When there is an urgency, the EU has shown that it can act. It did so when it banned major Kremlin propaganda outlets and prevented their disinformation from further poisoning the European information space. It was a show of strength and a message about the importance of a free media ecosystem.
Now the EU must act with equal vigour against threats to media freedom from within its own house.
A new report by the Civil Liberties Union for Europe shows that media freedom and pluralism continue to erode across the bloc. In some member states, new trends signal threats to media freedom where it has long been taken for granted; in others, free and independent journalism is nearing its final breath.
The EU should use the upcoming Media Freedom Act as well as existing tools to reverse this slide.
Less concentration, more transparency
Withering media pluralism is one of the greatest threats facing Europe's media landscape. 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.
In many EU countries, such as the Czech Republic and France, news outlets are 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 pull the strings
Whether the media can enjoy a free and enabling environment often depends on who holds power. In Slovenia, media freedom suffered significantly during the previous government of Janez Janša, who did his best to control the public service media (PSM).
In November 2022, the new government adopted amendments to depoliticise the PSM, giving hope that its editorial independence can be restored.
In Sweden, however, the change in political winds is ominous, as the new rightwing government has increased pressure on the PSM, claiming it is biased in its reporting 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.
There are multiple other tactics governments use to control the media landscape, like weaponising state advertising. In several member states, the allocation of state advertising is unfair and lacks independence. Public funds are channeled to government-friendly outlets, while independent media are cut off from a 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.
Write a story, read a lawsuit
While media companies are facing economic and political pressure, journalists 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 €10m 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 is too important to turn on what happens at the ballot box. It is 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. The European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) is currently going through the legislative process. EU policymakers must show the courage to pass the strongest possible EMFA. Doing so can help public service media fulfil its mission, protect editorial independence, and provide transparency on who controls the news we consume.
At the same time, the EU must use its existing powers to launch investigations against member states where media freedom and pluralism are in danger.
The commission must step up investigations of state aid and concentration complaints instead of taking years to react. The delays have a negative impact on the level of democracy and the rule of law in member states. Media concentration and state aid-related complaints should get priority.
A strong EMFA will also help to protect journalists from surveillance and abuse, as can the anti-SLAPP Directive. The EU has the means to reshape the European media landscape. And there's an urgent need to do so.
This piece was originally published in EUobserver.