‘Utmost importance’ for transparency rules on political ads, EU report says

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It is of the ‘utmost importance’ for the EU to do more to reign in the unregulated environment of online political advertising by establishing more stringent transparency obligations, said a  European Commission-backed report on media plurality, published on Thursday (23 July).

The findings of the Media Pluralism Monitor, produced by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom and the Europea University Institute, will feed into several frameworks to be presented by the Commission before the close of the year, including the EU’s Democracy Action Plan and the Digital Services Act.

“It is of utmost importance that measures are put in place to ensure transparency of the actors, techniques, contents, and amounts spent on political advertising online,” the report said, adding that as part of the Commission’s code of practice against disinformation ‘serious issues’ with its implementation across the EU were recorded.

“While political advertising in the audiovisual media, especially public service media, is strongly regulated across Europe, the online sphere is almost totally unregulated,” the study noted, highlighting the fact that two-thirds of the countries examined do not require reporting on online campaign spending.

“In the majority of countries, serious issues were noted in the implementation of the Code of Practice on Disinformation as regards clearly labelling and registering political and issue-based advertising as such, and indicating who paid for it.”

For her part, Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, also recognised the importance of obliging platforms to better ensure transparency mechanisms in political advertising online.

“This study is a wake-up call,” she said on Thursday. “We need to better protect journalists and to increase transparency and fairness in the online world, especially in the context of political campaigning.”

The paper also stated that in terms of the approach to online content moderation, a field to be directly addressed in the Digital Services Act, there has been a lack of transparency in how platforms have reported on content moderation policies, as well as the reasoning behind why such content removal decisions are taken.

Political independence

More broadly, the study also draws on wider threats to the EU’s media landscape, including a lack of political independence in the media.

“Public service media, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, are at the risk of government interference through the appointment of politically dependent management,” the paper said, citing the creation of Hungary’s Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), which it said represents “a huge and unprecedented concentration of media in the hands of oligarchs who are friendly to the ruling party.”

The comments come during a week in which erosions to media independence have further been highlighted in Budapest, following the dismissal of editor-in-chief of Hungary’s leading independent media outlet Index, Szabolcs Dull, who had recently warned of a planned restructuring of the organisation that would compromise its independence and autonomy,

In this context, Thursday’s report called for “full transparency of media ownership, management and top editorial positions,” which in turn could help to foster greater media plurality in the EU, which faces an ‘alarming’ rate of concentration.

In order to remedy this, certain options could include competition policy for the media at both an EU and national level, in addition to the establishment of an EU-wide digital services tax, which the authors of the study believe could help reduce disparities between independent media organizations and large platforms.

Two of the most relevant plans which will be informed by Thursday’s study, the European Democracy Action Plan and the Digital Services Act, are currently in the middle of public consultations with stakeholders, with the Commission due to present more details on each of the plans before the end of the year.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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