Although several Member States foster the best environment for freedom of the press according to the World Press Freedom Index, the EU is facing a noticeable decline in freedom in journalism. Taking into account the 80% decrease in revenue for the journalism industry, mass layoffs of journalists since the Great Recession, the spread of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the social media impact, decrease in pluralistic media, political interference, increase of polarisation and difficult situations journalists find themselves in, it is crucial that the EU and its Member States firmly address the growing problem.
Freedom of the press and independent news media represent the foundations of democracy, making everyone accountable for their actions. Without journalists having confidence in their safety and inclusive media, the truth fades away, resulting in misinformation, propaganda, lies and stories never reported. Considering the challenging situation, what steps can be taken to make journalism in the EU safer, more independent and inclusive?
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Restricting the pluralism and freedom of media coverage is a direct violation of the European Convention on Human Rights which states in Article 10 that all EU citizens have the right to freedom of expression. Currently, with several Member States failing to ensure free and pluralistic media, people’s freedom to hold an opinion, receive information and express it publicly is denied. The main cause of this comes down to political interference and abuse of power, since numerous news stations, radios or newspapers are owned by a handful of politically biased individuals or are under the control of different political parties.
For example a man in Bulgaria named Delyan Peevski who has been a member of the Bulgarian Parliament for 4 terms owns several news outlets in the country. It is noted that he encourages the media coverage to be more superficial and touch briefly upon the current government and their actions. In return, he then allocates EU and public funding back to those same media outlets with little transparency.
Another example is in Hungary where journalists are not allowed to freely ask politicians about their political actions and are banned from attending certain events. Furthermore, government officials cannot be interviewed by media platforms that criticise their actions. While these are extreme cases, similar things are happening on a slightly smaller scale within many of the Member States.
This kind of control and influence over press freedom is directly undermining the principles of democracy by influencing European citizens. This has become even more apparent in the digital age with the introduction of social media.
If a citizen does not have access to unbiased or uncensored information about the political situation in their country, they cannot even be expected to freely make up their own minds.
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The main victims of a lack of press freedom are most notably the citizens. The absence of free and pluralistic media causes people to lose trust in the news they receive and leads them to doubt the reliability and factuality of the information presented. This could eventually lead to people not believing, therefore losing interest, in the media and in staying informed overall.
Another very important stakeholder to note is the media. One of the most essential jobs of media outlets is to inform the public about how their country is run as well as who is running it. Through media outlets, citizens get the opportunity to actively participate in the political, social and economic life of their country and can make informed decisions when it comes to elections and other important events within their states’ governance.
The European Commission is the executive body of the EU, being responsible for proposing legislation. In regards to the media, the Commission’s competence gives them the possibility to introduce legally binding legislation while cooperating with Member States. More specifically, Věra Jourová, the Commissioner on values and transparency has a responsibility over this competence.
Lastly, in 2011 the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) was founded. Their main goal is to raise awareness about the importance of having free and pluralistic media in Europe. Being co-financed by the EU, the CMPF has worked on a number of projects over the last decade such as the Media Pluralism Monitor.
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The EU has taken multiple measures similar to a Media ownership monitor project which provides a country-based database showing information on media ownership and risks to media transparency to ensure the freedom of the press and media pluralism within Member States. The decision has been made to provide nearly EUR 20 million to 18 projects, either in the preparation stages or ongoing.
These projects are dedicated to solving the challenges regarding:
Under these measures, journalists will also be offered additional training, technical help for ones under threat, practical guides that will be aimed at providing support to independent and collaborative journalism and promoting media freedom across the EU.
Projects will be led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) and other independent organisations and creators in the media sector. One of the projects is a cross-border investigative journalism fund run by the International Press Institute which will support investigations involving journalists from at least two Member States.
It’s necessary to recognise that the news media sector is made up of many small and medium-sized businesses, charities and individual creators. The status of the mentioned actors makes it more difficult to qualify for EU or national support funds.
Therefore after the request from Members of the European Parliament the Commission has announced the expansion of the Cultural and Creative Sectors Guarantee Facility to ensure the EU funds reach more bodies in the sector. The proposition is to increase the 2021 budget or to transfer funds from the European Fund for Strategic Investments. For this specific purpose creating a financial instrument under the European Investment Fund to channel funds to the sector should also be considered.
The concentration of media ownership has been identified as a concern in terms of media pluralism by the High-level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism. Furthermore, the Audiovisual Media Services Directive stresses the need for Member States to prevent any actions which create dominant positions or restrict pluralism and to enable independent regulatory bodies to carry out their work transparently and impartially.
Since 2016 the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM) has been implemented in all Member States. The Monitor is a scientific tool founded to identify possible risks to media pluralism based on the set of indicators developed through a European Commission's study and covers commercial and community media pays attention to the impact of digital platforms and recognises that different policies and regulatory approaches could apply to different types of media.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has published a report about the alarming situation in Europe and suggestions for problem-solving policies. The report offers valuable information worth taking into account for creating future solutions regarding the media sector.
Solving the issues regarding press freedom is not just about improving the sector but also the protection of fundamental human rights. Taking into account the challenges and the measures in place, what can further be done to protect the freedom of the press, journalists’ wellbeing, pluralistic media and regain the trust of the public?
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We would recommend reading the Topic Overview multiple times, checking out the links that provide sources to the information presented in the Topic Overview and going through the relevant information in the provided links for further research. During the session, there will be a Kahoot quiz tailored to our topic and a chance to win the surprise gift if you complete the quiz with the highest score.
We also suggest you contemplate solving the following question. What would you suggest to specific actors relevant to our topic in order to improve the situation regarding the decline of free and pluralistic media in the EU?