Alarmed by the deterioration of press independence in Hungary and Poland, the European Commission decided to adopt a law to regulate media mergers and to protect journalists from pressure.
The draft regulation, of which AFP received a preliminary version, provides for guarantees of editorial independence from political power or industrialists and requirements for transparency of media ownership. The “Media Freedom Act”, which will be formally presented by the Commission at the end of next week, will allow it to initiate proceedings before the European courts in the event of non-compliance.
Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova has repeatedly expressed her sense of powerlessness, pointing to Brussels’ “limited” options for maneuvering in the media sector. This is especially true in the case of the media conglomerate supporting Viktor Orbán in Hungary in 2018, to which European competition rules could not apply. The Commission now wants each country to be obliged to assess media mergers from the point of view of their impact on pluralism and editorial independence based on a number of criteria, reports BGNES.
The new European Media Council, which will include representatives of national regulatory authorities, will be responsible for drawing up opinions on such mergers that may affect the functioning of the common market. “While consolidation in the media may be welcome from the point of view of business sustainability, it can also create problems for editorial independence,” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said in a speech at the end of November 2021.
The text protects the confidentiality of sources and prohibits the use of spyware against journalists and their family members, although exceptions are possible in the name of “national security”. This provision is in response to the recent Pegasus and Predator scandals that have tarnished the Polish, Hungarian and Greek authorities.
In public media, the appointments of managers must be made in a “transparent” and “non-discriminatory” procedure, and funding must be “adequate and stable”. In 2021, former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša suspended funding for the national news agency STA for months over his criticism of its editorial line, for which he received several warnings from Brussels.
Transparency is also required in state advertising: public authorities must publish the amounts spent and the media that benefit from them. In its latest report on the rule of law in the European Union, the Commission expressed concern that in Poland the pro-government media is favored in this distribution. The public should also have “easy” access to the names of media owners. The media must take measures to “guarantee that journalists are free to make individual editorial decisions in the exercise of their activities”.
The secretary general of the NGO Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, described the draft regulation as “a big step forward” and welcomed “the desire to guarantee the integrity of information”. However, European publishers oppose this initiative, which they say is a “threat”.
The European Magazine Publishers’ Association (EMMA) and the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association (ENPA) say this infringes on “the freedom to invest and run a business”. “We see no reason for harmonizing media legislation at the European level in the sense of stricter control by media regulators or, indirectly, by the Commission,” the organization’s executive director Ilias Conteas told AFP.
The law will be a “difficult battle”, admits Vera Jourova. “Some member states want to be able to influence the media, they will say that the Commission wants to take away their powers. Some media owners are taking advantage of the current situation, they will shout that we are threatening their business”.