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25th Sep 2023

New EU media bill seeks to curtail government meddling

  • EU commissioners Vera Jourova (l) and Thierry Breton presented the bill jointly to the media (Photo: European Union, 2022)
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New rules are being proposed to clawback political influence on media in the EU and step-up transparency of its ownership.

The proposal for a so-called European Media Freedom Act announced Friday (16 September) by the European Commission is part of wider efforts to tackle the erosion of rule of law in EU states like Poland and Hungary.

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"For the first time in the EU law, we are presenting safeguards to protect the editorial independence of the media," Vera Jourova, a vice-president of the European Commission, told reporters in Brussels.

"No public service media should become a propaganda channel of one party," she said, noting that the financing of public service media will also have to be transparent.

A new European Board for Media Services will be tasked as a type of watchdog on media concentration, to ensure a plurality of voices.

But its powers will be limited to issuing opinions. Should national authorities dismiss those findings, they will have to explain why.

Such government meddling has been sketched out in a recent 187-page report by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, co-financed by the European Union.

On political independence, it said the risk was high for media in Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Some outlets in Poland, have for instance, sought investors from abroad to secure editorial independence. In late 2020, the Polish state energy firm PKN Orlen bought out a media firm that owns hundreds of local newspapers and websites.

Conflicts of interest also remain troubling in Slovenia where the SDS party co-owns Nova24TV, as well as the print and online political magazines Demokracija and Škandal24. These outlets are said to be tied to investors linked to the Hungarian government, itself known to crack down on critical outlets.

The Slovenian Press Agency (STA) had also come under intense pressure after the government arbitrarily suspended funding.

Similar issues prevail in Slovakia.

The country's right-wing Sme Rodina party is headed by Boris Kollár. But Kollár, who serves as speaker of the national council, also owns two of the four radio stations with the highest audience-share in Slovakia.

This also comes at a time when journalists have been targeted by spyware, including in Greece where media freedoms now rank among the worst in the EU, according to Reporters without Borders.

The new act, proposed as an EU regulation, would also ban the use of spyware against journalists.

"Our aim being first and foremost to guarantee editorial independence and to avoid any interference," said Thierry Breton, EU internal market commissioner. "When it comes to interference, obviously there can be state interference. That's what we have in mind," he said.

NGO support

Civil organisations defending media freedoms and speech have broadly supported the commission's proposal.

Paris-based Reporters without Borders called it an important step forward for media freedom and for the preservation of democracy and the rule of law.

The Civil Liberties Union For Europe also welcomed it — but highlighted several shortcomings.

For one, it shed doubt on whether the European Commission would enforce it, given its past hesitations to launch infringements against Poland and Hungary.

Similar statements were made by the London-based Article 19.

It noted that the proposal's safeguards of public funds granted by public administrations only applies to territorial entities with more than one million inhabitants.

"Those provisions will cut out a huge percentage of the EU territory," it said, in a statement.

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