Next year will be the year of elections. Across more than 70 counties, almost two billion people will head to the polls, including voters in the US and the EU. How the media reports on the candidates and their parties will have a tremendous impact on voters’ opinions.
As voters and the media prepare for the European Union parliamentary elections, an upcoming law, the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), could have a tremendous impact of its own — on how media companies operate, and on how much voters are able to understand about the news they get.
EMFA is in its final stages of negotiations, and critical items are still up in the air. Media ownership transparency is one of them, despite it being a critical safeguard of media pluralism and media freedom. In order for people to fairly scrutinize the news — and for voters to fairly scrutinize candidates — It is essential to properly understand any political or commercial influences over how the media covers people or events.
The European Parliament has succeeded in improving the initial EMFA proposal by the European Commission to include meaningful transparency rules to disclose information on beneficial owners and their political and economical connections in national and European databases.
Still, a few controversial suggestions regarding transparency of media ownership remain on the table. While the Commission suggested limiting transparency solely to media providing news and current affairs content, the European Parliament and the Council want to extend the scope to all media services. We could not agree more. Limiting the transparency rules to news and current affairs content is unjustified, as it would leave out other media outlets, such as history channels or entertainment media.
Even non-news channels shape public opinion and cultural narratives and can manipulate people to favor a particular candidate or political ideology. A history channel, for example, can present selective historical events that align with the political ideology of a candidate or a party. Omitting key facts, highlighting emotionally charged aspects or presenting facts through biased interpretation can influence viewers’ perceptions. Guest experts with clear political biases can also influence the narrative. Put all this together and time the release of the show close to an election, and we have all the necessary ingredients to influence voters’ decisions.
Another is whether to also require smaller media outlets to disclose information on their ownership. According to leaked documents, it seems that the Parliament and the Council agree that the regulation should not exempt small and micro-size media from transparency obligations. Just like big media companies, small disinformation hubs masquerading as media service providers can influence public opinion, sow discord and impact political processes. A small media outlet can damage a candidate’s reputation by creating a disinformation campaign and spreading false narratives. The argument that the reporting obligations are too much of a hassle doesn’t hold water: Providing ownership information is a manageable burden on media outlets, even for smaller ones, as they have similar obligations towards authorities, including tax and finance authorities, media authorities, or the registry courts.
The type of transparency we will have in Europe is still being discussed by the Parliament and Council. For meaningful transparency, all information on media ownership must be made publicly available free of charge, in an electronic and user-friendly manner. The information should include the business and financial interests or activities of the media’s direct, indirect and beneficial owners in other businesses, including their links to politically exposed persons. It is only through unlimited access to this data that potential political interference and conflicts of interest may come to light.
For these transparency obligations to be effective, it is necessary to establish and keep up-to-date national databases of media ownership, which feed information into an EU-wide database. And these databases should be standardized: It is more important to have comparable data sets than to offer flexibility to national media authorities on when and what data they publish. Such an approach would help ensure that data on media ownership is readily and easily available, and that governments and regulatory authorities can make informed decisions regarding market and financial matters, such as funding attribution, mergers, or allocating state aid.
We all know how important the media is for stable democracies. And we see the examples of countries where the rule of law and democracy is teetering. Robert Fico has only just retaken power, and already he has banned certain journalists from entering press conferences and declined to give interviews to independent outlets.
This should sound familiar. Fico is following Orban’s playbook to create a media system where critics are silenced. We surely don’t want this to become a pattern across the EU. Media ownership transparency will not solve these problems, but it is a primary safeguard of media pluralism, and we should be able to know who’s involved in creating the news we consume.