EU aims to protect media from state interference – POLITICO

European media could be subject to new rules aimed at protecting journalism from state influence and espionage, according to a European Union bill seen by POLITICO.

The EU media freedom law, due to be published this week, could give Brussels new tools to strengthen safeguards against state control over public and commercial media through political appointments to supervisory boards and secret advertising funding.

The EU has had its own battles over media freedom with member states. In July, the Commission sued Hungary in the EU’s highest court for allegedly violating laws on media freedom and LGBTQ+ rights. The Commission has announced that it is referring Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union for refusing to renew a radio license for the independent Hungarian media Klubradio. Hungary will also face European judges over an anti-LGBTQ+ law that aims to prevent children and teenagers from accessing content and advertisements on LGBTQ+ issues.

Under the planned new rules, media organizations would have to declare who owns them, directly or indirectly, and who their shareholders are. Such clarity is “crucial” for readers and viewers to identify and understand potential conflicts of interest so they can reach well-informed opinions, officials in the project said. It is a prerequisite “to participate actively in a democracy”.

The bill is the European Commission’s response to growing threats to media freedom across Europe. Like Hungary, Poland has stepped up its efforts to control the media amid battles with Brussels over political attempts to undermine the rule of law.

Other European countries have also seen press freedom deteriorate in recent years, according to Reporters Without Borders. Greece, the EU’s worst-ranked country for press freedom, is currently embroiled in scandal after it was revealed that journalists’ phones had been tapped by its national intelligence service.

Several EU countries currently lack national rules to protect journalists from surveillance and the media from state control, according to the Commission’s draft. The new rules could give lawyers across Europe a much stronger arsenal to hold EU governments to account, he said. This responds to calls from press freedom associations and journalists.

The new law would also provide new tools to target spying on journalists by EU governments, an area where the Commission is now largely powerless.

Some governments and publishers have already spoken out against the first effort of its kind to regulate the news media. The Commission’s plan has been described as “a revolutionary move” and faces potential backlash from publishers, who see the Commission as going too far and interfering with national legislation.

Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová said on Tuesday that she was ready for a confrontation with governments.

It will be a tough fight,” she said. “We cannot and will not remain inactive in the face of threats to media freedom.

Limit state monitoring

The rules would prevent governments from hacking into the phones and devices used by journalists and their families to track them. However, this would still leave national capitals free to use such tools if they can invoke national security or a serious crime investigation.

To limit state interference in public service media, EU countries could be forced to mandate a national regulator to ensure that a public media board is appointed through a transparent, open and non-discriminatory. Removal of board members should be justified and made public. Such decisions could also be subject to judicial review.

Vice-President of the Commission Věra Jourová | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Public media would need stable and adequate funding, distributed in a way that preserves editorial independence.

In July, the Commission urged eight countries, including Poland, Romania and Slovenia, to strengthen the editorial and governance independence of their public service media in an annual rule of law report.

The law could also tackle “opaque and unfair attribution of public advertising,” the draft says. Some fear that these subsidies will influence public media or subsidize “media that offer views favorable to the government”.

Governments as well as regulators and public companies should publish how much they spend on media advertising each year.

Foreign propaganda

Beyond domestic political interference, the Commission wants to restrict foreign propaganda and disinformation. The issue came to the fore as the EU rushed to stem a wave of disinformation from Kremlin-backed outlets like RT and Sputnik at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It remains to be seen how to deal with foreign organizations financed by the Chinese or Turkish governments which could also seek to influence the European debate.

Media regulators could step up action against “rogue media service providers, including from certain third countries” who could ultimately pose a risk to public safety and defence, the text says.

He suggests that a group of European media regulators could work on combating foreign propaganda and advise the Commission on future policy. Regulators could also examine the impact of media mergers on editorial independence and media pluralism.

A draft of the proposal was first reported by French news outlet Context.

EU aims to protect media from state interference – POLITICO

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