Call for EU rules on media concentration and pluralism

MEPs and media stakeholders are petitioning for new EU rules on media concentration. Lack of specific competence on the issue has so far prevented the EU from taking action.

MEPs, academics and journalists attending a Parliament seminar on 7 April have repeated calls for specific EU media rules and have warned against the risks posed by industry concentration for media pluralism in Europe.

Anticipating a provision foreseen under the EU Constitution, the seminar concluded with the launch of a one-million signature campaign for a European law on the media.

“Our ambition is to build a broad European coalition for pluralism in the media that simply cannot be ignored by the European Commission, member states and media owners,” said conference chairman Harlem Désir MEP (PES, France).

According to preliminary research cited by the socialist group, the rate of mergers and concentrations in the media sector is faster than for the rest of the economy.

But the EU still lacks a clear legal base to regulate on the issue, which is still governed by national law. 

DG Information Society and Media spokesperson Martin Selmayr told EURACTIV the Commission would be allowed to regulate only from an internal market perspective and if cross-border implications can be established. 

But he added that so far, the Commission is not aware that such circumstances exist. Commissioner Reding is discussing the issue “from a variety of angles” with the member states and with fellow colleagues from a fundamental human rights perspective. But for the Commission to intervene on a fundamental human rights basis, there would need to be a serious violation of the Treaty’s article 7, a provision which can be drawn on only under extreme circumstances. 

However, Selmayr points out that the EU merger regulation – a central competence of the Commission – does provide member states with the possibility to block deals in order to protect media pluralism. 

In article 21 paragraph four, the regulation provides that member states “may take appropriate measures to protect legitimate interests”. “Plurality of the media” is specifically mentioned as belonging to this category, along with public security and prudential rules in the banking sector.

But according to Brussels media lawyer Wilco Van Weert at Bird & Bird, the clause has been used only once since it was put in place in 1989. The case dates back to 1994 when the British government intervened in a case involving Spanish and Italian publishers trying to buy stakes in the Mirror Group. 

In several resolutions (the latest one was adopted in 2002), the Parliament repeatedly called for specific action at European level to prevent excessive concentration in the media and protect pluralism as a fundamental element of democracy. A group on press, communication and freedom has recently been launched in Parliament under the leadership of MEPs Jean-Marie Cavada (ALDE, France) and Lilli Gruber (PSE, Italy).

Seminar chair and socialist group vice-president Harlem Désir MEP (PSE, France) called for minimum EU standards on the independence and accountability of media regulatory authorities. 

Secretary General of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Aidan White had a pessimistic view of the current situation. "This should be a golden age for journalism," he said pointing to the explosion in new communication technologies. Instead, White points to reduced employment rights and pay conditions leading to low morale in the profession and diminishing quality in journalism. 

White pointed out to a trend towards trivial 'infotainment' - a cross between information and entertainment - which can only lower quality. "There is a perception that the media does not assume its watchdog role any more because of vested interests. […] The market alone cannot protect pluralism." 

The debate surrounding media pluralism in Europe began in the 1980s when liberalisation triggered fierce competition in the media market. 

Responding to rising concerns over media concentration, the Commission in 1992 launched a wide consultation process (Green Paper) on pluralism and media concentration in the internal market. The consultation concluded in 1994 that it is primarily up to the member states to maintain media pluralism and diversity. 

A draft directive based on the 1992 green paper was made at a later stage by the then Internal Market Commissioner Mario Monti. But his initiative was rejected twice by the College of Commissioners, last time in 1997. 

Shortly after entering office in November 2004, Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding promised to improve co-operation with the media as an industry. Her new co-ordination role involves more systematic consultations with other Commission departments on economic and social developments influencing the media sector in Europe (see EURACTIV, 19 Nov. 2004).

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