EU plans serious steps to guarantee media independence

The European Commission proposed in the middle of September 2022 a new act that aims to strengthen press freedom, ensure pluralism of opinion and increase transparency on media ownership and conflicts of interest. At a time of declining trust in the media and increasing threats against news agencies and professionals, the new Media Freedom Act would ban the use of spyware against journalists and state interference in editorial decisions.

The Media Freedom Act has been in the pipeline for some time for the European Parliament and the European Commission. Many areas would be covered by the European Media Freedom Act, but it is also important that a transparent database is to be created to identify the ultimate owners of media.

The act provides for a range of new protections and rights for journalists and media service providers, as well as rules and prohibitions for governments. These include EU countries being banned from interfering in editorial decision-making, searching and seizing company premises and conducting surveillance operations against journalists and their relatives. Furthermore, the use of spyware to hack into and monitor journalists’ devices will also be banned - systems such as Predator and Pegasus - which have been used to collect personal information, extract files and passwords, and monitor conversations and text messages in real time.

However, interestingly the ban includes a notable exception that allows spyware to be authorized for “national security reasons”. Although the EU Commissioner for Internal Market is of the opinion that the activities of a journalist cannot under any circumstances be considered a risk to national security, EU officials insist that the exception is inevitable, but say it has been narrowed to the extent legally possible, placing a high burden of proof on law enforcement to prove their actions are justified.

The new rules will oblige governments to ensure that public media is stable, reliable and sufficiently funded to provide the public with impartial journalism, and that senior positions are appointed through an open and non-discriminatory process. Furthermore, the distribution of public advertising, an important source of revenue, must be transparent and proportionate to prevent partisan exploitation of the media.

The act will also impose certain obligations on media companies: they will have to disclose their ownership structure and any conflicts of interest that may affect their editorial direction and daily reporting. Additionally, a new independent European Media Services Board consisting of national media authorities will also be set up to oversee the implementation of the legislation, provide expert advice and give non-binding opinions on how market mergers may affect the media environment.

While there were some criticisms, the majority of the profession praised the act for introducing new protections for journalists and the right of citizens to access pluralistic and independent information for public debate. It is now for the European Parliament and the Member States to discuss the Commission’s proposal for a Regulation under the ordinary legislative procedure. Once adopted, it will be directly applicable across the European Union.