Journalists call for EU policymakers to deliver ‘robust’ Media Freedom Act in face of increasing state-owned harassment

Growing ‘hostile environment’ for journalists across EU, MEPs told during public hearing
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By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a Brussels-based journalist and copy editor

14 Jul 2021

Europe’s free and independent media has not had the best of times in recent years, but the current health and economic crisis has elevated the stress on the industry at a time when people need reliable information more than ever, MEPs have been warned.

The crisis in Europe’s media, initially caused by technological developments, economic pressure and political meddling to a dangerous level never seen before in Europe, was the subject of a public hearing in the European Parliament on Tuesday.

The Culture and Education (CULT) committee hearing entitled ‘The Future of Media and Media Pluralism in Europe’ featured two panels with prominent representatives from journalist organisations and the European Commission.

The Commission launched an Action Plan for recovery of the sector last December, and, in April, announcing plans to draft a new European Media Freedom Act, to tackle more systemic issues.

These actions “do not come a second too early”, said CULT Chair and host of the hearing German EPP deputy Sabine Verheyen, who added, “The aim of this hearing is to assess the state of media freedom and media pluralism in Europe and to inform ourselves about the outlook for the industry.”

“It will also feed into our Own-Initiative report on Europe’s media in the digital decade, which we hope to present in September”, Verheyen explained.

“The aim of this hearing is to assess the state of media freedom and media pluralism in Europe and to inform ourselves about the outlook for the industry. It will also feed into our Own-Initiative report on Europe’s media in the digital decade, which we hope to present in September” Sabine Verheyen, Chair of the European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee (CULT)

The first panel session, ‘media freedom and pluralism in the EU’, delved straight into some of the most worrying aspects of the current media landscape: the increasing risks faced by journalists.

As Tom Gibson, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, put it: “around Europe, journalists and other media actors are threatened, harassed, subjected to surveillance, intimidated, physically attacked and -  even, though rarely but more commonly over the last years - killed, because of their work. What we see in many EU Member States are hostile environments for journalists.”

He called for the EU’s new rule of law mechanism to be implemented vigorously, and commended MEPs for regularly conducting fact-finding missions in Member States and in accession countries looking to join the Union.

Łukasz Lipiński, Deputy Editor in-chief of the Polish weekly Polityka, defined the situation of media freedom and pluralism in Eastern and Central Europe as caught “between authoritarian power and tech giants".

Drawing on recent developments in Poland, in particular the mass acquisition of local media outlets by the state-owned energy company Orlen, and draft legislation to outlaw ownership of media companies by non-EU and EEA countries to shut down the independent TV channel TVN24 (owned by US media company Discovery), he painted a picture of his country well on the way of “full media capture” of the type already seen in Hungary.

With Slovenia also highlighted as heading in this direction, Lutz Kinkel of the German-based European Centre for Press and Media Freedom said that, “It is no secret that the liberty of the press in the Member States and accession countries in Eastern and Central Europe is declining.”

“The main causes are state actors not complying with European values and regulations. They are also often the source of conspiracy theories, denouncing journalism and thereby jeopardising individual reporters, especially women. I have the feeling that we live in two realities: the one on paper and the one we actually live in.”

“Around Europe, journalists and other media actors are threatened, harassed, subjected to surveillance, intimidated, physically attacked and -  even, though rarely but more commonly over the last years - killed, because of their work. What we see in many EU Member States are hostile environments for journalists” The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Tom Gibson

Highlighting legal harassment tactics often employed by governments against journalists, Kinkel strongly argued for the introduction of an EU anti-SLAPP directive.

SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation”, i.e. a lawsuit which is intended to silence critics by burdening them with the cost and effort of a legal defence. His appeal was supported by panellists and MEPs alike.

Asked by CULT MEPs for their preferred course of action for the EU, all the expert speakers stated that they were hoping for a robust legal response in the framework of the upcoming European Freedom of Media Act, as well as for the Commission’s competition and anti-trust authorities to take a keener interest in the methods used by Member States to achieve state-capture of the national media landscape.

The second panel shifted the focus more towards the outlook for the industry, and heard from Scott Griffen of the UK-based International Press Institute (IPI), that a sustainable independent media - first and foremost - needs fair market conditions, something that is sadly lacking in Member States such as Poland and Hungary, “and spreading”.

He also urged the EU to apply its laws, in particular in the area of competition, and suggested better targeted legislation.

The president of the European Journalist Federation (EJF), Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, by contrast, called market mechanisms, even fair ones, insufficient when it came to maintaining some branches of the media, in particular local media, which he saw as at risk of becoming a “media desert”.

He appealed to EU Policymakers to put their money where their mouth is, arguing, “How can the EU support sustainable independent media? There is a huge need for financial support to independent media outlets. Support capacity building for independent press councils; support the infrastructure behind the media, link media-literacy with support for innovative ideas, and supporting start-ups. And guarantee decent working conditions for journalists, including freelancers.”

In closing, Verheyen summed up the hearing by underlining the complexity of the challenges facing the industry, which she argued, called for not just one solution but for several diverse approaches, using “the entire toolbox of EU programmes and instruments available to us”.

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