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Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth

Keynote speech

General Assembly of ENPA (The European Newspapers Publishers' Association)

Nicosia (Cyprus), 25 May 2012

Ladies and gentlemen,

It's an honour and a pleasure for me to address the members of an association that represents more than 5,000 national, regional and local newspapers. The pleasure is all the greater since you have chosen Cyprus for hosting your general assembly.

I think you have made a very good choice! We are a small island but we have a very rich and lively tradition in journalism. Newspapers in particular have played and still play a very important role in our civic, political and cultural life. I would therefore like to thank Mr Rusdal and Mr Zachariades for organising this event, and for inviting me over. I am very grateful for this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on how the press can help shape open, democratic and tolerant societies, and on what the European Union can do to ensure that they play this role under the best possible conditions.

I believe it's impossible to downplay the role of the free press in the development of democratic Europe as we know it. Napoleon once remarked that four hostile newspapers were to be feared more than a thousand bayonets. I believe this to be a wonderfully grudging compliment paid to the power of the press to act as the guarantor of freedom. No wonder that Napoleon feared them more than he feared bayonets – it is a feeling shared by all authoritarian rulers.

But alongside their defensive role in protecting liberty and the rule of law, newspapers also have a positive role in establishing and extending democracy.

Democracy needs well-informed citizens, capable of analysing events, forming their own opinion and engaging actively in an open debate. And for the debate to be meaningful and constructive, citizens have to be drawn together, and made to look beyond their immediate interests and to the problems of the whole community. Citizens have to realise that they are not alone in feeling what they feel, in believing what they believe.

Newspapers are an essential tool in this process. I know of no better description of the relationship between a newspaper and its readers than the following passage from Tocqueville: when there is a notion that, even if only potentially, is shared among many individuals but has not been communicated between them, "a newspaper then takes up the notion or the feeling that had occurred simultaneously, but singly, to each of them.

All are then immediately guided towards this beacon; and these wandering minds, which had long sought each other in darkness, at length meet and unite".

This is the process that has guided democratic life in Europe since its very beginning. This is the process that takes place every morning, when we open our newspaper. And yet, I cannot avoid asking the question, will it happen also in the future?

In Europe 150 million newspapers are sold every day. It's an impressive figure, but the truth is that readership is nonetheless declining. And what are the implications for democracy? I cannot help noticing that 150 million is also roughly the figure of those who took part in the last European elections. And that figure too is declining.

This is therefore a challenge both for the publishers of newspapers and for politicians: how to protect and extend that "public sphere", of which newspapers have historically been the creators and continue to be the best defenders. And for all of us who believe in Europe, the additional challenge is how to nurture that European public sphere that remains to this day in its infancy. Here too newspapers have an essential role: often, the place where we indeed have a truly pan-European debate is in the cultural section of the best newspapers and magazines.

I certainly do not mean to say that we should be afraid of new technologies. Communication networks are the nervous system of the world. The digital revolution that has occurred these past few decades has given us unprecedented and immediate access to global events, and one only has to look at the role of social media in the Arab spring to be convinced that this new power of global communications largely benefits human rights. The new technologies can therefore be a powerful force for the good. But they are also very disruptive of the existing models, as you know all too well. The multiplication of media outlets carries the risk of fragmenting the audiences and threatens directly the commercial viability of traditional newspapers.

Therefore we should not be afraid of new technologies, but neither should we assume that they will unfailingly help the cause of freedom of expression and democracy, without our own active intervention.

Good policies are needed for that. I will now briefly touch on three areas that are - directly or indirectly - part of my portfolio of European Commissioner: media literacy, the VAT regime for online cultural goods, and copyright.

Media literacy in the digital era is about the empowerment and emancipation of citizens, much like being able to read and write was a century ago. The volume of information we are receiving is truly enormous. The media are increasingly re-making the fabric of everyday life. But if knowledge is indeed a form of power, information is only powerful when you know what to do with it. This is where we need media literacy.

People who are media literate are able to spot and therefore reject stereotypes, to separate important information from entertainment, fact from fiction, truth from propaganda.

It should be part of the general education, and the EU has urged countries to include media education in compulsory curricula for young students. But schools should not be the only places where people learn media literacy skills. Media literacy concerns all age groups, so we must look beyond the formal education system.

To be able to reach the entire population, the media industry itself must take responsibility, and that is why the European commission has set up an expert group on media literacy – in which your association participates. I would like to take this opportunity to thank ENPA for its very interesting Position Paper on Media Literacy. I really believe that increasing media literacy is in the interest of the publishing industry. This is an industry that thrives on the quality of its content – it can only benefit from nurturing a more cultivated audience.

In fact, together with traditional print editions and webpages, the best newspapers now propose an extensive range of services for smart phones and tablets, making even more information accessible, in particular to younger users.

A good newspaper today is one that manages to tap all the potential of the web. And yet, as you well know, there is currently a discrimination against on-line publications, which are subject to a higher VAT rate than printed newspapers.

This is because, in recognition of the key role played by the press in democratic life in Europe, Member States have been able to apply to the press a reduced, even a zero VAT rate. Digital editions are instead subject to standard VAT rates that vary between 15 and 25%.

The Commission has recognised the need to address this disparity in its Communication on the future of VAT adopted last December. We will soon launch a review of the current regulations.

My personal view is that reduced or zero VAT rates should continue to be applied to printed newspapers, and that digital press formats should be granted a similar treatment.

Hopefully, the main reason for not applying reduced VAT rates to online services will wane at the beginning of 2015, when the supply of electronic services will be taxed in the Member State where the consumer is established.

I am convinced that extending the reduced or zero-VAT rates to online publications would be economically beneficial to the providers of on-line news. It would also ensure a level-playing field with other parts of the world such as the United States. But more importantly, it would make it easier to access on-line newspapers for all citizens, strengthening the role of newspapers as an indispensable tool in the education and empowerment of citizens.

I was very pleased to see that ENPA expressed this view very convincingly in its contribution to the Green Paper on the future of VAT.

Let me conclude by saying a few words on the issue of copyright. We all know that copyright underpins investment in quality editorial content.

The fact is, digitisation, far from reducing it, has actually increased the need for copyright protection. Nowadays new business models allow bringing copyright-protected works to much larger audiences. But all too often news content developed and financed by newspaper publishers ends up being used by third parties as an added value for their commercial services.

On this, I am firmly of the opinion that news aggregators and technology platforms need to respect newspaper copyright on the Internet.

Respect of copyright is essential. That is why the European Commission adopted a strategy for intellectual property rights, in May last year. I am working closely with my colleague Commissioner Barnier to prepare the next initiatives on copyright, such as the future instrument on collecting societies and the review of the directive on the enforcement of intellectual property rights.

I will be vigilant, to ensure that there is no weakening of the level of protection for content and that the EU legislation on copyright remains a key tool that sustains newspapers in Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have tried to explain why I consider it essential that newspapers continue to inform, educate and engage citizens in the democratic debate.

You can rely on my support as Commissioner for education and culture to ensure that the conditions are met for the newspaper sector to thrive, so that it can keep fulfilling its invaluable role as a force for democracy, integration and inclusion of all citizens.

Thank you for your attention.

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