EC adopts Media Freedom Act
September 16, 2022
By Colin Mann
The European Commission has adopted a European Media Freedom Act, describing it as a novel set of rules to protect media pluralism and independence in the EU.
The proposed Regulation includes, among others, safeguards against political interference in editorial decisions and against surveillance. It puts a focus on the independence and stable funding of public service media as well as on the transparency of media ownership and of the allocation of state advertising. It also sets out measures to protect independence of editors and disclose conflicts of interest. Finally, the Act will address the issue of media concentrations and create a new independent European Board for Media Services, comprised of national media authorities. The Commission also adopted a complementary Recommendation to encourage internal safeguards for editorial independence.
“We have seen over the past years various forms of pressure on the media,” commented Věra Jourová, Vice-President for Values and Transparency. “It is high time to act. We need to establish clear principles: no journalist should be spied on because of their job; no public media should be turned into propaganda channel. This is what we are proposing today for the first time ever: common safeguards to protect media freedom and pluralism in the EU.”
“The EU is the world’s largest democratic single market,” added Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market. “Media companies play a vital role but are confronted with falling revenues, threats to media freedom and pluralism, the emergence of very large online platforms, and a patchwork of different national rules. The European Media Freedom Act provides common safeguards at EU level to guarantee a plurality of voices and that our media are able to operate without any interference, be it private or public. A new European watchdog will promote the effective application of these new media freedom rules and screen media concentrations so they do not hamper plurality.”
The European Media Freedom Act will ensure that media – public and private – can operate more easily across borders in the EU internal market, without undue pressure and taking into account the digital transformation of the media space.
- Protection of editorial independence – the Regulation will require Member States to respect the effective editorial freedom of media service providers and improve the protection of journalistic sources. In addition, media service providers will have to ensure transparency of ownership by publicly disclosing such information and take measures with a view to guaranteeing the independence of individual editorial decisions.
- No use of spyware against media – the Media Freedom Act includes strong safeguards against the use of spyware against media, journalists and their families.
- Independent public service media –where public service media exist, their funding provided should be adequate and stable, in order to ensure editorial independence. The head and the governing board of public service media will have to be appointed in a transparent, open and non-discriminatory manner. Public service media providers shall provide a plurality of information and opinions, in an impartial manner, in accordance with their public service mission.
- Media pluralism tests – the Media Freedom Act requires Member States to assess the impact of media market concentrations on media pluralism and editorial independence. It also requires that any legislative, regulatory or administrative measure taken by a Member State that could affect the media is duly justified and proportionate.
- Transparent state advertising – the Media Freedom Act will establish new requirements for the allocation of state advertising to media, so that it is transparent and non-discriminatory. The Act will also enhance the transparency and objectivity of audience measurement systems, which have an impact on media advertising revenues, in particular online.
- Protection of media content online – building on the Digital Services Act, the Media Freedom Act includes safeguards against the unjustified removal of media content produced according to professional standards. In cases not involving systemic risks such as disinformation, very large online platforms that intend to take down certain legal media content considered to be contrary to the platform’s policies will have to inform the media service providers about the reasons, before such take down takes effect. Any complaints lodged by media service providers will have to be processed with priority by those platforms.
- New user right to customise your media offer – the Media Freedom Act will introduce a right of customisation of the media offer on devices and interfaces, such as connected TVs, enabling users to change the default settings to reflect their own preferences.
The proposal is accompanied by a Recommendation setting out a number of voluntary best practices collected from the sector and geared at promoting editorial independence and greater ownership transparency. The Recommendation provides a toolbox of voluntary measures for media companies to consider, such as the conditions for independent creation of editorial content, through empowering journalists to participate in crucial decisions for the functioning of media outlets, to strategies for ensuring long-term stability of news content production.
The Commission proposes to set up a new independent European Board for Media Services comprised of national media authorities. The Board will promote the effective and consistent application of the EU media law framework, in particular by assisting the Commission in preparing guidelines on media regulatory matters. It will also be able to issue opinions on national measures and decisions affecting media markets and media market concentrations.
The Board will also coordinate national regulatory measures regarding non-EU media that present a risk to public security to ensure that those media do not circumvent the applicable rules in the EU. The Board will also organise a structured dialogue between very large online platforms and the media sector to promote access to diverse media offers and to monitor platforms’ compliance with self-regulatory initiatives, such as the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation.
It is now for the European Parliament and the Member States to discuss the Commission’s proposal for a Regulation under the ordinary legislative procedure. Once adopted, it will be directly applicable across the European Union. The Commission will encourage discussions, notably as part of the European News Media Forum, on voluntary practices by media companies linked to the accompanying Recommendation.
Trade body ACT (the Association of Commercial Television and Video on Demand Services in Europe) supports the Commission’s desire to uphold EU media pluralism, independence and sustainability. “The publication of the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) can be an important milestone in devising a new social contract between media and government, in an increasingly digital environment,” it states. “Thus, ensuring a healthy media ecosystem to promote a vibrant democracy (and combat abusive government practices) and a sustainable economic outlook. This is shared by broadcasters and VoD providers throughout Europe.”
ACT says its members are transparent about their ownership, structure and funding and hold themselves to the highest journalistic and governance standards. Editorial independence and integrity are engrained in its members’ internal policies and often mandated by law. “Accountability is part of our DNA and we therefore embrace the inclusion of these elements in the EMFA,” it declares.
“A proper social contract for media requires a balance between rights and duties,” it asserts. “Undue procedures, applied solely to media companies, are likely to fall short as they ignore the impact of video sharing platforms (VSPs) and more generally very large online platforms (VLOPs) on media pluralism. There is also a risk of impacting existing competition frameworks, thereby preventing legitimate consolidation in order to better compete with tech giants. Further, whilst encouraging self-regulation is commendable, specifying in detailed law new additional procedures on how media companies should operate is not necessary for commercial broadcasters. This should be left to media companies themselves, or independent regulators, but definitely not delegated to legislators in an ambiguous manner. We will follow deliberations on this point with caution. Finally, provisions on issues such as audience measurement will need to be properly scoped. All that is really needed in this space is transparency on VSPs and VLOPs. The focus of the legislative debate ahead will therefore be on properly addressing the issues identified above,” says ACT
“Ultimately what is really needed for media freedom is a commitment from the European Union to a liberalisation agenda rather than yet another layer of rules for an already highly regulated sector. For far too long audiovisual media companies have been treated as mere targets of overregulation, undermining their sustainability and important democratic role. The EMFA should therefore strive to limit regulatory asymmetries and outdated regulatory constraints and bring about a more coherent and balanced media space. For instance, detailed and inflexible AVMS rules on commercial communication, levies, and quotas, impact our ability to compete and fund original European news and entertainment in competition with video sharing platforms and social networks, which do not invest in content.”
“Therefore, we urge caution with regards to restrictions that impede a well-functioning market for commercial broadcasting, which above all should be further encouraged. In this regard, ACT would welcome a framework aimed at fostering checks and balances in all Member States, while promoting and strengthening European media growth and consolidation. National measures restricting media companies’ freedom should always be adequate, objectively justified, transparent, non-discriminatory, and proportionate” it concludes.