Faced with threats to press freedom in several Member States, notably Poland and Hungary, the European Union presented, on Friday, a draft regulation entitled « media freedom law » aimed at protecting pluralism and editorial independence.
The approach is unprecedented. Brussels presented Friday, September 16 a draft regulation to protect the pluralism and independence of the media. In the viewfinder: attacks on freedom of the press in several member countries, including Poland and Hungary.
“In recent years, we have witnessed various forms of pressure on the media. It is high time to act. We must establish clear principles: no journalist should be spied on because of their work and no public media should be turned into a propaganda channel, » said Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova.
The “law on freedom of the media” provides guarantees for the editorial independence of editorial staff vis-à-vis political power or industrialists and sets requirements for transparency on media ownership.
It must « allow our media to operate without any interference, whether private or public », commented the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton.
A European Media Council
The Commission also proposes the establishment of a new European Media Council, made up of representatives of the national regulatory authorities of the Twenty-Seven, for a stricter supervision of concentrations in this sector. This body would be responsible for issuing a non-binding opinion on these operations from the point of view of their effect on pluralism.
The EU thus wants to learn the lessons of the formation of the pro-Viktor Orbán media conglomerate in Hungary in 2018, for which European competition rules could not apply.
« We had no tools, now we will have them, » commented Thierry Breton, also stressing that transparency would be required in terms of 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 was concerned to see pro-government media in Poland privileged in this distribution.
The text protects the secrecy of sources and prohibits the use of spyware against journalists and members of their families – even if exceptions are possible in the name of « national security ».
But this risk must be assessed « under the control of a judge », said Thierry Breton. « Under no circumstances should the activity of a journalist be considered a risk to national security, » he added.
A provision in response to the recent Pegasus and Predator scandals, which notably splashed the Polish, Hungarian and Greek authorities.
In public service media, appointments of leaders must be made according to a « transparent » and « non-discriminatory » procedure and funding must be « adequate and stable ».
A « significant step forward »
This legislation still needs to be negotiated with EU member states and the European Parliament. It should enable the Commission to initiate proceedings before the European courts in the event of non-compliance with its provisions.
However, the text faces strong opposition from European publishers who see it as a « historic threat » to their freedom.
« We see no justification for harmonizing media law at EU level and for placing, for the first time, print and digital media under the regulatory oversight of a ‘European Media Council’, with the participation of the European Commission », denounced the European Magazine Media Association (EMMA, claiming 50,000 titles) and the European Association of Newspaper Publishers (ENPA, bringing together 14 national associations).
The NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) hailed a « significant step forward ». « However, this proposal is still insufficient in certain aspects and will have to be improved », considers its secretary general, Christophe Deloire.
The text provides safeguards to prevent journalistic content from being improperly removed by online platforms. But for RSF, the criteria for defining a medium are « not satisfactory ».
« If it is enough to declare oneself as an information media to benefit from it, then this mechanism risks hampering the efforts expected of the platforms to fight against disinformation », estimates RSF.