Media freedom act: a new tool to protect journalism?

Věra Jourová, Vice-President for Values and Transparency, presented the European Media Freedom Act on Friday the 16 of September, which aims the protection of media freedom, ensures its pluralism and protects journalists. This is a major step forward for the European Union. This competence, which was previously national, will constitute a common base for press freedom in the European Union.
photography by @shutterstock
photography by @shutterstock

Overview of press freedom in Europe
RSF, 2022

Europe today shows great disparities in press freedom. The Scandinavian countries remain at the top of the ranking, with – respectively – Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia and Finland. These countries have a strong legal framework to protect journalists but also a powerful media market, balanced between public and private.

Nevertheless, Reporters Without Borders highlight a significant regression in media independence in Europe. The Liberties 2022 Report also makes the same observation, stating that : “The situation for media and civil society across the EU is overall even more concerning than last year. Journalists are facing an increasingly unsafe environment”.

The Vice President warns that “it is not a matter of one or two countries”.
Indeed, out of a total of 27 Member States, 13 countries are dropping in the ranking. Situations of media concentration and polarisation are tending to multiply in Europe, as in Spain for example. There, 75% of the market is owned by two private groups Atresmedia et Mediaset and the public service RTVE. Also, this is illustrated by the Council of Europe’s report which warns of the situations in Poland and Hungary : “This new trend is particularly marked in Hungary, where the media regulator withdrew the licence of the independent broadcaster Klubrádió, and in Poland, where the main publisher of regional newspapers was taken over by a state-controlled oil company”.

This regressive state of affairs has prompted the Commission to take up the issue. The reason why the Media Freedom Act is so important is that press freedom has been undermined recently in several ways:

  • The return of the murders of journalists in the Netherlands (from 6th in 2021 to 28th in 2022) and Greece (from 70th to 108th place) in 2022, the reasons for which have still not been clarified.
  • The number of attacks and threats against journalists is increasing, especially in Germany, France and Italy.
  • There have been many liberticidal measures concerning the media, particularly in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia.
  • The stranglehold of the few millionaires, as Vincent Bolloré or Bernard Arnault in France
  • The pressure exercised by the public authorities on editorial lines
European Media Freedom Act : a new pillar for press freedom

  • The objectives are manifold, as summarised by the President of the European Commission U. VONDEN LEYEN:“At the same time, media services are not only an important and dynamic economic sector, they are also essential for a healthy civic sphere and for economic freedoms and fundamental rights, including equality.”

    The proposed text reflects a desire to regulate media mergers and takeovers, notably by harmonising these procedures within the EU; by ensuring transparency regarding media owners and shareholders; by protecting journalists and whistleblowers but also by funding projects that would promote media independence and plurality.

    Thierry BRETON, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, adds that this will help avoid “government interference”, “politicisation of public service media” as well as “high media concentration”.
    This is reflected in the proposed Article 4: “Member States shall respect the effective editorial freedom of media service providers […], shall not in any way interfere or attempt to influence, directly or indirectly, editorial choices”.

    It is also a new framework for the rule of law that is being played out here. By defending press freedom, it is also a way to reaffirm the values of the European Union and to strengthen the rule of law. The Media Freedom Act is in line with the dynamics of the Digital Service Act and the Digital Market Act, which aim to protect datas and digital platforms, and to strengthen democratic principles.
An insufficient proposition ?
  • Although the project has been welcomed by many associations, such as Reporters Without Borders, saying that it is “an important step forward for media freedom and the preservation of democracy and the rule of law across the EU”, it also appears insufficient.

    Indeed, it has been judged “too timid”, and tensions have started to emerge between editors and publishers, as evidenced by the Opinion article, and it seems likely that the text will be amended in the coming weeks by the Parliament, in order to find a consensus between member states that have different current regulations.

In addition, the proposal seems to be insufficient regarding the protection of sources, transparency of media ownership – especially regarding the possibility of conflicts of interest. Finally, although “the necessary independence of public service media” was put at the heart of the project, the legal contours of this appear vague, at a time when liberticidal measures have multiplied.

The proposed law will now be debated in the European Parliament where a consensus will have to be found to ensure that journalism becomes a public good, protected and regulated, and that citizens have access to multiple information.

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