MEPs call for EU law to defend media pluralism


National governments and the European Commission should do more to protect media pluralism and press freedom in Europe, argued a cross-party group of MEPs yesterday (8 June), calling for financial support to help the European media sector survive the crisis. 

"Media pluralism, as a prerequisite for European democracy, is not necessarily ensured by competition and technological progress, and the media sector is facing an historical crisis," the MEPs said.

Frenchman Jean-Marie Cavada (European People's Party), German Jorgo Chatzimarkakis (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), Slovene Tanja Fajon (Socialists & Democrats), Romania's Ioan Enciu (S&D) and leftist Patrick Le Hyaric (GUE/NGL), another Frenchman, called for EU action to protect "the principle of pluralism and independence of journalism as mentioned in Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights".

The MEPs presented a written declaration calling on member states to "support independent journalism free of any political and commercial interference at national level".

The declaration urged member states "to monitor and ensure full compliance with the principle of media independence by fully enforcing Article 11" of the charter as referred to in the Lisbon Treaty.

If it is backed by a majority of MEPs, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek will forward the declaration to the European Commission and the EU's 27 national parliaments.

Resurrecting debate on EU law

Last October, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly avoided official condemnation by the European Parliament, highlighting divisions among MEPs over what some see as a purely national issue (EURACTIV 23/10/09).

MEPs rejected a resolution denouncing the lack of press freedom in Italy and rejected a European Commission proposal for EU legislation to protect media pluralism in Europe by the narrowest of margins, with 338 votes against and 335 in favour amid 13 abstentions. 

The proposed European Parliament resolution on freedom of information in Italy, tabled by the centre-left and primarily seen as an attack on Berlusconi and his media empire, fell by just three votes. 

MEPs attending a debate in the Parliament yesterday (9 June) are now looking to resurrect the issue. But they may have to turn to the European Citizens' Initiative to make progress as there is little indication that consensus will be reached in the European Parliament this time around either, they said.

Opposition from European centre-right

Last October, the European centre-right, represented by the European People's Party (EPP), the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and European Freedom and Democracy (EFD) groups, successfully defeated the motion, which was backed by a centre-left bloc comprising the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Liberals (ALDE), Greens and leftists (GUE/NGL). 

No representatives of the centre-right were present at yesterday's debate.

"I want a European law to prohibit one player from having it all," Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini told those who did attend, insisting that she was not "on a personal crusade against Italy".

Nevertheless, Sargentini said "freedom of speech is mixed with business interests in Italy, which is very worrying," suggesting that an EU law to make sure that media funding is not concentrated in just a few pairs of hands could help resolve the issue.

"Press freedom is of key importance to democracy and [the EU] asks for an independent press in [its] Copenhagen accession criteria. If Croatia can't prove that it has a free press, it won't be able to join. So why do we have two sets of rules?" she asked, calling on Italy to improve.

But even Sargentini admitted that it will be difficult to make progress on the issue. "Debates on media pluralism are heated here in the European Parliament and everything is blocked by the Italian situation," she said, expressing hope that focusing the debate on the EU as a whole rather than Italy would shift it out of its "liberal, left-wing corner".

"The Commission is not the only culprit. There is no political will among EU leaders to single out Silvio Berlusconi," she said.

Citizens' Initiative on media pluralism

Sargentini teamed up with Lorenzo Marsili, co-director of civil society group European Alternatives, in calling for a European Citizens Initiative (ECI) to protect media pluralism, but said wider consensus to act from across the political spectrum would be needed for it to be successful.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, a million citizens from a minimum of nine EU member states can request the Commission to table legislation a particular issue. Given that online petitions by Europe's biggest national newspapers routinely attract this number, mobilising citizens on a pan-European basis via the press should be relatively straightforward, participants agreed.

"I want to organise a convention between the European Parliament and civil society to produce an ECI on media pluralism by the end of the year," said Marsili, pledging to build a coalition between MEPs and civil society representatives on the matter.

"The first ECIs offer a great opportunity to act because the spotlight will be on the Commission and it will be under pressure not to reject too many of them," he added.

Tackling vested interests

But others cautioned that successfully tabling an ECI on media pluralism would be very difficult to achieve.

"This is a battle because we have enemies," said Paolo Celot of the European Association for Viewers Interests (EAVI). "We'll need to work hard to find allies for an ECI."

Celot asked why the Parliament had not been successful in calling for action on media pluralism in the past. "We need to be pragmatic. Perhaps there are interests to protect within the media industry itself," he warned.

Meanwhile, Bulgarian MEP Stanimir Ilchev (ALDE) warned that the political elite in his country was too close to the business elite, who own much of the media.

"Bulgarian businessmen own banks as well as TV channels, radio stations and newspapers, and these banks store the government's money," Ilchev said.

"We have a huge circle of vested interests to unlock. The [European Parliament's civil liberties committee should ask [Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane] Reding to start the process," he added.

Other participants suggested that action by the European Parliament offered the best chance of making progress.

"The civil liberties committee must make media pluralism a priority issue this year. A formal stand by the Parliament is the only way to convince the Commission to act," according to Monica Frassoni, co-president of the European Green Party.

The European Commission is due to present indicators to judge the level of media pluralism in EU member states by the end of the year. 

"Media pluralism is a priority of my political agenda," said Italian liberal MEP Niccolo Rinaldi (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), expressing hope that the European Citizens' Initiative introduced by the Lisbon Treaty would give Europeans the chance to "rise up in a democratic way" to defend it.

"If Italy continues to make it difficult for business to advertise in independent media for fear of discrimination, then what kind of message does that give prospective EU members?" asked Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini at yesterday's debate.

"The Commission is the main problem. I've been fighting the Commission's assertion that it has no competence on media pluralism for a long time. We need to use the European Citizens' Initiative to make sure that Commission action is a priority," said Monica Frassoni, co-president of the European Green Party.

"We're not just facing a lack of pluralism or violations of freedom of speech. The nature of the phenomenon is deeper and more complicated than that," said Bulgarian MEP Stanimir Ilchev (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), explaining that "the oligarchy in the new member states cause problems".

"Media pluralism is one of the most important issues in the future of Europe's democracy," said Giovanni Melogli of the International Alliance of Journalists, expressing frustration that the Commission has no competence in the field.

"I want an EU law on press freedom," he said.

"There are great threats to media pluralism in Central Europe which must urgently be resolved, and they haven't been sufficiently noticed," said Mark Thompson, director of the media programme at the Open Society Institute.

"The public service media in the new member states isn't really functioning," he warned.

Thompson urged the European Parliament to put pressure on the Commission to carry out a wide-ranging study on the state of media pluralism in Europe before working to introduce a monitoring policy.

"Unfortunately there are no explicit grounds in the EU Treaties for EU measures to protect media pluralism," said Katrien Lefever of the Centre for Law and ICT at the Catholic University of Leuven.

She presented a tool she developed with university colleagues for measuring media pluralism in individual EU member states, and suggested that the Commission could use it when coming up with its indicators later in the year. 

"Growing piles of independent studies are finding problems with media pluralism in Europe," warned Lorenzo Marsili, co-director of European Alternatives, a civil society organisation that explores the potential for transnational politics and culture.

"The EU must make the step from sanctioning deficits to sanctioning liberties," he said, describing media pluralism as "a great opportunity" for the Union to act in the interests of its citizens. 

Press freedom in Italy was back in the EU spotlight last week after the European Commission said it would rule "within weeks" on Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch's bid to offer a new digital terrestrial platform in the country to rival that of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset. 

Murdoch's efforts to gain a foothold in the Italian terrestrial digital market to complement its satellite pay-TV services are being blocked by Berlusconi's government (EURACTIV 02/06/10).

Meanwhile in Bulgaria, the government is reportedly seeking to merge separate Bulgarian national radio and TV broadcasters into a single body, opening the door for staff cuts and firing independent-minded editorialists and journalists (EURACTIV 18/05/10).

Regarding freedom of speech, Belgium and Sweden are among the few EU countries that have laws explicitly protecting journalists' sources. In Sweden, if a journalist reveals sources without their approval, the reporter can be sent to jail.

Indeed, Sweden's stringent whistleblower laws are protecting the anonymity of sources that have been feeding the controversial Wikileaks website with sensitive government and corporate information, according to Swedish political sources (EURACTIV 09/04/10).

  •  By end 2010: European Commission to present indicators to judge level of media pluralism in EU member states.

Subscribe to our newsletters