working environment of journalists even more hazardous and risks undermining the Anti-SLAPP Directive. In Greece, legislative amendments on disinformation were used to target a journalist and Greek media unions warn that draft laws leave journalists vulnerable to imprisonment for criminal defamation. This follows in the footsteps of Italy, where journalist Roberto Saviano was found guilty of criminal defamation by the Criminal Court of Rome in October 2023, for which he could have faced time in prison.

This builds on an alarming trend in which measures to tackle disinformation risk curtailing access to information and hampering journalists from doing their job. In Latvia, laws aiming to tackle disinformation which will impose language restrictions on public media content could deprive Russian speakers of credible news sources, making them more susceptible to Kremlin propaganda. In Ireland, there are fears that the Electoral Reform Bill may give the Electoral Commission the power to limit free speech based on its interpretation of ‘misinformation’, potentially creating a chilling effect.

Governments withholding information from the press is also on the rise. Journalists who are critical of the government may find themselves excluded from press conferences or other official events, or denied access to documents, such as in Germany, Hungary, Lithuania and the Netherlands. In Italy, a new ‘gag law’ prevents journalists from verifying certain news stories.

EMFA: A start, but back-up support needed

The EMFA strengthens the protection of media freedom and pluralism but lacks the teeth to tackle numerous pressing issues within the European media landscape. As well as laying down very minimum standards, it is riddled with loopholes and many issues are delegated to Member States.

Built-in exceptions risk undermining some of EMFA’s most critical safeguards. The protection of journalistic sources and confidential communication is weakened by a derogation under Article 4 (4) which national legislatures and law enforcement can use to compel journalists to disclose information, including identifying journalistic sources. This could legitimise state surveillance against journalists and deter sources from coming forward.

Journalists remain exposed to surveillance by a loophole under Article 4 (5), which allows Member States to deploy intrusive spyware under certain conditions. Given the illegitimate use of spyware saw reporters in Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Poland targeted by spyware surveillance in 2023, the EU missed a crucial opportunity to protect journalists.

How to buck the downward trend

The steady decline of media freedom and pluralism in the EU threatens the stability of European democracy. While legislative strives have been made in the past year, EU institutions must follow through with effective enforcement measures to buck this downward trend.

The EMFA became law in 2024 and the majority of its rules will enter into force in August 2025.

To reach its full potential, we urge the EU institutions, including the Board of Media Services and the Commission to:

  • Issue guidelines on media ownership databases to national regulatory authorities to ensure a comprehensive and uniform transparency of ownership across the EU, which includes owners’ links to political actors at national and EU levels, and uphold their enforcement.
  • Issue guidelines for creating a consistent database format on state advertisement spending to guarantee a comparable and accessible availability of data in all Member States.
  • The Commission and the Board, alongside national regulatory authorities, should cooperate with Digital Services Coordinators counterpart authorities to monitor media concentration and state intervention.

Amongst other recommendations outlined in the report, we further recommend the EU:

  • Align EMFA and DSA enforcement efforts with national digital services coordinators
  • Strengthen and support independent journalism by offering financial and non-financial support and strengthen media pluralism, ideally in coalition with civil society
  • Build multi-stakeholder dialogue with media and civil society organisations which is capable of addressing the diverse needs and interests present
  • Maintain pressure on member states through the rule of law conditionality mechanism and use all tools available to respond to serious infringements of the rule of law

Read the Media Freedom Report 2024 here.

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