Policies needed to ensure an independent media in Europe

Understanding what constitutes independent media needs a move away from the simplistic view that state influence is inherently stifling while market-driven media is free and independent. According to the MEDIADEM research project, while it is not feasible to eliminate all different kinds of media dependencies, it is important to recognise what those dependencies are, remove those that can be eliminated and mitigate the effects of those that remain.

MEDIADEM examines state media policies and whether they support or constrain the development of free and independent media in 12 EU Member States – Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the UK, and two EU candidate countries, Croatia and Turkey. European-wide, cross-country analysis was essential to obtain meaningful results on how media freedom and independence can be safeguarded. MEDIADEM has high policy relevance for the EU, as EU law and policies can create both pressures and opportunities for domestic media policies.

The project has examined the complex array of policy approaches and regulations that govern the media, and their effects on media freedom and independence in these countries. It has interviewed state and non-state actors involved in policy making including state ministries, regulatory bodies, media operators, journalists and their representative bodies, and civil society organisations. External regulatory pressures resulting from actions of the EU and the Council of Europe were also analysed in detail. The aim was to identify policy and tools that best promote media freedom and independence.

MEDIADEM has outlined the following major dependencies affecting today’s media:

  • Freedom of expression and information – At the European level this is protected by article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This offers significant guarantees to media professionals such as owners, editors and journalists against state censorship and control, and these guarantees are also important to civil society organisations, companies and individuals who use the internet to publish information and opinions on a world-wide basis. However, article 10 ECHR does not offer an absolute right to freedom of expression for the media or those who work for it, which can be subject to legitimate restrictions.
  • State legislation that impacts on the media includes protection of national security, public order, privacy and family life, the protection of morals and children, as well as defamation and libel, hate speech and contempt of court. Such restrictions, however, can be abused or used excessively and have a chilling effect on reporting.
  • Dependency on finance and information, coupled with constraints from media ownership structures, may render the media prone to patronage and direction. Indeed, the media often serve as vehicles for powerful groups, individuals and corporate bodies in the pursuit of private, commercial or political interests.
  • Finance can take the form of state aid, such as a licence fee, advertising and sponsorship, donations or individual subscriptions. All modes of financing create a sense of loyalty to those providing the funding which could have an impact on news reporting for example.
  • Constant need for new information is also a form of media dependency, as those who control access to information such as government departments and their press officers, can exert considerable influence over what is being reported, and the timing and mode of its coverage.
  • Power of media owners – these may include the state, companies and individuals with wide-ranging interests, and partisan bodies such as political or religious organisations. These proprietors have substantial power to use ownership to further political, economic or other ends and challenge the capacity of the media to offer varied accurate information, facilitate debate and perform a ‘watchdog’ function.

Recommendations for policy makers:

  • Promoting and realising media freedom requires careful attention by policy makers. Media freedom does not stem from particular structural configurations such as state intervention versus market liberalisation. Even in an environment generally freed from state control, state intervention might be necessary to redress market and democratic failures.

Policy makers must therefore:

  • Identify the various constraints that affect traditional and new media, especially in relation to editorial and journalistic autonomy.
  • Establish where constraints operate against the public interest.
  • Mitigate their negative effects where they cannot be removed.
  • Make the constraints more transparent.

In particular, policy makers can support the development of free and independent media by:

  • Introducing and maintaining a legally enabling environment for the exercise of freedom of expression and the right to information.
  • Promoting professional standards and journalistic ethics.
  • Strengthening media literacy among citizens, to give them a better grasp of the strengths and limits of particular media and enable them to make informed choices about the media services they choose.

In each case, it is necessary to consider who is best placed to take action: the state, media organisations, journalists, civil society, citizens or a combination of these actors. Promoting a free and independent media requires all three areas of action to be integrated and addressed simultaneously. In addition, media freedom should be taken on board at international and regional policy settings, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), World Trade Organization (WTO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the EU and the Council of Europe, as a concrete objective to be promoted.

The ongoing MEDIADEM project runs until March 2013, and further findings and recommendations will be released in the near future.

MEDIADEM – European media policies revisited (duration: 1/4/2010 – 31/3/2013). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 5, “The citizen in the European Union”, Research area 5.1 “Participation and citizenship in Europe”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.mediadem.eliamep.gr

Contact: Evangelia Psychogiopoulou, epsychogiopoulou@eliamep.gr