The European Commission urged EU countries to hold national debates on media freedom as it received a report on the matter yesterday (21 January). The EU executive said it could envision itself being entrusted with the role of "moral compass" in promoting press freedom.
Neelie Kroes, Commission vice president in charge of the digital agenda, received the 51-page report that presents the findings and recommendations of the High Level Group (HLG) on Media Pluralism and Freedom.
Free and pluralistic media are crucial for European democracy, the report said. At the same time, it points out at a number of challenges which can potentially restrict journalistic freedom or reduce pluralism, such as political influence and commercial pressure.
The group, led by former Latvian President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, also blames “the misconduct of some journalists, which has recently come to light”. The authors referred to the phone hacking scandal involving the now-defunct British tabloid News of the World, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Such misconduct “has the potential to undermine the sector’s credibility and, as a consequence, long term viability”.
The group said the responsibility for maintaining media freedom and pluralism lies with the member countries. But it also says that the European Union also has “an important role to play”.
“There can be no genuine democracy at the EU level if media freedom and pluralism are not guaranteed throughout the European political space."
Naming and shaming?
Debates on media freedom and pluralism are often highly charged and the Commission largely refrains from meddling.
However, the expert group believes the EU executive should play a role. "In case of severe challenges to freedom and pluralism in a member state, the European institutions can go beyond acting as a general moral compass. For one thing, they can alert the respective member state, if necessary by naming and shaming,” the report states.
But naming and shaming is precisely what the report didn’t do.
Asked by EurActiv to comment on the absence of direct criticism, Kroes spokesman Ryan Heath said that this was “a very good question”.
He said that there were many highly-charged debates in a number of countries and that there was a long list of EU member states that have problems they need to look at. If some countries were named and not others, the Commission thought this would send a wrong message to the latter, whoc could believe that they had obtained a blank cheque, he said.
He said that the objective of the report was to inspire debates at the national level and among journalists, and that the Commission should act as "a moral compass".
“We hear people, we’ve listened to people and have taken on board that many people say we should have a greater role," Heath said.
"But we cannot absorb that as a sponge. There has to be a political debate and some form of emerging consensus around that, before the EU were to propose, or to take on, or to receive more powers, and to set up new groups, new bodies.”
In its report, the high-level group gave the following interpretation of the Commission's role:
“The EU should be considered competent to act to protect media freedom and pluralism at state level in order to guarantee the substance of the rights granted by the Treaties to EU citizens, in particular the rights of free movement and to representative democracy. The link between media freedom and pluralism and EU democracy, in particular, justifies a more extensive competence of the EU with respect to these fundamental rights than to others enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights."