A European helping hand for press freedom

While the last few weeks have hardly been auspicious, there was at least a little progress for press freedom in Europe. The adoption at EU level of two hotly debated measures will set a new course for the years to come, against an undeniably gloomy economic, social and political backdrop.

Published on 19 December 2023 at 13:31

A few days ago, as we were sitting around the dinner table talking about different professions, my teenage daughter, ever so slightly perturbed, said "Dad, you're smart, you know so much... so why are you a journalist." As my surprise and dismay subsided, I trotted out the usual line about the importance of journalism for democracy and enabling citizens to make responsible, informed choices, without quite managing to convince her. Admittedly, she's a teenager, and her involvement in society is still in its infancy, but her remark got me thinking about young and not so young people's perception of journalism and its key role. I was also reminded of what Nobel Peace Prize winner Oleksandra Matviichuk said in a recent speech at the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom awards, now published by Voxeurop: "Many people, even in developed democracies, do not realise the importance of freedom of the press. "

This tendency is confirmed by the latest reports from RSF showing an "erosion" of press freedom in Europe, with major disparities between countries, mainly due to violence and repressive measures aimed at hindering the work of journalists.

This is reflected in polarised public opinion (though not as polarised as we might fear, notes Caroline de Gruyter in EUobserver), a portion of which descended into  unprecedented hostility during the Covid-19 pandemic. Equated with the elites reviled by populists, the media are also among autocrats' favourite targets. Investigative journalists, for their part, are subject to gag orders (SLAPP procedures) designed to intimidate them, as lawyers Francesca Carrington and Justin Borg-Barthet explain in The Conversation.

Lagging behind the other international institutions, and following in the footsteps of the Council of Europe, the EU has now for several years been committed to defending press freedom (which happens to be one of the Council’s missions). It does so through financial support for media projects (such as the European Data Journalism Network, of which Voxeurop is a member) and regulation of the sector. We can thank it for a directive against SLAPPs, and more recently the Media Freedom Act (MFA), designed to strengthen the editorial independence of newsrooms, avoid political and economic interference, and limit the risks arising from media concentration.

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While these two measures have the merit of offering additional protection to journalists and press freedom, they also suffer from the typical compromises resulting from lengthy negotiations between the EU institutions and the member states. For example, the version of the anti-SLAPP directive approved by the latter at the end of November 2023 is considered to be "considerably watered down" and misses “the legislation’s original objective: to protect journalists and the right to information in the European Union", according to several European organisations defending journalists.

As for the MFA, on 15 December the member states and the European Parliament reached agreement on the final text. Considered "promising" by RSF, it is the result of a long tug-of-war in which press freedom organisations played a key role, in the face of governments reluctant to give up their prerogatives. Disclose, Investigate Europe and Follow the Money have revealed the desire of many countries, including France, Hungary, Italy, Finland, Greece, Cyprus, Malta and Sweden, to "torpedo" the MFA by "actively campaigning to authorise the surveillance of journalists, in the name of 'national security'", which only confirms the importance of investigative journalism.

Other reads

85% of people worry about online disinformation, global survey finds

Jon Henley | The Guardian | 7 November | EN

"More than 85% of people are worried about the impact of online misinformation and 87% believe it has already damaged their country's politics, according to a global survey”. Misinformation affects a variety of areas, including politics, health and general information, raising fears about its ability to manipulate opinions and influence individual decisions, writes Jon Henley. The author notes that participants in the survey express the need for stronger action to counter this trend, calling for greater responsibility on the part of technology companies, the media and governments to regulate and filter misinformation.

From Bolloré to Kretínský, the extraordinary influence of the major French capitalists

Hervé Nathan | Alternatives Economiques | 20 November | FR

Moguls such as Vincent Bolloré and Daniel Kretínský are acquiring increasing power in a range of economic sectors, from industry to the press. This concentration of influence is affecting the media and political landscape in France and beyond. Vincent Bolloré, for example, controls a vast media empire through Vivendi, influencing the French and international media. Similarly, Daniel Kretínský has recently extended his influence by investing in a number of economic and media sectors in France.

The new "sovereignty protection" law cannot intimidate independent media

VSquare | 13 December | EN

According to a joint statement released by a number of Hungarian media outlets, while the law on the "protection of sovereignty" recently adopted in Hungary does not expressly regulate the operation of media companies, it is likely to considerably restrict press freedom, potentially making it difficult, if not impossible, for independent newsrooms, journalists and media companies to carry out their work..

Unesco publishes guidelines on regulating social networks  

Zeynep Yirmibeşoğlu | Netzpolitik | 29 November | DE

The international cultural organisation is now talking about an "information crisis" and wants to remedy it with guidelines on the governance of digital platforms. Following a lengthy consultation process involving more than 10,000 contributions from 134 countries, it has published seven principles, including the obligation to scrupulously respect the International Bill of Human Rights and to regularly verify compliance with it; the establishment of independent and transparent regulatory authorities that are expected to cooperate closely with each other; the moderation of content in all regions and languages; the transparency of algorithms; and the adoption of enhanced protection measures during sensitive periods such as elections and crises.

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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