This article is part of our special report Media society and non-discrimination: Are we doing enough?.
You can also read this interview in Romanian.
The under-representation of people with a minority racial or ethnic background in the media, including in media newsrooms themselves, remains a problem that needs to be addressed, and the European Commission is ready to help with funding, the EU executive’s vice-president Věra Jourová told EURACTIV in a written interview.
Věra Jourová is the vice president of the European Commission for Values and Transparency.
In the context of increasingly tough rhetoric coming from national and European leaders on the fight against extremism, how can we make sure that media outlets remain inclusive and non-discriminatory?
I understand that people around Europe feel unsafe. They rightly expect their governments to provide safety and the EU should support them. When faced with violent extremism and radicalisation, we stand in full support of our member states. Our approach has always been to work with those in the front line, practitioners from across Europe, to equip them with the skills and confidence they need to address violent extremism.
But with the political divide between EU leaders, how can it be ensured that the media discourse doesn’t fall into a discriminatory narrative?
The role of the media is crucial in this context – and for democracy in general. To help understand complex issues, to encourage a wide public debate with diverse views, to hold us, policymakers, to account. The Commission is committed to improving the working environment for journalists, their protection, and safety. We also support projects that facilitate exchanges of best practices between journalists, discussions related to ethics, and the challenges they face every day, the decisions they have to make.
Some people argue there is a contradiction between freedom and security. As someone who grew up in authoritarian Czechoslovakia – I strongly disagree. Free and pluralistic media are a cornerstone of democracy and we need them to increase awareness and knowledge.
France has recently advocated for a tough law against online hate speech (French Avia Law). How does the Commission plan to fortify the EU legal framework in order to fight increasing online hate speech?
I am aware of the French law and discussed it several times with my French counterparts. I also fully share the objective of combating illegal hate speech through proportionate means, which safeguard fundamental rights, including freedom of speech. What is illegal offline, must be illegal online. This is also why I pushed for the creation of a voluntary Code of Conduct against hate speech in 2016, which achieved great results. All big tech joined and as for today, over 90% of the content notified is reviewed and steps are taken in 24 hours.
I appreciate the determination in France to have a legal framework, but I strongly believe that actions at the European level are more effective in fighting illegal content on social media.
The nature of such services is cross-border and we need to offer a harmonized level of protection to users across the EU. The Commission will come forward with a legislative proposal on the Digital Services Act in December to upgrade the ground-rules for all internet services in the EU where we will also address illegal content. In addition, we just recently announced that we will propose to extend the list of so-called Eurocrimes to include all forms of violence, also hate speech online. I strongly believe that working together on the European level will ensure that we don’t go too far, that we don’t limit the freedom of speech. The cure cannot be worse than the disease.
French President Emmanuel Macron has announced for December a law against religious “separatism” aimed at freeing Islam in France from “foreign influences”. What is the Commissioner’s opinion on this?
In the Commission, we are closely following the developments, as you know the attacks, which took place in France, but also in Austria in recent weeks, were barbaric.
The EU ministers were clear in their statement last week that only together we can put a stop to the terrorists and their backers. At the same time, the fight against extremism must not lead to the exclusion and stigmatization of religious groups. The fight against terrorism is not a fight against any religious or political beliefs. While religious matters are for national authorities, everyone in the EU has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
What does the Commission plan in terms of incentives to make the media sector more diverse and incentivise reporting about diversity?
We have raised this issue in our EU anti-racism action plan. An independent and pluralistic media in all its diversity is necessary for a balanced democratic debate. The under-representation of people with a minority racial or ethnic background in the media, including in the media professions, needs to be addressed. Some media executives themselves see this as a problem and try to diversify newsrooms. They realise that would enrich their reporting.
The Commission will also support these efforts with funding, for example with the Creative Europe program where we have for the first time a dedicated envelope for media pluralism and media literacy. Diversity is key for the whole program.
But progress in diversifying newsrooms has been rather average so far…
I believe we can only improve the situation if we have a good picture of how things stand. This is why we are collecting data and intelligence on how the situation evolves. The Media Pluralism Monitor has a dedicated about social inclusiveness, along with the protection of rights, market plurality and political independence. This chapter also assesses access to media for minorities and for women. The Monitor clearly shows there is homework for all of us, at European and national levels, and for the sector itself.
At the same time, I see these issues are high on the political agenda, more than ever, with more awareness and a wider public debate on how diversity is important for our democracies, societies and economies. This is very welcomed.
We are also working with civil society to raise awareness on racial and ethnic stereotypes, and organising exchanges with journalists on these issues. We are looking at the disinformation and conspiracy theories targeting minority communities. The work of the European Digital Media Observatory will focus specifically on this issue. We will further address all those challenges in the upcoming European Democracy Action Plan.
The Racial Equality Directive included proposals on how to combat stereotypes in media and creative industries which includes seminars, but not much else. Is this enough in your opinion to make a difference?
The Racial Equality Directive has been a cornerstone of EU’s anti-discrimination rules for the past two decades. The rules are clear – discrimination is illegal, but in reality, Europe has still work to do. This is true also in the media sector.
Before we decide about the next steps, we need to know how the existing law is working on the ground. This is what we are doing now. Based on the findings, I think we will be able to follow with possible legislation to address the existing gaps.
But the Directive is not the only tool we have at our disposal. For instance, the revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive plays a crucial role in the battle against hate speech in all audiovisual content
What further initiatives on this issue will be included in the forthcoming European democracy action plan?
The European Democracy Action Plan will cover three themes: election integrity, media freedom, and media pluralism, and the fight against disinformation. I also want to cover the democratic participation and role of civil society as something that underpins all aspects of our democratic life.
We need to take into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it comes to media, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the essential role of journalists, working in the frontline to inform us. Readership and audiences have been record-high.
But revenues have been record-low. The crisis has amplified pre-existing trends. The economic situation of the media sector was already fragile before the crisis, with the digitalization and the increasing power of online platforms getting the bulk of advertising revenues. We want to support the recovery of the sector as part of a dedicated Media and Audiovisual Action Plan.
And there’s impunity against journalists that has become a big problem recently…
Our recent reports on the rule of law showed challenges across Europe when it comes to the safety of journalists. We see how individual reporters are subject of organised hate storms and threats when they write about certain matters. This is a true threat to democracy.
Media are not only losing money, they are also losing people. Even here, in Europe, journalists are murdered. Journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ján Kuciak – and also members of the team of French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
So it is clear we have to do more when it comes to safety. We are also looking into the issue of abusive litigation against journalists – also known as Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPP). This will be at the heart of the upcoming European Democracy Action Plan.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]