After months of intense and often volatile debate, the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) is near completion with a coalition of journalists and civil society groups calling on the European Parliament to hold firm on key issues as it negotiates the final text with the European Council and European Commission.
The commission launched the EMFA last year with lofty claims that it would provide the rules and tools to roll back media capture, protect media pluralism and independence, and end the misuse of spyware against journalists. Its first text, while strong on principles, often fell short of clear enforceable obligations vital to protect journalism from political interference.
The parliament, having done much to correct these weaknesses, now faces sustained pressure to shred their improvements from certain member states afraid of upsetting publisher groups who have lobbied hard against any rules affecting their business, and from other member states where political capture of media has become so commonplace that the EMFA threatens their influence over journalism.
Key battlegrounds include:
Use of spyware against journalists
Article 4, covering the use of spyware, has been vastly improved by the parliament which added extensive safeguards on the conditions under which the use of spyware may be permissible.
While its version falls short of the standards on the protection of sources set by the European Court of Human Rights, it nevertheless sets in place key checks including, and most importantly, the requirement for an ex-ante independent judicial approval.
EU member states’ reference to Article 4 being ‘without prejudice to member state responsibility for national security’ is dangerously misleading and should also be moved to the recitals where clarification of meaning belongs.
Independent public service media
Under Article 5 it is essential to guarantee the independence of public service media by applying a positive obligation on member states, as set out by the parliament, and to avoid the weaker language used by the council which simply asks governments to ‘aim to’ guarantee independence along with adequate, predictable and sustainable funding.
Article 6 imposes ownership transparency obligations on media, vital for the public to know who controls the media and how that, and potential conflicts of interest, might shape the reporting. This is enormously welcome.
However, while the council sets out the principle of transparency and asks news media to make information accessible to their audience, the parliament provides for an oversight mechanism to verify the declarations and make it publicly accessible on national and EU-wide databases.
Without these elements, media transparency becomes a matter of good-faith reporting with no consequences for withholding information.
The EMFA’s accompanying recommendations encourage media to ‘protect media integrity and independence from undue political and business interests’.
Article 6.2 reinforces this by obliging news media to guarantee editorial independence. While the parliament spells out the responsibility of editors in day-to-day decisions, the version of EU member states removes this clause, opening the door for publishers to dictate news coverage.
The council’s formula would severely weaken editorial independence in principle and in practice.
Sign up for EUobserver’s daily newsletter
All the stories we publish, sent at 7.30 AM.
Media pluralism test
Article 21 provides for a media pluralism test for mergers to limit the concentration of ownership. Only a handful of EU countries consider media plurality when assessing mergers and an EU-wide plurality test would create a more coherent internal market for media as well as protect media pluralism.
The test must include a media plurality and independence assessment rather than a watered-down ‘generic’ assessment, and apply to both cross-border and internal mergers.
Moreover, the European Board for Media Services (EBMS) that oversees these provisions, must be provided with sufficient independence. This must include the power to initiate its own assessments without the need of a request from the European Commission, and the necessary resources for its own secretariat to fulfil its duties.
Lastly, Article 24 seeks to end the abuse of state advertising by governments to punish critical media.
Earlier this month, Slovakia’s new prime minister, Robert Fico, threatened, in a video tirade against “enemy media”, to withdraw their state advertising.
EMFA requires governments to distribute funds in an objective, proportionate and transparent manner and to provide full transparency of expenditure to media.
But the parliament has improved on this in several areas. Most importantly, it removed an exemption for local governments which the council want to reinsert for populations of under 100.000.
We believe that any exemption provides an unnecessary and dangerous loophole for governments to direct state funds to their allies in the media.
We urge again all sides to adopt measures that do justice to the Act’s ambitions of protecting media freedom and pluralism. Our shared goal is for groundbreaking legislation that ensures journalists are fully protected and the public’s right to know is guaranteed.
Now is not the moment to compromise on media independence.
This oped had input from a coalition of media freedom and civil society groups