Reading the news and staying informed is an integral part of life, but the pandemic has taken this to a new level. With more time spent indoors and constant variations in measures, restrictions and relaxations taking place, people in villages, cities and regions across Europe have turned to the media more than ever before to seek information.
The COVID-19 crisis has clearly highlighted the need for a strong press as an institution, one which informs society with balanced, fact-based information. At the same time, the economic recession caused by the crisis has endangered the media’s ability to play a responsible role.
“Citizens across Europe have a right to be informed on issues that are of concern to them; once a local or regional media vacuum develops, such a right is taken away from them. In turn, this impacts on democracy, which is already being threatened by disinformation campaigns and the propagation of fake news”
News publishing has seen advertising revenues drop between 30-80 percent and TV by 20 percent, during generalised lockdowns in the second quarter of 2020. European media SMEs face severe liquidity issues, while unemployment in the sector has increased.
These difficulties - in particular at local and regional levels - have seen media outlets close down, potentially exposing small markets to ‘news deserts’.
This is worrying, since local media represents the diversity of regions and helps people feel part of a community. Furthermore, one of the roles of local and regional media is to produce high-quality, comprehensive and critical journalism on governments and public affairs in an objective and accurate manner, thus giving local people the knowledge - and the opportunity - to take a position on matters promoting political participation.
Citizens across Europe have a right to be informed on issues that are of concern to them; once a local or regional media vacuum develops, such a right is taken away from them. In turn, this impacts on democracy, which is already being threatened by disinformation campaigns and the propagation of fake news.
Independent local news media are the backbone of democracy and must be supported. The assassinations of investigative journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova in Slovakia are a testimony of why journalism really matters and why it needs to be supported in all possible ways, at all levels.
However, this needs to be done appropriately without impinging on trustworthiness. The credibility of the media stands or falls on their independence and freedom of expression.
This contrasts with situations where a governmental or non-governmental body can decide on its own which content is trustworthy, how access to platforms are controlled and which content is deprioritised.
Last December, the European Commission published a Communication on ‘Europe’s Media in the Digital Decade: An Action Plan to Support Recovery and Transformation’.
The European Committee of the Regions’ Commission for Social Policy, Education, Employment, Research and Culture appointed me as rapporteur, so that elected representatives from villages, cities and regions across Europe can voice their views and recommendations on how to safeguard the local and regional press.
We believe that protecting the independence and diversity of the media providing quality journalism must be a key policy objective, which must also be emphasised in the context of this action plan.
“Independent local news media are the backbone of democracy and must be supported”
Particular attention must be paid to the special situation of small countries, where - due to their small markets and their specific circumstances - resources for local and regional media are often limited.
This is particularly the case for those relating to EU minority languages or to non-European languages specific to migrant groups. Unfortunately, the action plan fails to take this into account and this critical issue needs to be addressed.
Thus, in order to maintain a strong, high-quality press at all levels, support measures are needed, in particular to ensure the survival of local and regional media companies. In this regard, my opinion recommends that the European Commission should devise specific measures to support local and regional media from EU funds for the coming period 2021-27.
In many Member States, the regions have responsibility for regulating and supporting the media and cultural sectors. Therefore, this sector needs to also embrace multilevel governance. The Commission and the EU national governments should fully recognise these local and regional competences and facilitate the participation of local and regional authorities in a structured dialogue on the specific actions set out in the Action Plan.
Lastly, this action plan can serve as a means to transform and empower local and region media. In fact, the opinion recognises the particular value of regional, and even local, innovation strategies and smart specialisation in the audiovisual and media sectors as they result in innovative solutions and have spill-over effects to other key areas of public policy and economic activity.
When all talk is about the Future of Europe, strengthening of democracy and recovery, we can’t forget about one of the pillars of democracy that can also help in creating new jobs and opportunities in an ever-growing digital environment.
The expert in compiling the report was Andres Jõesaar, an Associate Professor of Media Policies at Tallinn University.