The European Commission has announced that it is to start working on a strategy to combat the decline of media freedom and independence of journalists across the continent. The Media Freedom Act will be a crucial step in protecting European news outlets.
Brussels (Brussels Morning) Hundreds of millions of Europeans get their daily news and entertainment from various types of media freedom and thousands of journalists. Therefore, ensuring a free media and independent journalism are key when it comes to maintaining a free and democratic Europe.
However, this is not necessarily the case at the moment in many EU member states, from the East to the West. Despite being one of the founding values cited in the Treaty of the European Union, countless reports show that media freedom and pluralism have been under threat for some time now.
A lack of transparency in terms of media ownership, the acquisition and use of media as a propaganda tool by governments, strict regulation, cuts in funding, censorship of free media and the limitation of journalists by restrictive political powers and intimidatory lawsuits, threats and assassinations are, unfortunately, increasingly becoming characteristics of contemporary Europe and not mere descriptions of some backwards South-American dictatorship.
Voices have long been drawing attention to the need to improve the deteriorating situation and to protect the right to information, media freedom and independence of journalists.
Finally, it seems that the Commission has decided that it is time to tackle this alarming situation properly. Next year, we can expect a proposal for a new “Media Freedom Act”, one that can hopefully secure freedom and plurality for European media. A database on media ownership planned for next September will cover 15 member states.
We need solutions, not promises!
To successfully protect freedom of press and media plurality, the Commission must take the new Media Freedom Act seriously and not just indulge in another paper exercise. The new Act must offer real solutions
More support is required to financially protect public and smaller media outlets from bankruptcy or acquisition and help them adapt to the digital market. This should take the form of a designated EU fund for journalists and national press agencies.
The Commission also needs to strengthen every possible tool to ensure transparency of media ownership and influence. Ownership database should cover all EU member countries and be accessible to the wider public.
Journalists and whistleblowers should not be harassed for revealing the truth. An anti-SLAPP law is a real necessity, just as much as developing a system to shield journalists from massive targeted fines is.
We need to step up our support for new European newsroom outlets as a tangible way of consolidating European media cooperation into a strong and enduring market.
Finally, the Commission has to treat each member state equally. If we really want the new act to succeed, there can be no room for double standards.
Monopolies owns the media
Two harsh years of the Covid-19 pandemic have had a negative impact on the lives of all Europeans. News publishing networks were no different. Because of Covid, advertising revenues dropped between 30 to 80%, leaving many professional journalists and smaller media companies on the brink of bankruptcy. Making matters worse, the entire market suddenly shifted to digital, a transition many smaller media companies couldn’t afford. As a result, many local and regional news companies had to face closure or absorbtion by larger multi-media corporations.
Consolidation of smaller newsgroups under major companies poses a massive threat to media plurality and editorial independence, enabling a few owners to gain control to the point where they dominate entire monopolies. In such circumstances, media can become extremely vulnerable to the influence of a very few owners, who can weight in disproportionately as to how the general public is informed and influenced about specific events. Compounding this, the absence of media ownership transparency laws can mean that the public often has no idea who the real owners of their various news outlets might be.
In many member states, media monopoly owners are local billionaires and oligarchs. For example, in the Czech Republic, outgoing Prime Minister Babiš, owns over 30 % of the entirety of Czech media, ranging from music TV stations to multiple news publishing companis. Both the Babiš government and Czech President Miloš Zeman have successfully sought to influence the media through Czech national TV. By placing specific people on the board of Česká televize, among them Hana Lipovská, (who ran in the 2021 parliamentary elections for the ultra-nationalist anti-vaxx party Volný Blok), they have managed to gain a major say on the board.
Que se passe-t-il en France?
Such concentration of media happens everywhere in Europe. In France, the acquisition of French TV channel M6 by market leader TF1 has been favoured by President Emmanuel Macron, at a time when, coincidentally, he is about to launch his re-election campaign.
Having the most profitable and third most watched televised network in the French-speaking world fuse with the most popular French network TF1 is an issue of great concern in terms of media plurality, given that it creates a media goliath that will dominate French news. When Isabelle de Silva, chief antitrust enforcer of France was replaced for her critique of the acquisition of channel M6 by TF1, the Commision remained awfully quiet.
The fact is that France doesn’t rank very high amongst Western EU countries in the World Press Freedom Index. Concentration of media, hindering editorial independence and attacks on reporters and investigative journalists continue to be an issue in the country. Compared to the decline of rule of law in Eastern EU members, however, the Commission arguably applies a double standard, and keeps its eyes closed.
War against free media
Given the media’s invaluable role with regard to public information, they are all too vulnerable to politicisation. This is especially true in Eastern European member states, where the media sector is being constantly harassed by governments, which seek to gain control over them and use them as machines for pro-government political propaganda.
Such governments mostly use two tools to achieve their goal — abuse of local laws and the power to withdraw state funding.
- In Hungary, Viktor Orbán united all of Hungary’s media outlets into one great pro-government foundation, which consumes the majority of state advertising revenue.
- In Poland, the government took control of the state media, then quickly converted it into a pro-government propaganda network, that even the North Korean regime wouldn’t be ashamed of. Now, the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party focus has shifted to an American-owned, large independent news channel TVN, which it attempted to ban.
- In Slovenia, the government of ruling Prime Minister Janez Janša, a virulent Trump supported sometimes known as “Marshall Twitto”, suspended funding to the Slovenian Press Agency in an attempt to starve it out.
Independent journalism provides a limited, but crucial counterweight to corporate-owned media monopolies and/or to entire governments and politicians. The importance of independent journalism was proven yet again this autumn with the release of the Pandora Papers. Without independent journalists and whistleblowers, the fight against systemic corruption and rule of law breaches in member states would be significantly harder.
Unfortunately, independent journalists and whistleblowers are being harassed constantly and targeted by local governments, often the subjects of their investigations. Today the most common approach to silencing journalists comes in the form of strategic lawsuits called “SLAPP suits’. These are legal actions that threaten persistently inquisitive journalists with potentially massive fines and that the suing entity calculates the targeted journalists cannot afford to pay. In Hungary, the Orbán government spied on journalists using military-grade anti-terrorist programmes. In Malta and Slovakia, journalists have been murdered.
We need to keep on reminding the Commission that the new Media Freedom Act is of the highest importance. Let’s hope that we can transform the draft on the drawing board into meaningful and effective legislation as quickly as possible, so that it can have real bite and actual impact. Without a free and independent press, the European project simply cannot last.