On the occasion of EURACTIV’s launch of its new ‘Digital & Media’ hub, Editor Samuel Stolton caught up with the Commission’s Vice President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, to discuss the wide range of issues currently impacting the European media landscape.
- Trends for journalism in Europe are concerning from political, financial, security aspect;
- Frustrated that EU competition rules do not cover mergers in the media world;
- Slovenia PM’s treatment of media ahead of EU Presidency is ‘serious development in wrong direction’;
- Commission plans to issue strong recommendation to EU countries for guaranteeing security of journalists.
Let’s start with the most recent efforts the Commission has made in media policy. Last December saw action plans for democracy and media being put forward, as well as the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. What is the ‘big picture’ strategy here to rebalance the information ecosystem which could help new media leaders innovate faster and create more of a sustainable environment for media groups?
Well, the digital revolution has affected all corners of our lives. Of course, it has changed the media landscape and, in my personal opinion, not for the better.
For example, when we see the expansion in the EU of some of the activities of major platforms such as Google, this can take more and more money away from advertising expenditure for traditional media.
Also, even before the pandemic, European media had already started to become weakened economically, and that may also make certain outlets susceptible to increasing political pressures. The trend for journalism in Europe over recent years is concerning. Economic and political pressure, security threats, and abusive litigations against reporters have been going on for some time. In terms of support for journalism against at least the economic challenges, of course, we now have the copyright directive as well as the new digital legislation that you mentioned, but we have to do much more.
I often ask myself why the ‘media’ has become such a big topic. Is it just that I have a subjective impression of this because I’m the first Commissioner assigned to cover ‘media,’ or is it because the situation has become much worse over recent years? I think it’s the latter.
You mentioned the copyright directive. How important is the transposition of the copyright directive in the context of media sustainability and how much confidence do you have that EU press publishers will be able to negotiate fair remuneration terms with the platforms?
We have to insist on the full and proper implementation of the rules because there was an extremely harsh battle around this topic. It was about economic fairness, based on the simple idea that journalists should be paid properly for the work they do, rather than their work being stolen in broad daylight. There is a very strong moral imperative behind this.
We will look very carefully into how member states are implementing the copyright directive and of course we’ll be watching how the negotiations between press publishers and platforms are going because we want to achieve a balanced system. Facebook’s original reaction to the measures in Australia was a sharp reminder of something we want to avoid in Europe.
Over recent years across Europe, we’ve seen various media takeovers, mergers, and buyouts by state-owned entities, particularly across central and eastern European countries. This raises the question of the competitiveness of the sector for smaller and independent publishers. Where do you stand on this?
I am rather frustrated that competition rules in the EU do not capture and cover mergers in the media world, because competition rules on the European level are designed for the ‘normal’ single market players – where the thresholds for Europe to act are very high.
As a result, we have to rely on national competition rules, and the ability of authorities to consider whether or not mergers go against the healthy functioning of the media, freedom of speech, and the independence of the press.
How much of an issue is the funding of the media here and the notion of ‘selective funding’ by certain governments – who seek to sustain the output of particular media groups, to the detriment of others?
We have a proverb in Czech that goes something like: ‘You sing the song of whose bread you eat.’ However, those in power who decide on the distribution of financing for the media should not think that journalists will sing their song. Media independence must be safeguarded.
Of course, the Commission finances certain media initiatives, but we are well aware of the sensitivities – that’s why we set very clear criteria on what the funding should achieve and how the funding should help the media, for instance, navigate the digital transformation easily. The objective isn’t to support media projects for the cause of spreading pro-EU propaganda.
One EU country recently that has hit the headlines for its questionable funding strategies for the media has been Slovenia. Prime Minister Janez Janša has not only led targeted campaigns against particular outlets such as the Slovenian Press Agency STA, but he has also directly targeted journalists themselves.
Slovenia takes up its seat at the head of the EU Presidency later this year. What do you expect from them in terms of the importance of the issues that you have been talking about?
In recent discussions with the Slovenian ministers, I have raised my concerns. I think, obviously, Prime Minister Janša does not take the international reputation of Slovenia seriously enough. The personal attacks from him against individual journalists are surprising because he himself was a former journalist.
And yes, we’ve seen the sustainable financing of the media endangered. How the Slovenian Press Agency has been impacted by this is, in my point of view, a serious development in the wrong direction. And it’s not only me who is looking at this. I receive many letters and a lot of requests to act.
Staying in central Europe, your own country of the Czech Republic has caused a stir recently, as there have been concerns related to the independence of Czech broadcasting. The European Broadcasting Union said last week the independence of Czech television is under threat and there is an increasing politicization of its governing body. I just wonder how you reflect on these criticisms of the Czech broadcasting landscape, at the moment.
Yes, I am closely following what’s happening in my home country. There is a very tense and I would say aggressive atmosphere around the nomination of the members of the television board, particularly on social media. It is the democratic prerogative of the parliament to appoint the members but there should also be a strong feeling of responsibility from Parliamentarians that those who should be appointed will hold themselves to high professional standards and integrity.
The process of appointments is not over. There is a very intense political debate now, and we will assess whether – if the situation turns bad – we have some tools in hand to react to that. At the same time, we do not have legal competence to address – for example by filing infringement procedures – the situation of the public broadcasters.
Moving onto the safety of journalists now. Greek reporter Giorgos Karaivaz was recently gunned down outside of his home in Athens. This follows a spate of high-profile murders of journalists in Europe, including Maltese reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia and Slovakian Ján Kuciak. Why do you believe that journalists are in so much danger today?
Yes, we have journalists being murdered today in Europe. And this is a horrible fact in itself.
Why is this happening? It shows clearly that in fact journalists such as Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak were doing their job properly – holding people accountable for the crimes they commit. This is why they were seen as dangerous to the kinds of mafias that assassinated them.
And now we have the tragic case of Giorgos Karaivaz. This is an alert for us not to underestimate the threats against journalists. The authorities must act when journalists are at risk.
For our part, the Commission plans to issue a recommendation to member states which will be very strong in how the security of journalists should be guaranteed. As part of the European News Media Forum, we recently gathered stakeholders together to discuss the security of journalists at length. Member states must take this issue seriously not least because of the murders themselves, but also because of the terrible failure of the security services in protecting the vulnerable. It’s also a reputational issue for the member states.
You often reference your experience growing up behind the iron curtain as part of the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia. How much have your personal experiences shaped your attitude towards the media today?
What I remember most clearly was the transition that Czechoslovakian media had to go through as part of our transition into a democracy – and at the cultural level, this took some time. One particular example was how the narrative changed around corruption in popular media – news organizations managed to eventually acquire the confidence and indeed the independence to tackle these types of issues and help to shape a new paradigm that corruption was not normal.
Corruption had been choking society and the media’s role in going after those who were abusing power was a real change in my country, but in fact, this is only something that really took off I believe in the first decade of this century – it took ten years from gaining independence to finally arrive at this place.
The role of journalists here is so important in exposing falsehoods and abuses. I have personal proof, having been wrongly accused of fraud myself, a charge for which I was detained in prison for a month. In the media, I was portrayed initially as ‘corrupt’ and then a victim of judicial error. Eventually, the media started to understand that I had been fighting against fraud in my political position. I am grateful to the journalists who helped me by bringing objective information to the public based on fact – which is, really the ultimate objective of the news industry.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]