Press freedom: Never take it for granted

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

Freedom of the press, a privilege not enjoyed globally, should never be taken for granted by society. [Jon S/Flickr]

Today (3 May), we celebrate World Press Freedom Day.  Just one week ago here in Portugal, we celebrated the “25th of April”, marking the end of dictatorship and the 1974 Revolution, before which we had more than 40 years of censorship, writes Francisco Pinto Balsemão.

Francisco Pinto Balsemão is the former chairman of the European Publishers Council (EPC), chairman of Impresa and the former Prime Minister of Portugal.

1974 was not all that long ago. Before then, galley proofs had to be sent to the censors and every day a part of what we had written was not authorised to be published in our newspapers.

World Press Freedom Day is an annual celebration of the valuable role that a free press plays in upholding democracy and fuelling diversity.  It’s not something we should take for granted: only 13% of the world’s population enjoys a free press. That is, where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures. Forty-one percent of the world’s population has a partly free press, and 46% live in not Ffee media environments.

The recent devastating terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have made me, and maybe you, more aware than ever of the importance of a free and independent media staffed by professional, trained journalists who are dedicated to reporting the facts and events as they unfold, to questioning, investigating, challenging and working to strict codes of conduct.

At my media company, Impresa, in Portugal, our journalists’ independence from the business is the “Holy Grail”.  We train them, pay them, provide them with legal protection, produce and distribute their work on multiple platforms then allow them to get on and do the essential job of informing and entertaining our readers and broadcast audiences without interference.

The EPC member with the oldest newspaper title was founded in 1833 and between them, the EPC members titles represent more than 2,000 years of history, insight, experience, authority and expertise in covering and questioning everything from the most significant to the most mundane.

Traditional media have changed virtually beyond recognition over the past ten years.  Gone are the once or twice daily deadlines: the digital revolution now finds the newsroom a high-tech hive of technicians and engineers working alongside reporters posting instant copy on every conceivable device, in every conceivable format.

Our workplace looks different and the 24/7 output feels different, but professional journalism is the same essential craft it ever was.

Embracing the digital revolution has been hugely costly for traditional publishers competing against social media and amateur content: according to data in the EPC’s Global Media Trends Book, reading an article or news story is in the top five activities on Facebook. However, people who rely on social media for news are highly sceptical of the news they encounter in those networks.

Just 12% of those who get their news on Facebook trust it a lot according to research conducted by the American Press Institute  Nonetheless, according to a Morgan Stanley analyst, in the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent on online advertising will go to Facebook or Google.

We continue to meet the many challenges and continue to employ thousands of people and entertain and inform those lucky enough to live in a democracy.  We are challenged daily by companies using our content without permission, without licence and without payment – companies that have built their business models around the use of our content for free.

With the European Commission currently reviewing copyright law in the EU, we have the opportunity to put the case for a publisher’s right that would mean that our newspapers would finally be included in the long-existing catalogue of rights holders under EU-copyright law along with broadcasters, film and music producers, for the published edition, and the investment of producing an increasingly complex, dynamic edition updated 24/7.

This would not impact the contractual relation with the journalists and contributors of the individual works making up the final collective work. Our readers would continue to enjoy the possibility to link and share articles, complying with normal copyright rules; beneficiaries of any legal exemptions would also be able to use protected materials for citation, illustration, scientific research, private use etc.  Such recognition will help us to continue to invest in quality content and those we employ to produce this content.

What a publisher’s right would be, in fact, is a significant step towards acknowledging the importance of a free and pluralistic press in this global, digital world; a press that we can rely on when it really counts; a press that needs to be commercial to survive.  In Portugal, a free press and a democratic future is something we will never take for granted. This means we must go on building it every single day.

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