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Ensuring the freedom and independence of Europe’s media in a changing world

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The role of the media in guaranteeing that citizens have the information and tools they need to fully engage with democratic processes has been put into the spotlight in recent years. While the freedom of journalists and media organisations to report the truth has largely been taken for granted in democratic societies, new challenges and difficulties are raising new questions about how these freedoms can remain resilient.

Part of this critical re-think is an EU-funded project that examined media landscapes and policies in 14 European countries. While the media in Europe are generally considered to be “free” and “independent,” like any industry it is nonetheless subject to a certain degree of regulation and legal constraint. The MEDIADEM project studied regulatory systems in these 14 countries to determine how media policies affect media freedom and independence - positively and negatively.

MEDIADEM - or “European media policies revisited: valuing and reclaiming free and independent media in contemporary democratic systems” - sought to understand what actually comprises “the media” in today’s increasingly complex information, political and technological environment. The project’s team of researchers analysed whether public and private regulation of an industry that generally resists being regulated can actually advance a more democratic political frontier.

The timing of the initiative is highly relevant. Recent events in some European countries demonstrate both the fragility of media freedom in Europe, and the responsibilities that media freedom carries. Such episodes have driven a careful reassessment of the age-old tensions between press freedoms, personal privacy, and the role of the government in balancing competing rights.

“We tried to flag key areas of concern in terms of free speech. What we found is that every country has its own unique set of constraints and concerns that the media has to deal with,” says MEDIADEM project coordinator Evangelia Psychogiopoulou of the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy, an independent research and training institute in Athens.

“The constraints we identified and their intensity, of course, vary from country to country” Psychogiopoulou explains. “Yet we achieved closer insights into the type of pressures affecting the media - political, technological, market, economic and regulatory,” she adds.

The MEDIADEM team found that many barriers and openings that journalists have faced for decades - even centuries - have taken on new angles. Access to public information, protection of journalistic sources, the use of technology, public subsidies, ownership of media companies, and penalties for defamation are among the issues that are being recast in a changing world.

In Greece and Bulgaria, for example, the media historically has depended on government support and public advertising to stay afloat, with negative effects on free speech. There, MEDIADEM found good arguments for the traditional media to diversify and find new business models. “The media in Greece and Bulgaria has never been sustainable,” Psychogiopoulou observes. “There has been no sustainable business model. The media in both countries needs to ensure its financial sustainability,” she says.

More challenges lie beyond economic concerns. In Turkey, a variety of political pressures including government censorship, control and oppression of journalists, restrictive defamation laws, and market pressures resulting in precarious working conditions for journalists, have undermined free speech, according to Psychogiopoulou.

MEDIADEM also pinpointed cases where judges have unfairly ruled against journalists. Psychogiopoulou says this indicates that a better balance needs to be struck between free speech and other legitimate public interests such as privacy and defamation.

Besides government regulation, the countries reviewed also feature self-regulation systems for the media, which Psychogiopoulou says is a growing trend in Europe. Some self-regulatory systems work better than others when it comes to applying and enforcing codes of ethics and promoting high professional standards in journalism.

Solutions can be found in creating opportunities for a wide range of players to participate in the crafting of media policies, including the involvement of civil society organisations. Psychogiopoulou says that while media policies are generally in the hands of national-level officials, the Council of Europe and the EU institutions can and should continue to play an active role.

For policy-makers and journalists alike, MEDIADEM has put forth a series of strong policy recommendations and best practices that seek to foster media freedom and independence. These include policies to diversify media content, ensure freedom of expression and the right to information, support the professionalism and autonomy of journalists, and explore “media literacy” initiatives.

“There is a renewed interest in fundamental rights and protecting media freedom,” Psychogiopoulou says. “We need to create a new context for how the media should operate and how journalism should be practiced – a context that is firmly based on protecting fundamental rights,” she concludes.

The impact of MEDIADEM’s findings includes their discussion by the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism set up by European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes in October 2011.

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