EU: Media Freedom Act is an important step in safeguarding media plurality

EU: Media Freedom Act is an important step in safeguarding media plurality - Media

Press conference, The Hague, Netherlands, 2020. DasyaDasya/ Shutterstock

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the proposal for the European Media Freedom Act (MFA), adopted by the European Commission today, 16 September. The proposal is a significant step in addressing the growing threats to media freedom in the European Union and promoting media independence and pluralism across member states. 

Maria Luisa Stasi, Head of Law and Policy for Digital Markets at ARTICLE 19, said: 

For a long time now we’ve been observing a steady erosion of media freedom in parts of the European Union. From journalists becoming victims of spyware to instances of media capture, dangerous concentration of media ownership and political interference in editorial independence, the number of concerns has been growing in recent years. 

The MFA shows that the Commission is not afraid to act on those issues and is an important step in the right direction. Now we need to work to ensure that the proposal is improved so that the final legislation is robust and effective and the Act can live up to its stated aims of protecting media freedom across member states.

The concentration of media ownership presents a unique danger to media pluralism and editorial independence – which is why ARTICLE 19 welcomes the safeguards introduced via impact assessment of media mergers on media plurality. At the same time we note that the advisory nature of those provisions (relying on peer pressure from national regulatory authorities, the Board and the Commission) risks creating a toothless mechanism which will not achieve its goals. 

ARTICLE 19 also welcomes the introduction of basic criteria for the allocation of state advertising. This form of public funding can have a significant impact on the independence and sustainability of media actors. This is why it is encouraging to see the European Commission mandating that its allocation follows transparent, objective, proportionate and non-discriminatory criteria and procedure. However, ARTICLE 19 objects to the criteria used in the text, i.e. the safeguards only applying to public funds granted by public administrations of territorial entities with more than 1 million inhabitants. Those provisions will cut out a huge percentage of the EU territory. In various countries, only the public administrations of the capital might reach that threshold, leaving outside the majority of regional and local territories, risking making the rule useless in practice. 

Lastly, ARTICLE 19 welcomes the numerous references to ‘structured’ and ‘regular’ dialogue among stakeholders within the MFA. The explicit inclusion of the civil society indicates the Commission’s willingness to listen to voices of those affected by the regulation. Of course, it remains to be seen how the dialogue will function in practice – we hope that it will not turn into yet another formalistic ‘tick box and that the scope of the dialogue will be further widened to touch upon all critical matters where these stakeholders can meaningfully contribute.

At the same time, a number of provisions in the current proposal that need to be improved in the process of finalising the legislation.

The protection of journalistic sources and communications is key for media freedom. Unfortunately, ARTICLE 19 considers that the MFA does not go far enough: among others, the scope of protection is too narrow, there is no reference to proportionality and subsidiarity principles, nor a system for ex-ante judicial authorisation of surveillance measures. 

Furthermore, Article 17 creates a separate procedure to deal with suspension or restriction of content from “media service providers” on very large online platforms. ARTICLE 19 believes that, as a matter of principle, media actors should not be granted special treatment when it comes to content moderation and welcomed that an attempt to exempt the media from the content moderation rules in the Digital Services Act was rejected. 

The MFA also proposed to set up the European Board for Media Services that, besides monitoring how national regulatory decisions affect the overall European media landscape, will be tasked with tackling disinformation on online media platforms, in line with the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation. ARTICLE 19 has previously expressed concerns that the Code’s definition of ‘disinformation’ is overly broad and does not guarantee sufficient protections for free expression. The focus instead should be on providing guidance on how to increase digital media literacy and address the business model of big platforms, among others.

We also recommend strengthening provisions around the transparency requirements of media ownership. Wide and meaningful transparency is an essential for ensuring we can limit the risks of interference in the editorial independence of the media. At the moment, the transparency provisions are broadly left to recommendations, which is a clear missed opportunity.

Maria Luisa Stasi continued: 

It’s encouraging to see that the MFA proposal contains a number of references to the Digital Services Act. This holistic approach ensures that the MFA does not land in a vacuum, but in a regulatory environment where a variety of frameworks, including Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act and Audiovisual Media Services Directive, overlap and interplay. 

It is now essential that legislators take this broad picture into account when working to improve the current proposal to achieve a healthier and more resilient media ecosystem in the European Union. 

 

ARTICLE 19 will study the European Media Freedom Act in detail over the coming weeks  and will issue further analysis in due course. 

For more information or to arrange an interview with our Maria Luisa Stasi, please email: agamaciejewska@article19.org