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A stronger fourth estate is non-negotiable for European democracies

EMFA is our best tool yet

On Tuesday, the European Parliament decisively backed its position on the Media Freedom Act. It will serve as a solid basis for negotiations with the Council, made up of governments who have much to answer for about their behavior toward the media back home.

Across Europe, the free press is not just being threatened by governments and bad actors with deep pockets. The fast-paced digital era has put traditional media houses on the back foot. They are having to cope with changing, if not narrowing revenue streams, and with opaque social media algorithms that promote fake news, rather than reputable sources. It forces the news to compete with entertainment and conspiracy theories.

Layer on top of the pandemic and inflationary costs, and malicious actors find fertile ground to stifle journalists and push them further toward the brink. It is no coincidence that journalists’ safety has dwindled.

This is the backdrop against which EU institutions have been tasked to protect journalists and improve the standing of the fourth estate across the continent.

In this respect, the European Media Freedom Act approaches the problem from many angles. It introduces European guarantees against the illegitimate surveillance of journalists. It helps protect journalistic content on internet platforms, which Europe is ensuring no longer remains a regulatory wild-west. It introduces a European watchdog to ensure that no weak link can threaten journalistic protection across the Union.

But it also goes to the core of what some governments have been relying on to keep the press under their thumb.

First of all, in the context of public ownership of state broadcasters, weak governance structures risk political interference in editorial decisions.

In practice, this means that taxpayer resources are used not to keep the public informed and educated, but as a propagandistic tool to further partisan aims. At worst, it is used to help cover up wrongdoing and divert attention from scandal.

The Media Freedom Act ensures that public service broadcasters can serve their stated aim, that is, to act in the public interest.

However governmental interference can be exercised financially as well.

When the pandemic hit and paper edition sales dwindled, governments offered relief packages. But their application was not transparent. It led to a situation where friendly media was disproportionately favored over those journalists who would not be bought or bullied.

This is an attitude that is still prevalent today in some member states. Advertising jobs and other public contracts can be dished out to friendly editors or media owners while leaving others high and dry. Yet media pluralism and the public’s access to information should not be conditioned by the discriminatory distribution of resources.

In effect, information flows risk being distorted by funding that is opaque and imbalanced. And this is what the Parliament’s position on the Media Freedom Act explicitly tackles.

The Media Pluralism Monitor shows that the press is at risk everywhere, not just in the problematic member states. Without a strong press, there can be no democracy. 

The truth is that you cannot legislate respect for journalists. I am convinced that those in power who cannot tolerate scrutiny will already be plotting ways to circumvent their obligations. 

But by the end of this process, we will have armed our democracies with an effective tool to fight back.

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