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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Defending media freedom
European Parliament Seminar on Media Freedom in the EU Member States
Brussels, 8 May 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First, I want to wish "Happy Birthday" to the Association of European Journalists. In your 50 years, you have done well in promoting the importance of quality journalism in Europe.
Today I'd like to talk about freedom of speech, and media freedom in particular. I don’t need to convince you that this is a pertinent and pressing issue. By international standards, Europe does quite well at it. Quality, investigative journalism is a defining feature of European political culture, a foundation of our democracy. So all the more we should be careful to protect it.
Here in the EU, challenges to media freedom and pluralism are neither a recent phenomenon, nor one confined to just one or two Member States. But recent cases have been high profile and significant: and we continue to engage with all tools available to us. Last year we used our existing legal competences to defend media freedom in Hungary – more on that later. Likewise, the Hungarian Constitutional Court examined the media law under national constitutional law, and ruled parts of it to be unconstitutional.
I continue to call on the Hungarian government to implement that important judgement efficiently and rapidly. And to swiftly address the concerns raised by the Council of Europe in its upcoming assessment of the law - which is prepared in reference to European norms, such as the Convention on Human Rights.
To be clear: I follow developments in other Member States as well. Very recently, a Greek extreme-right party made death threats against a Greek journalist. I am very concerned about such threats – I denounce them. These incidents show that, apart from being concerned over protection of journalists' sources, although clearly very important, we have to think harder about how to protect journalists themselves - and anyone who uses his right to speak up - from physical or verbal violence.
The threat of violence is never an acceptable part of democratic debate. However, given its current competences, the EU can "only" exert political pressure, but it is primarily for Member State authorities to ensure that journalists are safe.
Meanwhile we continue to push for freedom of expression in those countries seeking to join the EU. And further afield, dealing with problems of a different order of magnitude, we want to help citizens/activists in authoritarian regimes to be able to express themselves freely, with the No-Disconnect Strategy.
There are three points I want to make here.
The first is that media freedom is a complex issue.
Because it's not simply enforceable by decree, but rather must be defended by everyone. It also needs many ingredients like independent regulatory bodies, protection of sources and a healthy distance from particular political or economic interests.
Sometimes government intervention harms media freedom and pluralism. And that's the possible effect we are concerned with in the case of Hungary.
But in other countries like the UK, the difficult questions on the proper functioning of the system are in other areas. Because, sometimes, government action can positively promote freedom and pluralism – as when governments ensure that ownership is not too concentrated. Perhaps using mechanisms that go beyond normal merger control based on competition.
And the media themselves must take up their responsibilities, including obeying the law. If they don't - if they abuse their position, and if self-regulation is seen not to work - that can lead to a level of regulation which both you and I would normally rather avoid.
The second point is that in order to protect media freedom and independence, you have to be aware of the environment in which the sector operates. Because there is no objectively perfect system independent of the economic reality. As the ecosystem changes, so do the conditions under which freedom and pluralism flourish or wither.
And, make no mistake, the sector is changing drastically. By the day, digital media consumption continues to increase, while print does the opposite. Online channels extend readership – especially to a younger generation who increasingly don't bother with print. Online channels can cut distribution costs – and generate significant revenue. And online channels give an opportunity for ever more voices to express themselves.
But I realise there are challenges too. Increasing competition, increasing material offered for free, and new actors like aggregators.
For me, it's clear that, if quality journalism is to continue, we must find a model that rewards and repays it. Especially for investigative journalism projects — which are riskier and more speculative investments, but often so effective in challenging political orthodoxy.
But on the other hand, it's clear that the sector will have to adapt to new realities.
Just like the many other sectors affected by the digital revolution. In each case, ignoring the change, or hoping it will go away, is a fundamentally unsustainable approach.
The music industry has already realised this; now the audiovisual sector is beginning to wake up too. Likewise, in the print sector, I know of several papers and magazines that have become digital success stories – I congratulate them for their innovative approaches.
Others, however, see their business model running into trouble and seek our help. In particular, some have suggested new subsidy schemes to protect the journalism sector from change. To me, this seems simplistic, and unlikely to work.
It's hard to justify in a time of stretched budgets. It risks locking in to one economic model, ignoring a potential for innovation and dynamism. And indeed, for some, putting journalists on the public payroll is hardly a guarantee of independence.
The third point I'd like to make is that there are different models for defending media freedom. With risks from inaction: and risks from going too far.
Recent events, like in Hungary, showed that many, including NGOs and Members of this Parliament, expect a lot from the Commission when it comes to defending media freedom and pluralism. Indeed they expect more than we are currently capable of.
Let me be clear: when national decisions might infringe EU laws or common values, I will never shy away from speaking up. I am quite ready to exert all the political pressure that is needed.
However, Member States have solemnly agreed, under the Lisbon Treaty, that the EU can only legally enforce fundamental rights in areas where there are EU laws. Member States have constitutional traditions and courts which protect fundamental rights. Europe, therefore, cannot, and should not need to, replace Member States when it comes to enforcing those rights.
In the case of Hungary, we were criticised for only pushing through so-called "technical" changes to the media law. Personally, I don't consider these mere technicalities: rules on offensive and balanced content, on prior registration of media outlets, and on sanctions are highly relevant to the practice of journalism. But, clearly, the Commission could threaten infringement action only on matters within its legal competence, and the underlying concerns are considerably wider than this.
So in that context, let me answer your question: "Does the EU have sufficient competences to defend media freedom in the Member States?" No, it does not. There is a wide gap between what the Commission can legally enforce and what we are often expected to do.
This begs the more complicated question of what to do about it.
Some feel this area needs more EU laws. And yet, for others, more laws – especially from Brussels - mean not more freedom but more controls, more limits, more dependence on the legislator.
So my question to you is: is new EU legislation really the answer to threats to media freedom? What is the internal market problem to be tackled? Is there support in this Parliament for a substantive approach, going beyond the specifics of particular national cases?
And in that regard, I am closely following the debate led by Mrs Renate Weber, the rapporteur for minimum press standards in the EU.
I don't have all the answers yet. Sometimes, the more important a task, the less straightforward it is.
There are several pieces of work underway to help us consider them further.
First, a High Level Group, chaired by former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, will give me recommendations on how to respect, protect, support and promote pluralism and media freedom within Europe.
Second, the EU Media Futures Group chaired by Mr. Van Thillo will be looking at the impact of technology and new business models on the media. That will consider the economic context I mentioned earlier – including the impact on the range of media and freedom of speech. And look at trends, challenges, and opportunities.
And third, the newly established Centre for Media Pluralism and Freedom at the European University Institute in Florence is covering a lot of academic groundwork in this area.
But of all my sources of advice and guidance, I am not ignoring one of the most important. It's you, the people in this room: journalists.
Because it's you who know your sector best.You who know the threats to media freedom, the opportunities and challenges of a changing digital world.You who are best able to suggest a way that protects pluralism and independence, without diminishing it through external limits and controls.
You are the professionals: so tell me your thoughts and practical ideas. Share your expertise and experience. Tell me what will work and what won't.
And help us find a way to protect media freedom in a digital society.