EU wants tougher rules for media pluralism, mergers and against spying on journalists

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BRUSSELS, Sept 16 (Reuters) – The European Commission on Friday presented draft rules to ensure media pluralism in the 27-country European Union, and to prevent political interference in media and surveillance against journalists.

The Media Freedom Act (MFA), which comes amid worries about media freedom in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, also set out tougher rules for media conglomerates acquiring smaller rivals, making sure that the deals ensure media pluralism and safeguard editorial independence.

The aim of the European Media Freedom Act is to protect media pluralism and independence in the EU single market, where media can operate more easily across borders without undue interference.

The Act will complement existing measures on the audiovisual market, setting clear rules and safeguards to ensure greater independence, transparency and cooperation between media market operators and thereby promote their economic development across borders.

Public service media play a special role in ensuring that citizens have access to information. However, because of their source of funding, public service media are particularly exposed to the risk of political interference.

This is why the Media Freedom Act pays particular attention to public service media and the challenges they face. The Regulation proposes that funding provided to public service media should be adequate and stable, thus ensuring editorial independence. The Regulation also stipulates that public service media providers shall provide a plurality of information and opinions, in an impartial manner. Finally, to ensure greater independence from partisan political influence, the head and the governing board of public service media will have to be appointed in a transparent, open and non-discriminatory manner and can be dismissed only in very specific circumstances.

Journalists and editors will be better protected from undue interference in editorial decision-making and, in the case of public service media, have assurances that their employer is equipped with adequate and stable funding for future operations, in accordance with their public service mission.

The Act also makes it clear that the use of spyware against media, journalists and their families is prohibited. In the same vein, the proposed rules clarify that journalists should not be prosecuted for protecting the confidentiality of their sources.

The accompanying recommendation sets out a catalogue of best practices to strengthen editorial independence and encourages the involvement of journalists in media companies’ decision-making as well as training opportunities.

The Regulation and Recommendation complement the measures to protect journalists issued by the Commission so far, such as the Recommendation on the safety of journalists and the proposed Directive to protect journalists and rights defenders from abusive litigation (anti-SLAPP).

The media themselves

The Act includes a series of new rights to protect the media and it also comes with a very targeted set of responsibilities. The Act includes some specific requirements for media providing news and current affairs content, as these media play a particularly important role in informing citizens and shaping public opinion.

First, those media have to be transparent about their ownership. This requirement builds on existing EU legislation applying to companies in general (company law and anti-money laundering rules).

Second, those media shall also take the measures that they deem appropriate with a view to guaranteeing the independence of individual editorial decisions and to disclosing any actual or potential potential conflict of interest.

The media have full freedom in deciding which measures are the best fit according to their business model, size and other specificities. However in order to bring more transparency and trust, and in the public interest, the Act requires them to take those important principles – transparency related to owners, actual or potential conflict of interest and the independence of individual editorial decisions – into account. 

This is not about regulating how media organise themselves. The overwhelming majority of media already have relevant measures in place.

It can be noted that the new Board has no role in monitoring those rules and is not a new oversight body for the press sector.

The Act prohibits the use of spyware against media, journalists and their families. This is the rule. The Act narrows down any possible exceptions to this rule on the ground of national security, which is a competence of the Member States, or in case of investigations of a closed list of crimes, such as terrorism, child abuse or murder. In such cases, the Act makes it very clear that it should be duly justified, on a case-by-case basis, in compliance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, in circumstances where no other investigative tool would be adequate. The Act therefore provides in this respect concrete new guarantees at EU level.

Any affected journalist would have the right to seek effective judicial protection from an independent court in the respective Member State. Additionally, every Member State will have to designate an independent authority to handle complaints of journalists concerning the use of spyware against them. These independent authorities will issue, within three months of the request, an opinion regarding compliance with the provisions of the Media Freedom Act.

The Commission proposes to set up a new European Board for Media Services comprised of national media authorities. The Board will replace and succeed the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA) established under the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). The Board shall act in full independence when performing its tasks.

The Board will:

  • promote the effective and consistent application of the European Media Freedom Act and the broader EU media law framework;
  • provide expert advice on regulatory, technical or practical aspects of media regulation;
  • deliver opinions on national measures and media market concentrations which are likely to affect the functioning of the internal market for media services, including by having an impact on media freedom and pluralism;
  • promote cooperation and the effective exchange of information, experience and best practices between national media regulators.

The Board will play a specific role in the fight against disinformation, including foreign interference and information manipulation. It will coordinate national measures related to media services provided by media service providers established outside of the Union that target audiences in the Union and present risks to public security and defence.

The Act also foresees a mechanism of mutual assistance in case one regulatory authority needs the help of another to address risks to the internal market or public security.

It should be noted that regarding the oversight of the rules related to public service media providers, it is up to each Member State to designate one or more independent authorities or bodies that may be different from media regulators. This approach aims to take into account national specificities related to the oversight of public service media.

The Board is not responsible either for the oversight of other provisions of the Act related to the rights and duties of media service providers, including press publications.

Read more via The European Commission

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