Brussels arms itself to deal with media abuse and pressure on journalists

Following the deterioration of the independence of the press in Hungary and Poland in particular, the European Commission decided to enact a law to regulate the work of the media and protect journalists from pressure.

The regulatory project, whose provisional version was obtained by AFP, guarantees the independence of editorial boards from political authorities or the industry and demands transparency about media ownership.

The “freedom of the media law”, which the Commission will formally present at the end of next week, will allow cases to be brought before European courts in the event of non-compliance.

Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova has repeatedly expressed her feeling of helplessness by referring to Brussels’ “limited” room for maneuver in the media field, especially after the formation of a pro-Victor Orban media bloc in Hungary in 2018, which governs the European competition. could not be applied.

The Commission now wants each country to have a duty to assess media focus from the point of view of its impact on pluralism and editorial independence based on a specific set of criteria.

The new European Media Council, which includes representatives of the national regulatory authorities, will be responsible for issuing an opinion on such an approach that may affect the functioning of the Common Market.

In a speech at the end of November 2021, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Broughton underlined that “if media integration is welcome from the point of view of the resilience of institutions, it may also pose a problem with regard to editorial independence. Getting closer.”

The text protects the confidentiality of sources and prohibits the use of spyware against journalists and their families, even if there are exceptions in the name of “national security”.

It is a response to the recent Pegasus and Predator scandals involving Polish, Hungarian and Greek authorities.

In public media, directors must be appointed according to “transparent” and “non-discriminatory” procedures and funding must be “appropriate and stable”.

In 2021, former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa deprived the national news agency of funding for months, criticizing it for its editorial line, prompting Brussels to repeatedly reprimand him.

Transparency is also required with regard to state advertising: public authorities must publish the amounts spent and the media that benefit from them.

In its most recent report on the rule of law in the European Union, the Commission expressed concern that pro-government media in Poland have been privileged in this distribution.

In addition, the public opinion should have “easy” access to the names of the owners of the media. News organizations must take steps to “guarantee the freedom of journalists to make individual editorial decisions in the course of their work.”

Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe Deloire described this draft as “great progress” and welcomed “the desire to ensure the credibility of the information”.

But European publishers oppose this initiative and see it as a “threat”.

For the European Association of Journalists (EMMA) and the European Association of Newspaper Publishers (ENPA), the initiative in particular violates “the freedom to invest and run a company”.

“We see no reason to harmonize media legislation at the European level in terms of tightening control by the authorities that regulate media work or indirectly by the Commission,” said its executive director, Elias Kontias.

Vera Jourova said it would be a “fierce battle”.

He added that “some member states want to be able to influence the media and will confirm that the commission wants to confiscate their powers. And some media owners are taking advantage of the current situation and will accuse us of threatening their livelihood.”