RSF’s proposals for ambitious, innovative European Media Freedom Act

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the European Commission, which is drafting a European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), to be ambitious in its efforts to safeguard and ensure respect for this fundamental freedom at a time when it faces increased threats and unprecedented challenges in Europe.

Online information chaos, more aggressive attacks on journalistic freedom and editorial independence, and a fall in media revenue that endangers content quality and even media survival have intensified the threats to press freedom, the right to information and, beyond that, to democracy itself. RSF therefore hails the Commission’s decision to draft media freedom legislation but stresses the need for the utmost ambition.

RSF’s recommendations, presented to the Commission before it issues its draft this summer, aim to fill the current gaps in the defence of press freedom and respond to the new challenges facing the European Union in the digital age. Europe is the continent where press freedom is guaranteed best, as RSF’s World Press Freedom Index shows, but this freedom is being undermined in Europe as well as being endangered throughout the world.

1/ Impose democratic safeguards in the online information and communication space 

The online information and communication space must be protected by democratic safeguards. European legislation could refer to the International Partnership on Information and Democracy, to which 45 countries – including 24 EU member states – have already signed up and which establishes principles for the right to information and media adaptation in the digital age. 

In order to update regulations in response to new issues as they emerge, the Forum on Information and Democracy, a civil society-run entity, could be mandated to assess implementation of the media legislation and to regularly submit recommendations to European leaders.

2/ Establish a system for protecting the European democratic information space 

Russian disinformation before and during the war in Ukraine prompted the EU to take exceptional emergency decisions based on sanctions. It is essential that the EU should now establish an appropriate legal framework, such as the mechanism for protecting democratic information spaces proposed by RSF. 

This system aims to remedy the asymmetries between open and closed countries, in which the latter export their propaganda while closing themselves off from independent news and information. It would be based on two concrete provisions: 

  • On the one hand, equal treatment imposing the same requirements on all audio-visual media, regardless of their country of origin and how their content is delivered. The requirements would include respect for journalistic pluralism, honesty and independence and for human dignity.   
  • On the other, a reciprocity mechanism establishing conditions for access to the news and information space in the EU. Access to the EU for media based in countries outside the bloc would depend on the degree of openness in those countries. 

3/ Create mechanisms that promote reliable news and information

In order to detox our information space, a special effort must be undertaken to support reliable news and information sources. This incentive-driven approach to drive out the bad with the good and reward public interest journalism with discoverability, reach and revenues is now needed more than ever. It deserves to be added to mostly prevailing sanctioning regimes to combat disinformation, which could negatively impact freedoms of expression. 

To that end, the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation, that has been negotiated between online platforms, civil society organisations such as RSF, and the European Commission, includes a respective commitment by platforms to use trustworthiness indicators to empower users, such as  the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) by RSF. 

The JTI is a self-regulatory compliance and transparency tool for newsrooms that is based on an official, certifiable and machine-readable ISO-type European Standard. It is designed to signal trustworthiness to citizens and other stakeholders, like advertisers and donors, and thus turn credibility into sustainability of ethical journalism.

 The EMFA should build on this game-changing logic to promote reliable news and information online also in accordance with the 8 March 2022 statement in which EU Member States call on platforms to take tougher measures against online disinformation, including by “Prioritising reliable, authoritative sources of information.” It must include both obligations and incentives for different stakeholders, namely big tech companies, to provide a competitive “must-be-found” advantage for trustworthy journalism.

In addition, the EMFA could also promote the JTI as an eligibility criteria for the allocation of public funds to support the media sector, both at national and EU-level and whether direct (financial support) or indirect (such as tax benefits). 

4/ Promote a New Deal for Journalism

The EMFA should include measures to ensure sustainable quality journalism in the digital age. In addition to implementing instruments like the JTI, it could adopt the recommendations of the report entitled “A New Deal for Journalism” by the Forum on Information and Democracy, in particular:

  • specific international measures on the taxation of digital platforms in order to support journalism;
  • an undertaking by governments to earmark 1% of state development aid for support for independent media and a favourable environment for them;
  • an undertaking by governments to guarantee up to 0.1% of GDP in support of journalism. 

5/ Combat conflicts of interest and ownership concentration 

The EMFA could set thresholds for horizontal media ownership concentration by country and for all of Europe; could establish safeguards against the negative effects of vertical ownership concentration and against conflicts of interest in the field of news and information; and could require Member States to guarantee the independence of public service media. 

6/ Condition the allocation of European funds on respect for media pluralism and independence

A Member State should not be able to benefit from European solidarity if, at the same time, it tramples on media freedom and pluralism and, through them, on the rule of law and democracy. 

The EMFA should include respect for media pluralism and independence among the conditionality criteria for the provision of European funds to Member States, in order to better respond to the serious and repeated press freedom violations in some of them. 

7/ Reinforce the physical safety of journalists in Europe 

Impunity provides a carte blanche to all those who want to silence criticism and fosters a climate of fear among journalists. Those responsible for the murders of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia, murders committed before 2020, have yet to be convicted. The EMFA must strengthen the capacities of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, Europol and Eurojust to support the investigations of competent national authorities into crimes of violence against journalists. 

8/ Reinforce the judicial safety of journalists in Europe

In response to the Pegasus and spyware scandal, the EMFA should, from the top down, harmonise the rules protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and should establish protection for journalists against undue surveillance, whether by the state or private sector.

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