Over Past Decade, Europe Has Seen Steady Deterioration of Press Freedom

Culture - February 7, 2024

Most EU countries do not have laws that provide strong safeguards against political influence on the media, the lack of which has negative consequences for the independence of journalists and thus the quality of information the public receives. This is the conclusion of a study on media independence by the ECR Party, which analyses data from the last ten years (2014-2023), collected from Member States and candidate countries.

The study looks, among other things, at how ownership of media outlets and political influence affect pluralism of opinion and freedom of expression in the context of the challenges faced by the media over the last decade. One of these challenges is the concentration of media ownership in the hands of governments, power-affiliated actors and businessmen in the context of repeated economic crises, as well as gaps and/or poor implementation of media legislation. Thus, the authors conclude that there is a need for real oversight through bodies that are supposed to oversee the impartiality of the media, as well as effective control over the ownership of media trusts and their public funding. Even though some countries – including Romania – have made it compulsory for media businesses to declare their ownership, there is a “general failure” to implement these laws in terms of ensuring transparency of information.

Economically vulnerable media have been hijacked by politics or interest groups

Citing UNESCO reports, the study’s authors argue that Europe has seen a steady increase in the deterioration of press freedom and pluralism of opinion over the past decade, as democracies across the continent have faced challenges ranging from economic crises to terrorism, migration and, most recently, the war in Ukraine. The media market has faced repeated recessions, which have favoured the concentration of business both horizontally, in the same sector – print, TV, etc. – and cross-sectorally. The study notes that Europe has always been characterised by press monopolies and oligopolies, posing some threat to pluralism, but in recent years this practice has been used by governments to enslave the press and silence dissenting voices. The unstable economic environment has left the press without sources of funding and vulnerable to governments.

“Governments, government officials or individuals with links to ruling parties have increased their control over commercial media, either through outright purchases or biased enforcement of existing rules to intentionally limit pluralism – contributing to an environment that is also hostile to the press,” the authors of the report say.

Instead of choosing a common approach to regulating ownership concentration in order to ensure a healthy competitive environment in the media market, Member States have exercised their prerogative to legislate on the matter and adopted different solutions. While the Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have specific laws for competition in the media market, most EU countries have only general competition regulations and, separately, only specific media laws.

Most European countries do not have effective laws against political interference in media affairs

Another issue highlighted by the ECR study is direct state intervention in mergers and acquisitions. Thus, according to the paper, in most European countries legislative safeguards against media control by politicians, parties or interest groups are weak or non-existent. While countries like Portugal and Lithuania explicitly prohibit political parties from owning media trusts, in Malta, for example, the two parties that alternate in government are among the key players in the media market. Italy also had former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a renowned media tycoon, who used his media business to make his political bid. But the press has not only been vulnerable to state takeovers, but also to businessmen who have used it to promote their own interests and, far from pursuing profit, have used it to exert political influence. This trend was particularly evident in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, where after the 2008 global economic crisis the volume of foreign investment decreased, facilitating the shift of media ownership from foreign companies to a few domestic businessmen.

Laws on mandatory disclosure of ownership of media businesses suffer in terms of transparency

These negative trends have been countered in some countries by regulations aimed at ensuring transparency of ownership of media trusts. However, although most European countries have formal requirements for disclosure of media businesses’ shareholding structures, these obligations often have limitations, such as the obligation to disclose this information only to the authorities and not to the public.

State advertising – the way governments control the press without owning it

Ownership allows pressure on editorial independence, but political influence can be exerted even without owning the media. One such way of exercising government influence over the press is state advertising. The study’s authors point out that regulations to ensure fair and transparent allocation of state advertising are absent in many of the countries analysed, but in Central and Eastern Europe where the legacy of authoritarian rule is still reflected in the state-media relationship, advertising with public money often remains one of the few if not the only source of funding for the press.

“The failed implementation of existing rules has led to the instrumentalisation of funding allocation to support pro-government outlets at the expense of independent and critical media. Studies have shown that government-friendly media receive the lion’s share of state advertising and that between 2016-2018 there was a five-fold increase in stations receiving more than 50% of their funding from the government, some even relying exclusively on state advertising,” the study states.

Weak, politically-led regulators = subservient press

Political influence is also largely possible because of weak media regulators. Political interference – often by appointing people affiliated to the ruling parties to these bodies – has reduced their ability to ensure media independence. As a consequence of weak oversight, the study’s authors speak of political control over public media services. Although they should be accessible to the general public and produce content for everyone, reflecting political, social and cultural differences, governments have increased political control over the boards of these public media. This has also weakened the content of the information they provide, the study’s authors note. They note that this political control over media authorities has increased across Europe, with all countries reporting a greater or lesser degree of political influence in the appointment of media executives.

“Without proper oversight, ‘disinformation’ can be used to suppress opposition media outlets (…) In addition, if media channels are censored, whole sections of the population may be left without alternative sources of information,” the ECR study authors point out.

“All this has happened in a climate where the dissemination of information through online media has increased, which in itself represents a challenge to the independence and reliability of information for the public,” they add.

European Press Freedom Act – the EU’s contribution to depoliticising the press

Despite all these challenges, there is hope. Beyond the positive examples in some European countries and civil society’s efforts to ensure media independence, the EU has also become increasingly active in imposing high standards of media protection. An example of this is the European law on freedom of the press, which is designed to ensure better coordination of national regulations and their convergence in establishing safeguards against state interference in an independent press. The regulation proposed by the European Commission and agreed with Member States’ ambassadors responds to growing concerns about the politicisation of the press, lack of transparency in media ownership and the allocation of state advertising to the media. The European Press Freedom Act establishes a legislative framework with new rules and mechanisms to improve the protection of journalists from politics and to ensure a functioning media market, including through regulatory cooperation and convergence, including provisions for better transparency and fair allocation of economic resources.