Media Freedom: A rebalanced ecosystem and sector consolidation

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Given the war in the East, and recent riots in the United States, the quality of the information ecosystem has become central. Media leaders could seize industrial, policy and budget opportunities, beyond the basic democracy principles, with a view to media resilience, write Pedro Ortún Silvan and Christophe Leclercq. Photo: Shutterstock, AlexLMX

Given the war in the East, and recent riots in the United States, the quality of the information ecosystem has become central. Media leaders could seize industrial, policy and budget opportunities, beyond the basic democracy principles, with a view to bolstering media resilience, write Pedro Ortún Silvan and Christophe Leclercq.

Europe’s MediaLab (Fondation EURACTIV) summarises some of its input into the Media Freedom Act consultation, running until 21 March. Pedro Ortún Silvan and Christophe Leclercq are respectively senior fellow and chairman of this think-do-tank, the latter also a former member of the High-Level Expert Group on disinformation.

Most Russians do not realise what is being done in their name in Ukraine.

Putin’s war has dramatically brought media freedom and pluralism into the centre stage: the defence of press freedom calls for faster cooperation and coordination between State authorities and private actors.

Following Russia’s new law on (promoting) fake news, and the massive exodus of foreign correspondents out of Russia, news media outlets now share with online platforms the huge responsibility to inform citizens from the outside. 

Journalists are firstly freedom fighters, deserving protection. As European Commission Vice President Vĕra Jourová highlighted during the #Media4Europe conference, […] no journalist should die or be harmed for doing their job

While safety remains crucial, the media also needs to pay their journalists and other costs. So, the focus shifts towards the sustainability of news media, typically the more qualitative part of the wider information ecosystem. 

The bigger picture: responsibility and media sustainability

Acute information quality issues arise not only in the East. The January 2021 insurrection in Washington showed the responsibility big platforms play in modern-day democracies. This is why the time to act against fake news is now.

How? 

Some conventional wisdom permeates first thoughts leading to Media Freedom Act thinking: it is that media mergers reduce pluralism. This was often true within one country, but now it’s about an army of dwarfs facing a global duopoly.

Indeed, there are thousands of national and regional media, in effect SMEs, fighting for survival versus the GAFAs, chiefly Alphabet (Google) and Meta (Facebook). Annual reports by the Media Pluralism Monitor increasingly look at this bigger picture. 

Cooperation or mergers could actually strengthen media competitiveness, and hence pluralism, if done across borders.  Indeed, consolidation of the media sector could help to create a critical mass, investing in IT and negotiating copyright royalties with GAFAs. 

There is also a need for equity investments, away from oligarchs and government control. One helpful example is the new Pluralis, Ireland’s leading print and digital media publisher, investing in media companies on the frontline, helping to preserve their editorial independence.

With media company support, its parent company MDIF is already helping war-stricken Ukrainian media. The much larger, and equally new, InvestEU NEWS could help finance several such funds.

News Media plays a crucial role for transparent democracy and increasing accountability of authorities, thus increasing citizens’ trust. The recent Edelman Trust Barometer of last January 2022 highlights low and/or decreasing trust in governments and media among EU citizens. 

This calls notably for responsible and transparent media ownership, management and business models. These should be mandated under the sector’s regulation, and a key part of good corporate governance anyway. 

Bundle policies into one strategy for the media sector

The EU first tried to develop self-regulation, which has shown its limits. The code of Practice on Disinformation, from 2018, and ongoing discussions to upgrade it, concerns the responsibility of content moderation by Digital Platforms.

In a good ‘AI manner’, this could be supported by their algorithms, promoting quality content, once using trust indicators.

Meanwhile, good but slow policy actions have been launched at the EU level, which we refer to as the ‘December 2020 Info-Ecosystem Package’:

For now, there have been few reactions to these news media-related initiatives. We call upon news media groups and their various associations to feed into the ongoing consultation process. Furthermore, the next meetings of the European News Media Forum in spring and autumn 2022 will open these topics for discussion.

Moving forward, energising wider circles of editors, publishers, indeed investors would require one clear set of strategies for the sector. The successive layers of policy documents are well intended and mostly converging but still miss their ‘umbrella document’.

This is overdue, as one increasingly speaks of Europe’s sovereignty, of industrial policy, also in the media sector. 

Effective protection of media freedom and pluralism in Europe is a moral imperative for all institutions, governments, media publishers and journalists alike: all those who share such freedom values and stand by them.

EU Institutions and funders are listening, so, fellow media professionals, let’s speak and act together.

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