Tuesday

11th May 2021

Commissioner floats plan for EU 'media freedom act' next year

  • EU Commission vice-president Věra Jourová addressing journalists on World Press Freedom day (Photo: European Commission)

Better EU tools are needed to protect media freedom as a "pillar of democracy" rather than just a player in the national economy, EU Commission vice-president Věra Jourová said on Monday (3 May) to mark World Press Freedom Day.

Jourová said she was in discussions with commissioner Thierry Breton, responsible for the single market, to come up with a "media freedom act" next year to give the EU the means to protect press freedom across Europe.

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"If you ask me whether we are equipped in Europe to protect the media as one of the pillars of democracy, I have to answer no, we are not equipped with the EU rules and EU law," she said.

Jourová said she is under "permanent pressure" to take action in some member states, where the EU sees both economic pressure and political pressure on the media.

Jourová pointed out that the EU law only looks at the media as an economic player in the European single market.

"There is nothing in our European rules recognising the special role of the media as one of the pillars of democracy," the Czech commissioner said.

"That's why we are now vividly discussing with [commissioner] Thierry Breton, who is the guardian of the European single market and also part of the media agenda, whether it is not high time something we call the media freedom act," she said.

"Our conviction is that we should take this step, this is an initiative planned for next year," Jourová said, adding that this will be the European contribution to safeguard media against "unintended and undesired pressure.

Buy-ups to silence?

The political intention is to address gaps in EU rules, so the commission could actually tackle problems which have popped up in several member states recently - but where the EU executive could do little concretely.

In Hungary, the KESMA, a massive media foundation close to prime minister Viktor Orbán which brings together 500 pro-government media organisations, has escaped EU inquiry because market distortion could not be proven.

In Poland, there has been an outcry over media freedom after a proposed government tax on advertising revenues, and following the purchase last year of Polska Press (a media group that publishes the majority of the country's regional papers) by the state-controlled PKN Orlen oil refiner.

Concerns have been on the rise in Slovenia, as well, over the freedom of the press.

"This frustration that we cannot do anything through competition rules also leads us to think about better rules of the future," Jourová said about the Hungarian case, adding that EU competition rules are designed to "catch much bigger cases in financial terms".

The EU commission has struggled to address wider rule of law and democracy issues in member states, but recently developed new tools, most notably with a new mechanism linking the respect of the rule of law to receipt of EU funds.

However, the EU executive still lacks tools to address specific concerns over press freedom.

Breton spoke about the issue last month in the European parliament, saying: "I believe that we should prepare a 'European media freedom act' to complement our legislative arsenal, in order to ensure that media freedom and pluralism are the pillars of our democracies".

Media freedom has also been a part of the first rule-of-law annual review, where the commission has looked at key aspects of democracy in member states.

Jourová said the commission will also soon come forward with proposals against so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapp), a technique used to silence journalists.

In September, the EU executive will also put forward recommendations to EU governments on how to better protect journalists.

In April, Greek journalist Giorgos Karaivaz was murdered outside of his home - the third journalist to be killed in recent years in Europe.

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The time for euphemisms is over. The attack on media freedom in Poland clears the way for an all-out assault on fundamental EU values. You need to protect them, writes the editor of Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza.

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