Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies - European University Institute

World Press Freedom Day 2021: Strengthening pluralism and democracy in Europe

In celebration of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Conference, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom invited several high level speakers to discuss how to combat disinformation in Europe and support media freedom and democracy.

05/05/2021 | News

Last Friday, 30 April, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) organised the ‘Regional Forum for Europe’ for the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day Global Conference. The event, featuring a panel of 11 notable speakers ranging from academics, to European policy-makers to journalists, discussed how to tackle risks for pluralism and democracy in Europe.

Each of the speakers at the forum emphasised the importance of curbing the spread of disinformation, particularly its impact on the integrity of democratic elections. “We have to ensure proper fact-checking, decrease the impact of disinformation by cutting off money to disinformers, increase transparency and access to data,” said Vera Jourova, European Commission VP for Values and Transparency. EP member Ramona Strugariu echoed Jourova’s point, and argued for the implementation of more thorough and efficient media literacy programmes. “Disinformation operates on fear that stems from a lack of education. We need media literacy to give individuals the necessary tools to critically navigate and select from the huge amount of information and disinformation they are exposed to…We need to invest in education to help people not believe everything, but to trust something.”

The panel repeatedly stressed the need for restoring trust in media, particularly independent media at the local level. Teresa Ribeiro, OCSE Representative on Freedom of the Media, stated, “Social media and authoritarian politicians that stigmatise the press contribute to the downgrading of the profession, and threaten the physical safety of journalists.” This distrust has engendered an industry-wide financial crisis. CMPF Director Pier Luigi Parcu detailed how over the last decade the news sector faced a drastic increase in online advertising expenditure, (around 149%), while offline advertising continued to decrease (30%). “If information is a public good, then how do we finance it?” Parcu supposed that in order to sustain a future where information is equal, factual and fairly distributed in Europe, then market, states and civil society must develop a new equilibrium. Other panellists agreed with Parcu’s statements. Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach (Free Press Unlimited) argued that local and independent news outlets cannot compete financially with state-sponsored ones, while Renate Schroeder (Director of the European Federation of Journalists) went as far to claim that, “the news media sector faces market failure. It is in dire need of new economic models. Good journalism can only arise when its investors and protectors are louder than its critics.” Schroeder proposed five potential strategies for protecting the media: offering financial support to freelance journalists, sustaining funding to public media, supporting investigative journalism, establishing EU and national news innovation funds and recognising journalist copyrights.

A large portion of the discussion also centred on the debate of how to regulate large online tech companies who have evolved from their initial roles as curators and disseminators of information to gatekeepers of it. Nicola Frank of the European Broadcasting Union called tech giants “the clear winners” of the COVID19 pandemic. Opening up the conference, Professor Damian Tambini of the London School of Economics claimed that, “press freedom needs to be asserted against control by both the major platforms as well as states.” Jan Kleijssen (Information Society Director, Council of Europe) stressed that online tech and social media

platforms pose significant risks to rights that the EU is supposed to guarantee for all citizens such as freedom of expression and information, and the protection of personal data. Kleijssen argued in favour of a “co-regulation” type of governance that stresses international human rights standards and public oversight to ensure what is harmful and non-harmful content online. The EU is slowly moving away from allowing tech platforms to regulate themselves and determine what is harmful, as in the past, and is instead preparing a set of policies and stricter rules to enforce increased transparency and accountability; including the Digital Service Act and detailed regulations about online political advertising. The Council of Europe is also preparing recommendations to help set the standards for governance in the new digital information ecosystem.

Vaclav Stetka, senior lecturer at Loughborough University, cautioned against developing policies against disinformation that only target online platforms. “We need to recognize that there are importance differences within Europe’s regions that are often over-looked in these debates.” Stetka pointed to how in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, the major sources of disinformation come from state-controlled media networks and news outlets rather than social media.“Policy approaches that are only preoccupied with digital platforms will miss much of the global picture.” Professor Marko Milosavljevič (University of Ljubljana) agreed with Stetka, “we have seen a new ‘iron curtain’ being raised in a number of countries”, particularly among Eastern and Central Europe that ignore the Rule of Law and EU institutions and want to, "establish their own new world order that would significantly decrease media strength and independence.”

In the words of Commissioner Jourova, “Our [the EU] aim is to protect freedom of speech, media freedom, recognize the media’s democratic role, tackle economic and political pressure.” This is no easy task. However, the World Press Freedom Day revealed that policy-makers must develop strategies to combat the spread of disinformation among both online platforms and state-controlled propaganda outlets, restore trust in local and independent media through media literacy, offer economic and financial support to news outlets and continue to regulate and enforce the actions of big platforms to prevent gatekeeping.

CMPF Part-Time Professor Elda Brogi presented recommendations and key takeaways from the Europe Regioinal Forum to the European Commission Plenary on 3 May.

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