Discussion paper - Freedom of the Press and Media in the World report

Following my call for input I have received several contributions by NGO's, academics and citizens. I'm grateful for all the valuable information, ideas and viewpoints of which many are reflected in this discussion paper. Next Monday, 18 February, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament will have its first exchange of views; my first draft report is due for 8 March 2013.  I will keep you updated on the process and appreciate any comments or suggestions on this discussion paper. Thank you.  Marietje Schaake MEP



Freedom of the Press and Media in the World 


While free press and independent media are essential to protect and enable human rights and fundamental freedoms, journalists, media and freedom of speech are under threat all over the world. Treats are manifold: while several new online media platforms have multiplied the number of voices and opinions so have attempts by vested interests in silencing them.

A free press and independent media primarily are enables of basic human rights and channels through which citizens communicate, if diverse and pluralist, they also have social and active effects on societies, politics and debates. The recent massive and revolutionary (private) digitisation of media and information, whether via millions of blogs or instant live broadcasting, has magnified this impact but also blurred the fine line between these contradicting roles. Digitisation also adds new layers to questions about access, quality and objectivity of information.

The European Union, as a community of values, and through its external actions has an important role to play in promoting and defending press- and media freedom. The EU must lead in keeping media independent, plural and diverse, and in defending the position, freedom and security of journalists and bloggers. This is not to say that the EU would seek to interfere with content. Rather it would seek to support an enabling environment, and to limit restrictions to the free word.

The report that will follow this discussion paper aims to optimise the EU’s efforts and programmes to foster and protect press and media freedom worldwide, and to provide guidance on how to deal with the new digital media landscape. For the EU to do so effectively, we need to ensure the highest standards in press and media freedom within the EU.

This discussion paper would not have been as complete without the input of various stakeholders, who kindly responded to an online invitation to provide advice and expertise. At the same time, the European Parliament’s resolution should not re-invent the wheel or repeat the valuable work by NGO’s. Instead of merely assessing the freedom of the press and media in several countries, this paper takes a thematic approach, and emphasises the ways in which the EU can improve its policies and projects to be more sustainable and effective. Roles press and media play in societies all over the world In democratic societies, free, diverse and pluralist media enable public debates and serve as an essential check on power, either vested on governments, politicians or corporations. Additionally they provide access to information, and help foster both public and corporate transparency and accountability. The pluralism and diversity of opinions can ideally find lively and inclusive platforms where democratic debates thrive in open societies.

In many societies across the world however, it is precisely the powerful impact of independent journalism, and increasingly digital media and their cohesive effects, which create anxiety to those in power. Sunlight is a threat to those who seek to hide corruption, abuse of power, and injustice from the public eye. Journalists and media still mostly face restrictions coming from government interference. Should citizen journalists be distinguished from quality journalism and do different rights and responsibilities apply? Is a newspaper article more valuable than a 20 sentence online blog, and who should make that judgment?

In many countries there are fundamental threats to journalists and to media. Laws, statutory regulation, intimidation, tax fines, highly concentrated ownership by politicians or others with conflicting interests may limit the freedom to acquire and access information, or may lead to threats to freedom after expression. In the most extreme cases journalists are murdered or imprisoned. Censorship too often ends up fostering self-censorship. This does not only impact human rights and fundamental freedoms, but also impacts the business climate. The free flow of information should be a key priority in the EU's press and media programmes, and also an important element of external trade, development and human rights policies. Recent developments Recent developments, ranging from digitisation to the economic crisis have an impact on free speech media and journalists. Digitisation has transformed readers into bloggers, independent publishers of their thoughts and theories. While on the one hand digitisation can help people access information, collectively scrutinize officials and document and share injustices, new challenges such as mass surveillance, blocking, filtering, including through copyright enforcement by (incumbent) private actors and related intermediary liability need to be addressed. And how can investigative journalism exist, if it does not generate proportionate revenues for media? The commercial and the public interest are not always the same. The global economic crisis but also loss of revenue by traditional media has further strengthened the dominance of media monopolies and conglomerates, including some of the big data giants with exploding data and news market shares. Unlocking the full potential of digitisation requires good IT infrastructures, interoperability and appropriate regulation. These elements need to be incorporated in existing and developing media landscapes (in countries in transition) in conjunction with basis conditions of independence, plurality and diversity. Online, almost all platforms and services are in private hands, while people perceive the internet as a public space. A few dominant actors risk becoming the monopolists of the internet as well as the information citizens find online, based on their previous searches, opinions or expressions. Amidst discussions about who ought to pay for content, and whether personal information is security stored, who guards the public interest? Regulators can preserve competition, but perhaps new ways of engaging private actors in order to preserve the public value of information should be developed. While corporate social responsibility of media and online companies can play an important role, legal safeguards and international standards may need to ensure minimal benchmarks and requirements aimed at preserving independence and guaranteeing access. Self-regulation can bring about specific risks when unchecked. Corporations not only bear new responsibilities in a globally connected world, they also face new challenges that usually where entrusted by public authorities. The blocking of online new services based on religious or ethnical reasons have posed difficult choices for corporate boardrooms between operational continuity and 'editorial' independence. Massive leaks of private data and information have led to calls for increased democratic oversight and public scrutiny, but also call for debates on journalistic integrity and conduct. In recent years some media, notably in the EU, have come under scrutiny themselves for their unethical behaviour. The media may wish to be more transparent about codes of conduct (no hacking or tapping). Top down threats Governments are still primarily responsible for hampering free media in many countries in the world. Legal pressure has a seriously restricting impact on media freedom. The abuse of anti-terrorism, national security, treason and subversion laws criminalise journalists all over the world. Often there is no mechanism to challenge such decisions, and impunity prevents justice. Many journalists have no access to legal assistance, while they find themselves increasingly in the front lines of the struggle for freedom and justice, whether online or offline. Digital freedoms as online equivalents of more traditional rights and freedoms require and deserver equal protection. Beyond immediate legal limitations, both through the letter of the law and the implementation of laws, indirect pressure can also be brought by governments. In many countries media rely heavily on government advertising, which can become a tool to pressure media. Licences can also become means to restrict the operation of critical media, and the same goes for tax fines. When it comes to public service media, financial and political independence is essential, but too often media are still used as traditional tools for propaganda. The independence of regulators is equally important. EU policies and projects The EU addresses press- and media freedom through several policies and programs, and the EU should be ambitious. However, until now the European Commission lacks a specific overall focus on press and media freedom as well as a coherent driving vision and benchmarks. This lack of a comprehensive strategy leads to a great diversity in projects as well as available information on several projects. To navigate complicated grant application procedures might be feasible for large organisations, but risks cutting out smaller ones. Generally, bureaucratic burdens serve nobody’s interests and should be reduced. The European Commission (DEVCO) and the European External Action Service should work together more effectively and coordinate their programming. This means synergizing political and diplomatic work and by implementing projects and funding. A transition from ad hoc funding of projects should make room for a more sustainable approach, involving private donors that have become more obvious partners and interlocutors as a result of the widespread digitisation.

When the EU provides aid to countries in which media are restricted or journalists are under pressure, conditionality should be clear and specific in trade agreements, partnership-agreements or in the geographic programmes, as in the reviewed European Neighbourhood Policy. The EU can also educate governments, regulators and media alike, with the goal of fostering the appropriate regulations and technological approaches, especially during transitions that too often see new found and hard fought freedoms restricted in the name of stability and security.

Existing instruments such as the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights or Geographical Instruments should be used flexibly and should strengthen civil society. Local ownership and capacity building are essential to ensure sustainability. This is equally important when media projects are funded, or when broadcasters from the EU operate in third countries. Media development and assistance with freedom of expression should be an integral part of dialogue at country level as well as of trade and partnership agreements and aid. A more comprehensive and strategic approach to media development as part of electoral assistance programmes should be developed by the EU. To end impunity, assistance in investigating crimes against journalists and the establishment of legal defence funds and expertise can be provided by the EU. There is a lot the EU can do to be more effective and efficient in fostering press and media freedom. A coordinated, long term strategy, focusing on local capacity building and strong conditions when dealing with governments can help journalists and media work safely and independently. To that effect the EU should also improve its internal organization, including inter-departmental cooperation as well as improve analysis and evaluation of past, existing and future programming. For a number of elements relating to press freedom policies, the line between domestic and foreign affairs is thin. In the EU we must be aware of the impact we have in the world. Libel tourism in the UK and in other EU countries can have a negative impact on media freedom in third countries. Governments in turn should ensure high levels of whistleblower and source protections.