An EU law to protect media freedom: What can we expect from the Media Freedom Act?
This week, the EU Commission is expected to present its proposal for a new law to protect media freedom in the EU. In the Home Affairs Committee (LIBE), I will negotiate this report on behalf of the Green Group. What can be expected from the “European Media Freedom Act”? The most important things at a glance:
What will be included?
- Monitoring of media concentration: Concentration of media ownership is one of the biggest threats to media plurality. The Commission therefore wants to introduce a media pluralism test to be applied to mergers of media companies. However, this test is to be carried out by the competent national authority in the member state concerned. A newly created “European Board for Media Services” shall only be able to give a non-binding opinion;
- Transparency of media ownership: Media companies have a significant influence on public opinion. For this reason, the Commission would like to oblige media companies to make information public on who owns them, either directly or indirectly;
- Transparency of state advertising: Publicly financed media advertising must not become state aid for pro-government media. The Commission wants to ensure more transparency in the distribution of public (EU) funds to the media. National authorities will have to publish annually how much money they have spent on advertising on which media services respectively;
- Accountability of larger online platform providers: Very large online platforms (Facebook, etc.) act as a gateway to media services for many users. They are supposed to give detailed reasons if they want to restrict or delete certain content from media service providers on their platform;
- Protection from surveillance: Following the recent Pegasus spyware scandal in several Member States, the new law would explicitly prohibit national authorities to spy on journalists, giving lawyers in many Member States for the first time a good basis to take legal action.
Are Orban’s and Babis’s media empires now in trouble?
So far, the Commission always said it had no leverage against the Hungarian media conglomerate KESMA, controlled by Orban’s cronies. By proposing a media pluralism test, the Commission wants to ensure that a conglomerate like KESMA cannot emerge again in the future. It is questionable whether this can succeed if this test is carried out by the national authorities, which are potentially already under the control of the ruling party. More importantly, the test won’t help to reduce existing media concentration problems.
Until now, it was also possible without any problems for heads of state like Andrej Babis in the Czech Republic or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy to be head of government and shareholder in numerous media companies in the country at the same time. The Commission now wants media companies to publish information on any conflicts of interest of possible shareholders in the future. While this would be a positive development, it is unclear how it will be ensured that these conflicts of interest are subsequently resolved.
What happens next?
As soon as the Commission proposal is available, the file will be sent to the EP Committees in charge. Depending on the focus of the Commission proposal, the Internal Market (IMCO), Home Affairs (LIBE) and/or Culture (CULT) committees will probably be in charge. Based on the work of the competent committees, a parliamentary position will then be adopted. As soon as the Council has also adopted its position, the trilogue negotiations between Council and Parliament will begin.