Dear Minister of State,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to participate in this event, and I would like to thank and congratulate the German Presidency for having put media pluralism high on its agenda.
As Chancellor Merkel has just said, the COVID-19 crisis has put attention on the most substantial issues. Media are part of them.
In many countries, we applauded doctors, medical staff and workers in the frontline. Journalists have also been frontliners.
Media are not just an economic sector, they are also the fourth pillar of our democracies.
Today, we live in a paradoxe. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the essential role of journalists. They have been working in the frontline, sometimes putting their safety at risk, to inform us. Readership and audiences are record high. But revenues are record low.
This is not only the pandemic’s fault. It is a longer-term trend that sky-rocketed with the digitalisation and emergence of online platforms. The advertising is moving online, leaving the content creators, journalists, in a difficult situation. Almost half of EU citizens now rely on online news as their main source for information about national and European politics.
This trend puts the local media, those that are the closest to citizens, at special risk.
All this has an impact on our democracies. The weaker the ‘fourth estate’ is, the weaker its ability to watch the hands of those in power - the weaker our democracy.
I have no doubt we need a strong and pluralistic media sector. Unfortunately, we have many reasons to worry. This is what comes out from a research report co-funded by the EU – the Media Pluralism Monitor – that will be published by the end of July.
The Monitor shows that, while digital technologies have created new opportunities to access and share information, they have also brought new risks for freedom of expression and media pluralism. These risks are strongly related to the gatekeeping role of online platforms, their market power, the enormous amount of data and advertising share that they hold. Facebook and Google alone have more than 50% of the online advertising market.
The spread of disinformation on social media is also a major challenge. We must work together to make the digital world and platforms more transparent and more responsible. The digital Wild West with actors like Cambridge Analytica must end. But we have to make sure that the cure is not worse than the disease itself. Measures to fight disinformation cannot undermine free speech.
Chancellor Merkel and I share similar experience in this context – before 1989 we lived in countries where there was no freedom of speech, there was no pluralism of media or even of thought.
This is why, in our approach against COVID-19 disinformation presented last month, we put a great focus on protecting freedom of expression and supporting free and independent media as they are one of the key pillars to fight disinformation. We must not create a Ministry of Truth.
Another worrying trend is the increasing aggression on journalists. We see attacks everywhere across Europe, journalists and media workers being injured during demonstrations. The Mapping Media Freedom platform, as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, has identified 30 alerts related to attacks involving around 50 journalists and media workers covering protests in Europe since the beginning of this year. Authorities have to act and condemn, as it was the case recently in Germany.
Talking to the families of murdered journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak were, believe me, the two most difficult moments of my past mandate as Justice Commissioner. I gave them promises, and I want to fulfil them.
Improving the safety of journalists calls for a strong and joint action.
We need a comprehensive approach for media pluralism.
In September, as part of our new rule of law report, we will present an analysis of the situation of media pluralism for each country in the EU.
Building on this analysis, we will propose measures to strengthen media freedom and pluralism under our European Democracy Action Plan by the end of this year. This plan will also put forward measures related to the integrity of elections, including the transparency of political advertising, and the fight against disinformation.
In parallel, we are working on a dedicated action plan to support the competitiveness and the digital transformation of the media sector and we will clarify the responsibility and accountability of online platforms, notably via the Digital Services Act.
We are also looking at issues related to diversity in the media sector, on screen and behind the scene.
We are determined to continue co-funding a series of projects that support cross-border investigative journalists and provide legal aid to those who need it. This is what the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom in Leipzig is doing.
There are many challenges ahead of us, but I see strong commitment and willingness to make things change and shift up the gear. I welcome in particular the commitment of the German Presidency. On the Commission side – we are ready to act.
To conclude, please let me quote investigative journalist Maria Ressa, a strong fighter for media freedom and pluralism: “Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have. If we can’t hold power into account, we can’t do anything”.