Members' Research Service By / January 12, 2023

Protecting media freedom and journalists in the EU [Ten issues to watch in 2023]

The year 2023 is expected to be marked by the adoption of innovative EU legislative proposals in the area of media freedom and pluralism, notably the anti-SLAPPs directive and the European media freedom act.

Written by Maria Diaz Crego.

This is the seventh edition of an annual EPRS publication aimed at identifying and framing some of the key issues and policy areas that have the potential to feature prominently in public debate and on the political agenda of the European Union over the coming year.
The topics analysed encompass the 2024 European elections, budgeting in times of crises and war, lessons for public investment in the EU from the EU recovery instrument, the fiscal and monetary policy mix, climate
and socio-economic tipping points, the impact of increasing fuel prices on transport, cyber-resilience in the EU, protecting media freedom and journalists, the future of Russia, and geoeconomics in an age of empires

The year 2023 is expected to be marked by the adoption of innovative EU legislative proposals in the area of media freedom and pluralism, notably the anti-SLAPPs directive and the European media freedom act. The focus of EU institutions in this area in the run-up for the 2024 European elections has to be linked to the key role media play in contemporary democracies.

Media freedom and pluralism, entrenched as fundamental rights in both the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights, are indissociable from democracy as they protect the pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which democratic societies cannot flourish. Media not only provide the information that citizens need to make sound political choices but they also play other important roles, such as: i) acting as ‘watchdogs’ of our democracies and increasing the accountability of our representatives; ii) providing analysis of what is happening and helping citizens to understand an increasingly complex world; iii) boosting inclusiveness and making the voices of minorities heard; and iv) acting as a public forum for dialogue among citizens and groups with diverse points of view.

For media to play an effective role in a democratic society, citizens must have ‘access to a variety of information sources, opinion, voices etc. in order to form their opinion without the undue influence of one dominant opinion-forming power’, as highlighted by the European Commission. Past and current battles for control of media outlets clearly show how powerful media can be when it comes to shaping the views of citizens, and how they can be used to ensure the survival of a specific regime by extolling its achievements and reducing critical comments to a minimum.

Figure 6 – Media freedom and pluralism in the EU

No European Union Member State is free from risks to media freedom and pluralism, although the extent and gravity of those risks varies greatly across Europe, as confirmed by the World Press Freedom index, the Media Pluralism Monitor and the Commission rule of law annual reports (see Figure 6). The 2022 editions of the latter two show a negative shift as regards the journalistic profession, due to an increase in the number of threats to journalists (two journalists were murdered in the EU in 2021, whereas none were in 2020) and in the number of strategic lawsuits filed against media for providing information on issues of public interest (also known as ‘strategic lawsuits against public participation’ or SLAPPs). Both 2022 reports highlight concerns relating to the high concentration of news media on the continent, as well as to the need for further transparency of media ownership in many EU Member States. Editorial autonomy, understood as the protection against undue external interference in the editorial news‑making process, and the risk of political control, especially as regards public media, are also considered indicators of particular concern for the EU area in both 2022 reports.

Action in the media sector, originally aimed at establishing a single market for media services, is not new to the EU and dates back to the 1980s and the adoption of the Television without Borders Directive, repealed by the current Audiovisual Media Services Directive. However, the focus of attention of EU institutions in this particular area seems to be changing and partly moving towards a policy more centred on fundamental rights and the protection of media freedom and pluralism as a prerequisite for the proper democratic functioning of our institutions.

In this vein, as committed in the European democracy action plan (2020), in November 2021 the Commission adopted a legislative proposal on political advertising. The proposal aims to establish safeguards against manipulative techniques in political advertising and ensure the political pluralism that allows democratic institutions to thrive. It would establish common European rules on transparency of political advertising, requiring publishers to clearly label political advertisements as such and include information such as who is the sponsor, who paid, and how much, for it, and the election(s) or referendum(s) to which the advertisement is linked. In addition, the proposal would include a partial ban on the use of targeting and amplification techniques for political purposes, and prohibit those that involve the processing of sensitive personal data. The ban seeks to address therisks of fragmentation of the political debate and manipulation of voters raised by some techniques of political (micro‑)targeting frequently used in political campaigns.  

To address challenges faced by journalists to inform independently and safely on issues of public interest, and respond to growing concerns over the prevalence of SLAPPs within the EU, the Commission presented a proposal on 27 April 2022 for an anti-SLAPPs directive that aims to protect not only journalists, but also anyone exercising freedoms of expression and/or information as regards issues of public interest, from abusive and manifestly unfounded lawsuits. As the proposal would apply to civil SLAPP cases with a cross-border dimension only, it was issued together with a recommendation setting out guidance for Member States to take effective measures to address purely domestic SLAPP cases, including in the area of criminal or administrative law.  

In September 2022, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a European media freedom act that aims to set common European rules ensuring media freedom and pluralism in different areas. It would protect journalistic sources, and media and journalists from the use of surveillance technologies. Moreover, it would focus on media ownership transparency and the editorial independence of media providers providing news and current affairs content, by requiring them to inform about their direct and indirect ownership and imposing on them an obligation to establish internal safeguards geared at guaranteeing the independence of individual editorial decisions, once the editorial line of the media outlet has been defined. As the proposal would leave a wide margin of discretion to media providers as to the internal safeguards to put in place, it is accompanied by a recommendation setting out a catalogue of voluntary best practice to strengthen editorial independence. Finally, the proposal would also establish common rules for transparent and non-discriminatory allocation of state advertising to media and to ensure further independence of public media, among other things by requiring that their funding is adequate and stable and their governing board and head of management is appointed in a transparent and non-discriminatory manner and cannot be dismissed before the end of their term except in specific cases defined by national law. These legislative initiatives are all currently being analysed by the co-legislators. If approved, they would definitively shape the media ecosystem of Europe and the way media exercise their watchdog function for years to come.

Read the complete in-depth analysis on ‘Ten issues to watch in 2023‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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