According to critics, the plan presented by the EU Commission on Friday to better protect the media from influence and surveillance by government agencies and from unjustified deletions of content by online platforms with a European Media Freedom Act is well-intentioned, but partly badly done. The sharpest criticism in this country comes from the Media Association of the Free Press (MVFP) and the Federal Association of Digital Publishers and Newspaper Publishers (BDZV): They suspect that the press with the initiative “is intended to be subjected to extensive supervision by a European media authority”.
“Affront to EU values”
The associations complain that the “media freedom regulation” is an affront to the values of the EU and democracy. Main bone of contention: The Commission is planning a new regulator, the European Media Services Council, to replace the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA).
The publishers’ organizations argue that there is no reason for further harmonization of media law at EU level in favor of greater control by a media authority or indirectly by the Commission. Rather, the newly established “board” fueled massive fears “of the media being politically monopolized.” Significant parts of the freedom of the press are at stake. In vain had the MVFP and the BDZV, in agreement with European publishers’ associations, asked the Commission not to accept the draft in the first place.
According to the Freedom of Media Act, the operators of very large online platforms with over 45 million users in the EU would have to provide a function that enables media service providers to identify themselves as privileged under the law. For example, the beneficiaries should be able to declare that they are editorially independent of member states and third countries and work according to recognized standards. MVFP and BDVZ pushed in advance for an even more extensive “media exemption”, which opponents rejected as a gateway for disinformation.
Transparency for the ownership structure of the media houses
Mika Beuster, Vice-Chairman of the German Association of Journalists (DJV), considers the excitement to be “exaggerated”: “It would be nice if the publishers behaved in the way their associations present the ideal. Unfortunately, it’s about internal freedom of the press not well received in some publishing houses.” The transparency obligations contained in the draft were not even ambitious enough: Beuster emphasized: “Both we journalists and the public would like to know about the actual ownership structure of the media companies.” The Commission could have dared more.
In principle, the DJV sees the project as “the right approach to strengthening the fundamental right of freedom of the press throughout Europe”. The Brussels executive wanted to ban state interference in editorial work, “like that which has been carried out by right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland for years.” However, the system of media supervision that works in Germany must not be scratched. The EU Parliament complained on Thursday in Hungary that democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights were falling apart. An “electoral autocracy” had emerged there, in which free voting was only carried out in appearance.
“The Commission has understood the problems of the European media market,” praises the Civil Liberties Union for Europe in principle. However, the regulation still offers “no meaningful answers and no effective enforcement” to actually master most of the challenges. If the law remains weak, it would be “a missed opportunity”.
Controlled media in Hungary and Poland
The draft goes “on none of the competition-related problems on the EU media markets,” criticizes the civil rights organization. For years, the Commission has refused to launch investigations into Member States where media freedom is under threat. In Hungary, the Central European Press and Media Foundation, which has close ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, now controls more than four hundred commercial media companies. In Poland, oil company PKN Orlen has expanded its role in the media market by acquiring Polska Press, which was previously German-owned.
According to Liberties, the proposal also does not adequately complement the existing transparency framework for media owners. All media should be required to provide reliable and up-to-date information on their beneficial ownership and financial background in a database. Exceptions would have to apply to bloggers and citizen journalists in order to protect their anonymity and avoid “hate crimes” against them.
The civil rights activists also want to see the planned anti-spyware clause extended to all surveillance technologies, including those beyond state Trojans such as Pegasus & Co. The Commission has also not sufficiently dealt with the problem of politically dependent or biased media authorities, which exist in many EU member states. In addition, the media clause for publications on large platforms is too broad.
Skepticism in the EU Parliament
Petra Kammerevert, media policy spokeswoman for the European SPD, warned against taking the path of a regulation that can be directly applied in the EU countries: “It is wrong to assume that media freedom can be secured in Europe and thus a diverse and liberal media landscape in the EU, by regulating them with the strictest means available and at the same time encroaching deeply on the competences of the member states.” It is also important to protect the press from being influenced by the Commission.
“The goal is right, the way not necessarily,” said Moritz Körner (FDP). “Instead of more European press supervision, more European press funding would make more sense.” However, the EU Parliament could build on the planned strengthening of source protection and transparency regulations as well as the containment of spyware attacks.
“It’s high time to act,” said Věra Jourová, Vice President of the Commission responsible for Values and Transparency, at the presentation of the Freedom of the Media Act. “We have to establish clear principles: no journalist may be spied on about his work; no public media may be turned into channels of propaganda.” Joint guarantees are now being proposed for the first time. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton defended the outlined European supervisory authority: This would “promote the effective application of these new rules for media freedom and check media concentrations”.
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