Free speech is at risk in the new media maelstrom. The EU needs to speak up

In fiction, journalists are heroes. Superman and Spider-Man, or rather Clark Kent and Peter Parker, both work for newspapers. Tintin and Bridget Jones are both reporters.

In reality, journalism is a much-maligned profession. Polls show how trust in the news media is being eroded by perceptions of inaccuracy and bias. In the United States, less than a third of people have confidence in the media. In Europe, the net trust index is -2%, according to research by the European Broadcasting Union – although that ranges from -51% in Britain to +44% in the Netherlands.

This collapse in trust in the fourth estate is just one characteristic of a crisis in the news media. It is over a generation since the internet emerged, and newspapers are still struggling to adapt to its effects. The web brought the latest news, instantly, on any connected device, free of charge. It broke the sales and advertising business model that fuelled newspapers for over a century.

In the Twitter age, who cares what the solemn BBC news anchor leads with every evening? Hundreds of newspapers have closed, and many of those remaining are shadows of their former selves. While an emerging generation of voices are embracing the latest technologies, their efforts have yet to find the same place in the community as local newspapers did.

The recent uproar about ‘fake news’ is symptomatic of the crisis. US President Donald Trump routinely brands media critics as fake news, but the phenomenon has a long history: ‘yellow journalism’ emerged in the 1890s as sensationalist, scandal-driven, and sometimes manufactured news. Fake news can be anything from simple ‘click bait’ to drive revenues to malicious tales to manipulate opinion. Today, the biggest media companies in the world are tech giants Google and Facebook: while enthusiastically spreading content, they do not distinguish between the fake and the real.

Why should this matter for the European Union? The EU has long been aware of the intricate if difficult relationship between government and the media (and not just because it is itself often at the receiving end of fierce press criticism). There are political aspects to the media crisis: in uncertain times, it is easier for governments to ruthlessly intervene, using the cover of fairness and accuracy to justify press restrictions.

The threats to media pluralism have deeper implications for the EU. Media freedom and pluralism are enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights. They are also amongst the Copenhagen criteria for membership of the EU. When the media is constrained, democracy and free speech suffer.

Media pluralism under threat

It was in this context that the European Parliament held a public hearing on 11 July, entitled, ‘Media Pluralism and Freedom in the EU’. The hearing revealed a disturbing media landscape.

The Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) presented its 2016 Media Pluralism Monitor, which said “concentration of media ownership…represents one of the highest risks for media pluralism and one of the greatest barriers to diversity of information and viewpoints represented in media content”.

Renate Schroeder, the Director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), also warned about the dangers of media concentration. “The emphasis on market share at the expense of editorial values and the absence of a robust public interest test has enabled the strengthening of media monopolies and the dilution of media diversity across Europe,” she said.

Malta University Professor Marilyn Clark outlined the survey she conducted for the Council of Europe that showed what happens when media pluralism is weak: journalists in Europe are now often exposed to serious unwarranted interference, including violence, fear and self-censorship.


Political interference is becoming more routine. Polish state media has been controlled by the government since the passage of a controversial media law in 2015 enabling ministers to appoint the heads of public TV and radio. In May, EU foreign ministers urged Warsaw to address concerns that it is undermining democratic checks and balances through the media law, but they shied away from stronger measures such as sanctions.

Hungary is moving in the same direction. But it is Bulgaria that is routinely listed as having Europe’s least free media, when it comes to pluralism, editorial independence, state regulation of resources and social inclusiveness: the 2017 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders put Bulgaria at 109th position among 180 monitored countries (last place in the EU).

The Parliament hearing came as MEPs debate copyright reform, with its proposed new Publisher’s Right. The Publishers’ Right is aimed at making news aggregators pay a licence fee to publishers and journalists for content. Publishers say it will create a fairer digital eco-system, giving consumers access and allowing tech companies to distribute content with permission. Similar moves are also being made across the Atlantic: the News Media Alliance, a group of US publishers, has called for new regulations to help them negotiate with Google and Facebook.

MEPs started discussing the copyright bill last year after the European Commission proposed the legal overhaul in September. Three Parliament Committees – on Culture and Education, on Internal Market and Consumer Protection, and on Industry, Research and Energy – support the right. The Parliament’s Legal Committee is leading the proposal: its MEPs will vote on the measure in October.

Threats to free speech

The debate on media pluralism shines a light on our political system. A 2016 study commissioned by the Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs argued that democracy and media freedom are mutually supportive. When media systems are entangled in a web of non-transparent relationships with political and economic power, it is usually linked to the dysfunction of democracy, the study said.

Angela Mills Wade, the Executive Director of the European Publishers Council, says the EU must ensure that countries hoping to join the EU are genuinely prepared to uphold the rule of law and guarantee press freedom. “These are fundamental rights and democratic values that are guaranteed by the treaties,” she says. “The EU must confront and hold to account every member state that violates fundamental rights including freedom of expression and press freedom.”

In a 2013 resolution, the Parliament said the EU could take legislative measures “to guarantee, protect and promote freedom of expression and information, media freedom and pluralism”. It called on the European Commission to propose legally binding procedures and mechanisms to safeguard media pluralism, including proper implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and a legislative framework on media ownership rules.

US founding father Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that, were it left to him to decide whether to have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. What is often forgotten is his next phrase: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

The media is still a powerful force for information, enlightenment and entertainment, but it has fragmented and is unrecognisable from a few years ago. Journalism today has spread to different digital platforms, each of which has proved its value in breaking powerful stories. But the media is still in a maelstrom, trying to adapt to an ever-changing environment. As it transforms itself, the EU needs to do its bit to promote a free and fair press, open and accessible to all, while ensuring that the giants of the digital world properly acknowledge the fundamental role played by the creators of quality journalism in a democratic society.

Editor: Dennis Abbott

Author: Leo Cendrowicz

image: shuttersktock

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