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How does EU protect media freedom

Op-ed by Vice-President Jourová and Commissioner Breton

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Photo Credit: Unsplash

‘What will you sacrifice for the truth?' Journalist Maria Ressa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, often asks her interlocutors this question. Because she experienced first-hand a bitter side of being a journalist: pressure, death threats and [facing] jail for reporting the truth.

Journalists risk their lives to report in war zones - today under Russian bombs in Ukraine. But also here in Europe, several journalists have sacrificed their lives to tell stories of corruption and crimes.

Some are victims of spyware, others are fired or forced to resign if they do not agree with the government line or an opiniated shareholder.

In Europe, we also witness systemic risks for the media: be it economic or political pressure, but also digital transition that is changing both the people and the media.

Yet, it is clear that the media, the fourth estate, are crucial for democracy: they inform the citizens, provide space for debate, look at the hands of those in power. Today democracies suffer from cacophony of noise, from abundance of misleading, unverified or simply false information.

Media freedom cannot be taken for granted. It is our duty to protect it.

Today we are breaking new ground. We propose the European Media Freedom Act.

It is built on key principles.

We want to put for the first time in EU law safeguards to protect the editorial independence of the media. State should not interfere in editorial decision. No public service media should become a propaganda channel of one party. We want the EU countries to put in law objective criteria for appointing the managers and governing board.

Also, the financing of public service media should be transparent and predictable and not used as a pressure tool.

We also propose clear provisions with stronger safeguards against surveillance of journalists. Their phones and computers should not be hacked with spyware, their sources must be protected efficiently.

With rights come responsibilities: we also ask the media to take measures with a view of protecting their editors and disclose potential conflicts of interest.

We oblige Member States to assess the impact of media market concentrations on media pluralism and editorial independence, in addition to the currently existing competition rules.

If there is an impact on the internal market, the new Board – and possibly the Commission – will be able to give an opinion on the concentration.

The second principle is transparency and fairness. It has to be crystal clear who owns the media and how the state uses public funds for advertising. The new law will also set equal standards for traditional media and online platforms for transparency of audience measurement systems, which play an important role in the advertising market.

The third point is better cooperation among national media authorities. The existing European Group of Media Regulators (ERGA) will be upgraded and become the Media Board. We are creating new mechanisms, such as a mutual assistance , to ensure coordination and solidarity in dealing with threats, such as foreign propaganda. We have seen that Russia's information war and enforcement of sanctions presented some challenge in this respect.

Finally, building on the Digital Services Act, we want to propose more safeguards for the unjustified removal of media content in the online environment. We want to make sure that online platforms pay attention to media content produced according to professional standards. Platforms should introduce an early warning mechanism for the media before they remove their content.

We are under no illusion: this legislation won't be a walk in the park. On the contrary, we are ready for an uphill struggle with many opponents. Some want to be able to influence the media and they will claim that the Commission want to grab their power. Some media owners do benefit from the current situation and will warn that we threaten their freedom and their business.

But one thing is clear: the status quo is no option. Media are an essential element of democracy. They cannot be treated as just another economic sector. We cannot and do not stay idle in the light of threats to the media freedom and technological changes.

Without free and pluralistic media democracy cannot be healthy. Without them, disinformation will continue to be on the raise and it will further divide our societies.

The Media Freedom Act is a response to very real threats. We count that the Act will help to address the current and future challenges more effectively.

Source: News Service of the EU Commission