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The EU’s commitments to free expression: media freedom

By Mike Harris / 7 January, 2014

(Photo: Anatolii Stepanov / Demotix)

(Photo: Anatolii Stepanov / Demotix)


This article is part of a series based on our report, Time to Step Up: The EU and freedom of expression


Media concentration in the EU poses a significant challenge. The media in the EU is significantly more concentrated than in North America, even when taking into consideration explanations of population, geographical size and income. Even by global standards, media concentration in the EU is high.

Another challenge arises from national media regulation, which may both fail to protect plurality and, allow an unnecessary and unacceptable amount of political interference in the way the media works. While the EU does not have an explicit competency to intervene in all matters of media plurality and media freedom, it is not neutral in this debate. A number of initiatives are underway to help better promote media freedom, and in particular media plurality. Free expression advocates, including Index, welcome the fact that the EU is taking the issue of media freedom more seriously.

Media regulation

Across the European Union, media regulation is left to the member states to implement, leading to significant variations in the form and level of media regulation. National regulation must comply with member states’ commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights, but this compliance can only be tested through exhaustive court cases. While the European Commission has, in the past, tended to view its competencies in this area as being limited due to the introduction of the Charter of Fundamental Rights into EU primary law, the Commission is looking at its possible role in this area. In part, the Commission is acting upon the guidance of the European Parliament, which  has expressed significant concerns over the state of media regulation, and in particular with regard to Hungary, where regulation has been criticised for curtailing freedom of expression.

The national models of media regulation across Europe vary significantly, from models of self-regulation to statutory regulation. These models of regulation can impact negatively on freedom of expression through the application of unnecessary sanctions, the regulator’s lack of independence from politicians and laws that create a burdensome environment for online media. Statutory regulation of the print and broadcast media is increasingly anachronistic, raising questions over how the role of journalist or broadcaster should be defined and resulting in a general and increasing confusion about who should be covered by these regulatory structures, if at all. Frameworks that outline laws on defamation and privacy and provide public interest and opinion defences for all would provide clarify for all content producers. In the majority of countries, the broadcast media is regulated by a statutory regulator (due to a scarcity of analogue frequencies that required arbitration in the past), yet, often, the print media is also regulated by statutory bodies, including in Slovenia, Lithuania, Italy; or regulated by specific print media laws and codes, for example in Austria, France, Sweden and Portugal. As we demonstrate below, many EU member states have systems of media regulation that are overly restrictive and fail to protect freedom of expression.

In many EU member states, the system of media regulation allows excessive state interference in the workings of the media. Hungary’s system of media regulation has been criticised by the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the OSCE for the excessive control statutory bodies exert over the media. The model of “co-regulation” was set up in 2010 through a new comprehensive media law[1], culminating in the creation of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, which was given statutory powers to fine media organisations up to €727,000, oversaw regulation of all media including online news websites, and acts as an extra-judicial investigator, jury and judge on public complaints. The president of the Media Authority and all five members of the Media Council were delegated exclusively by Hungary’s Fidesz party, which commanded a majority in Parliament. The law forced media outlets to provide “balanced coverage” and had the power to fine reporters if they didn’t disclose their sources in certain circumstances. Organisations that refused to sign up to the regulator faced exemplary fines of up to €727,000 per breach of the law. While the European Commission managed to negotiate to remove some of the most egregious aspects of the law, nothing was done to rectify the political composition of the media council, the source of the original complaint to the Commission.

Hungary is not the only EU member state where politicians have excessive influence over media regulators. In France, the High Council for Broadcasting (CSA), which regulates TV and radio broadcasting, has nine executives appointed by presidential decree, of which three members are directly chosen and appointed by the president, three by the president of the Senate, and three by the president of the National Assembly. According to the Centre for Media and Communication Studies, this system for appointing authorities has the fewest safeguards from governmental influence in the EU.

Many countries have statutory underpinning of the press, which includes the online press, including Austria, France, Italy, Lithuania, Slovenia and Sweden.  Some statutory regulation can provide freedom of expression protections to those who voluntarily register with the regulatory body (for instance in Sweden), but in many instances, the regulatory burden and possibility of fines for online media can chill freedom of expression.

The Leveson Inquiry in the UK was established after the extent of the phone-hacking scandal was discovered, revealing how journalists had hacked the phones of victims of crime and high profile figures. Lord Justice Leveson made a number of recommendations in his report, including the statutory underpinning of an “independent” regulatory body, restrictions to limit contact between senior police officers and the press that could inhibit whistleblowing, and exemplary damages for publishers who remain outside the regulator. Of particular concern was the notion of statutory unpinning by what was claimed to be an “independent” and “voluntary” regulator. By setting out the requirements for what the regulator should achieve in law, it introduced some government and political control over the functioning of the media. Even “light” statutory regulation can be revisited, toughened and potentially abused. Combined with exemplary damages for publishers who remained outside the “voluntary” regulator (damages considered to be in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights by three eminent QCs), the Leveson proposals were damaging to freedom of expression. The situation was compounded by the  attempt by a group of Peers in the House of Lords to exert political pressure on the government to regulate the press, potentially sabotaging much-needed reform of the archaic libel laws of England and Wales. This resulted in the government bringing in legislation through the combination of a Royal Charter (the use of the Monarch’s powers to establish a body corporate) and by adding provisions to the Crime and Courts Act (2013) that established the legal basis for exemplary damages. It is arguable that the Leveson proposals have already been used to chill public interest journalism.

In part a response to the dilemma posed by Hungary, but also to wider issues of press regulation raised by the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, vice president of the Commission Neelie Kroes has overseen renewed Commission interest in the area of media regulation. This interest builds upon the possibility of the Commission using new commitments introduced through the Charter of Fundamental Rights into EU primary law, such as Article 11 of the Charter, which states: “The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.” The Commission is now exploring a variety of options to help protect media freedom, including funding the establishment of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom and the EU Futures Media Forum. In October 2011, Kroes founded a High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism to look at these issues in more detail. The conclusions were published in January 2013.

Many of the recommendations of the High Level Media Group are useful, in particular the first recommendation: “The EU should be considered competent to act to protect media freedom and pluralism at State level in order to guarantee the substance of the rights granted by the Treaties to EU citizens”. Yet some of the High Level Group’s conclusions do not provide a solution to questions of appropriate legislation within the EU. The group called for all member states to have “independent media councils” that are politically and culturally balanced with a socially diverse membership and have enforcement powers including fines, the power to order printed or broadcast apologies and, particularly concerning, the power to order the removal of (professional) journalistic status.[2] Political balance could be interpreted as political representation on the media councils, when the principle should be that the media is kept free from political interference. This was an issue raised in particular by Hungarian NGOs during the consultation. Also of particular concern is the suggestion that the European Commission should monitor the national media councils with no detail as to how the Commission is held to account, or process for how national media organisations could challenge bad decisions by the Commission. The Commission is awaiting the results of a civil society consultation. Depending on the conclusions of the Commission, stronger protections for media freedom may be considered when a state clearly deviates from established norms.


[1]Act on the Freedom of the Press and the Fundamental Rules on Media Content (the “Press Freedom Act”) and the Media Services and Mass Media Act (or the “Media Act”)

[2] p.7, High Level Media Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism

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About Mike Harris

Mike Harris is head of advocacy at Index on Censorship

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