When media are in trouble, so are our democracies. As European leaders agreed this summer on a historic recovery package to address the crisis, specific attention must be paid to the media industry. The dramatic drop in revenues for the sector – close to 80 per cent in several countries – puts our democracies at risk.
The values which define our Union – freedom, democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights – cannot be taken for granted, we need to fight for them. This is the case for media freedom and pluralism, notably challenged by the digital transformation.
We indeed live in a paradox. Readership and audiences are at a record high, yet revenues are at a record low due to advertising losses.
At the same time, almost half of EU citizens now rely on online news as their main source for information about national and European politics. And as news moved online, many content creators and journalists were left behind.
Although many media outlets have adapted to the digital transition, this trend has put local media companies, often the closest to the citizens, at particular risk.
Digital technologies have created new opportunities to access and share information, but have also brought new risks for freedom of expression and media pluralism. These risks are strongly related to the gatekeeping role of online platforms, their market power, the enormous amount of data and advertising share that they hold.
Facebook and Google alone have more than 50 per cent of the online advertising market. Our upcoming European legislation for online services, the Digital Services Act, will address such issues.
We intend to propose ex- ante rules to better address the market deficiencies resulting from the position of large online platforms. We will also look into the existing national media diversity and concentration rules to see if and how they can ensure a plurality of voices in digital markets.
And generally speaking, it is essential we present a positive vision and way forward for the sector faced with digital transformation.
But the economic situation of the media sector is only half the picture. Not so long ago in Europe, we had countries where media told just one version of the story – the one that fitted the hands of power.
As French-Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote: “A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.”
There was no freedom of opinion, criticism was not allowed – this is the definition of a totalitarian regime. Totalitarian regimes fear informed people. Diverse views mean a broader debate, the nurturing of ideas and a source of inspiration. We need this to progress as a society.
As the pandemic started in China, we saw that restricting the free flow of information had dramatic consequences on the health and protection of people.
More than ever, the crisis has shown that freedom of expression, access to information and media pluralism can save lives – and are the best way to fight against disinformation.
The COVID crisis has shown that freedom of expression, access to information and media pluralism can save lives – and are the best way to fight against disinformation
This is why it is high time to step up action, protect and strengthen these rights as part of our recovery efforts.
And there is work to do. The picture given by the Media Pluralism Monitor,
an independent report co-funded by the EU, is far from rosy.
The study shows that no country in Europe is immune to the risks to media pluralism. Journalists continue to face a series of threats and attacks – both physical and online – and their working conditions have deteriorated further.
At least 50 journalists and media workers covering protests in Europe have been attacked since the beginning of this year.
The report also shows that media remain vulnerable to political interference, especially if their economic conditions are unstable.
The distribution of the state advertising can be used as a pressure tool to silence journalists and prevent them from asking uncomfortable questions.
The more questions asked, the more we see behind the backdrop.
There are no quick fixes but the European Commission is shifting up a gear.
We are asking member states to urgently adapt their laws in line with new European rules on audiovisual media services. These rules strengthen the independence of media regulators, encourage transparency of media ownership, better promote European works on on-demand services and effectively protect citizens, especially children, against illegal and harmful content, also on video-sharing platforms.
Additionally, we will present a series of initiatives by the end of the year to strengthen democracy, rule of law, fundamental rights and to help the media sector recover and fully embrace the digital transformation. Our historic recovery plan will also boost the economy – and should support the media sector while fully respecting its independence.
But the Commission alone can’t win this fight. We need governments, politicians and regulators in the EU to act.
We need everyone to realise the key role played by free and independent media – a role that social media will never be able to play.
Press freedom is a right, not just for journalists, but for all of us. Today we pledge to fight the corner for free and pluralistic media.
Věra Jourová is European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency, and Thierry Breton is European Commissioner for the Internal Market.