Over summer, the European Commission started preparing the European Democracy Action Plan led by Vice-President Jourová. The Action Plan is articulated around three main objectives: enhance elections integrity and the resilience of democratic processes, strengthen media freedom and pluralism, and tackle disinformation. After providing feedback on the Roadmap, News Media Europe has further reflected on these issues and provided recommendations as part of the public consultation.
The elaboration of the European Democracy Action Plan is not only welcomed, it is essential for the news sector and its role in democracy.
Deteriorating conditions of media freedom and independence is often a sign of democratic erosion. There are unfortunately numerous examples of attacks on media professionals in Europe. The safety of media professionals is deteriorating, not only because of physical aggression but also due to psychological pressure and repeated judicial proceedings (“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” – SLAPPs). SLAPPs represent unacceptable intimidation tools but also important drains on the often-limited resources that news media organisations have at their disposal. In addition to financial support and legal aid to journalists and small newsrooms, we think that conflict of laws reforms as well as coordination and harmonisation at EU level can help increasing the level of protection of press freedom.
Moreover, we highlight in the consultation that the principle of press freedom would become an empty shell without media independence, which includes both financial sustainability and editorial independence.
Without autonomous revenues, self-sufficiency and growth perspectives, media offerings suffer, with heavy consequences for the quality of the democratic debate. In addition to economic independence, ensuring fair competition with tech giants on the one hand, but also public service broadcasters on the other, is necessary. Therefore, we expect from the European Democracy Action Plan to contribute to the creation of a fair and competitive environment for the private news sector.
The business model of news media also relies on its ability to exercise freedom of expression, free from undue financial and political interference. In this regard, editorial independence and integrity give great indication of the quality of a democratic system. Concretely, this means that journalism must be free to bring analytical and critical added value to citizens, to voice controversial opinions and inconvenient truths, to speak directly to citizens and properly hold accountable decision-makers.
Most importantly, the reality of media consumption has changed, and this must be reflected in the Action Plan. Inclusive media, that allows citizens to react live, comment news and to take part in public debates, have become an important element for increased democratic participation. In addition, a high-quality and pluralistic media landscape is one that can best represent and accommodate for the social, intellectual and political diversity for citizens, not one that only speaks to a narrow segment of the population. Hence inclusive media, with the right digital capabilities and enabling environment, is key to empower citizens to play an active role in our democracy.
When it comes to access to reliable information, tackling disinformation is of course a crucial policy priority. But over-intervention could also create damages, particularly on free speech. Here, a balance must be struck in order to make sure that policies on disinformation genuinely strengthen the resilience of European democracies.
This would be ensured in our view through the identification of the type of content that really constitutes a harm to citizens and democracy. So as a ground principle, all professional journalistic content should be left out of what the Code of Practice on tackling online disinformation. For the purpose of media freedom and integrity of content, not only should news content be left out of the scope, it should never be altered nor removed by online intermediaries.
To conclude, making democracy a strong and dynamic concept is a meticulous exercise. From the only point of view of journalism, many parameters must be taken into account. News Media Europe is fully committed to working with decision-makers and stakeholders on the European Democracy Action Plan. Together with the Digital Services Act and the future Media Action Plan, this initiative is an opportunity to provide the right environment for the news industry to grow, innovate, compete, and perform its social function as watchdog of democracy.