On October 3 2023, the European Parliament voted on its position on the European Media Freedom Act during the plenary session in Strasbourg. The amendments by the CULT committee were accepted with a great majority (448 votes in favour, 102 votes against, 75 abstentions).
During the legislative process, multiple changes were made to the original text of the Act, and it improved significantly. The European Parliament has included safeguards for media pluralism, media freedom, and access to information.
Liberties welcomes the progress that has been made on the file, among others:
Media Ownership Database (Article 6.1)
- The information that should be made available in a media ownership database has been broadened and now includes, among other things, relations to the state or government and information on state advertising. Transparency of media ownership strengthens the accountability of media service providers. It is vital to inform the public about potential political interference and conflicts of interest. It allows regulators to prevent media ownership concentration, which could have undue influence on democratic discussions.
- The exemption for small media service providers from the requirements for ownership transparency was deleted. Both changes are significant and something Liberties and other civil society organizations have extensively advocated for. Transparency of media ownership strengthens the accountability of media service providers and is vital to inform the public about possible conflicts of interest.
State Advertising (Article 24)
- Additional transparency requirements for the process of allocating state advertisement have been added, and procedures used to determine the allocation have to be made publicly available.
- However, emergency situations cannot be an obstacle to accessing information about state advertisement, therefore six months after the declaration of emergency situation the transparency requirements should be fulfilled.
However, Liberties is also concerned about some of the changes that have been introduced:
Spyware (Article 4)
- The use of spyware against journalists was not completely banned. While the text has been improved, it still allows the use of spyware in certain cases as a last resort, e.g., in a case-by-case basis when a serious crime is being investigated. Even though the text states that journalistic sources cannot be accessed and that spyware can only be used if it is unrelated to the professional activities of the media service providers and its employees, it is still worrisome, especially as the use of spyware against journalists in Europe is well-known and documented.
Media privilege (Article 17)
- The media privilege rules are still very problematic in the Parliament’s version. It creates new and specific content moderation rules for media service providers on Very Large Online Platforms (VLOPs). VLOPs such as Facebook, X or others would even be obliged to wait 24 hours before either suspending or restricting the content uploaded by a media service provider. It increases the risk of disinformation because self-declared media outlets would easily spread problematic content, including hate speech and electoral propaganda, without the possibility to remove it. The self-declaration itself is also a problem because, in many member states, self-regulatory mechanisms are insufficient. Rogue actors could easily declare themselves as media services to gain privileged status. Also, in member states where media authorities are not independent, it would even offer a solution to discredit media from recognition as press. Article 17 also compromises the proper implementation of the Digital Services Act.
Article 17 will not solve the severe financial and structural dependency of the media on VLOPs or the lack of sufficient funding. These issues cannot be addressed through content moderation rules. We are advocating for the removal of the 24-hour must-carry obligation and the opportunity to restrict content, as well as the designation of national media authorities to decide which media outlet is considered media.
The next step, the Trilogue, an inter-institutional negotiation between the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the European Union, starting in mid-October 2023.