Sustainability, pluralism, and trustworthiness of the European media system should be preserved in the light of the soon-to-be-announced digital services act (DSA)
On November 18 2020 the Council of the EU approved conclusions on safeguarding a free and pluralistic media system. The document comes before the EC will announce the DSA in order to complement the package by stressing the key principles for the establishment and operation of a pluralist and stable media system in Europe. The diversity of the different national media landscapes across Europe is an important expression of the cultural diversity of all member states and must be recognised as such. The Council reiterates that during times of crisis sustainable (A), pluralistic (B), and trustworthy (C) media are of utmost importance (these characteristics in fact represent the three pillars of the European media system).
The act depicts the current situation in Europe where the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some of the main challenges of the media sector such as sharp declines in revenues, experienced especially by local, regional and traditional media outlets and increasing challenges to the overall durability of the media sector. In addition, it is stressed that companies that operate in this sector are an expression of Europe’s cultural and linguistic diversity, but often do not have the size of the financial potential to compete in pan-European and global markets. On the other hand, the data-driven business models used by online platforms (i.e. content recommendation engines, personalisation of content, and all forms of targeted advertising) are increasingly outpacing the media’s financing models. Media service providers invest in content production and are subject to strict responsibilities, while online platforms, giving access to third-party content, often profit from this without having to fulfill the same obligations. Such discrepancy could undermine the level playing field which can give some market players competitive advantages over the other.
With respect to this, the EC is tasked to pursue various options for strengthening the economic position of the European media. Among them the creation of effective synergies between European initiatives including the MFF, the ‘Next Generation Europe’ recovery instrument, and other relevant EU programmes are particularly emphasised. Other opportunities in this direction include the regular evaluation of state aid rules and of the application of state aid rules for the press sector among them with a view to making suitable adaptations. Those rules should under no circumstance allow or justify any direct or indirect state interference with the editorial independence of the media. The Media and Audiovisual Action Plan can be a valuable asset to stimulate the adaptation of the media sector to address the digital and the green transformation and foster the availability of diverse and independent media content in a fair and competitive media environment.
The conclusions formulate an approach for the coherent implementation of different European instruments related to online services and the media. They recommend refinement of the responsibilities of online platforms within the Digital Services Act by considering the possible impacts on media pluralism. The new horizontal EU legal acts should be coherent with sector-specific legal instruments in force, such as the Audiovisual Media Services Directive and the Copyright Directive.
Among the proposed measures the importance of advertising for the media sector and its crucial role in ensuring users’ free access to information merits special attention. In conformity with this member states should evaluate advertising regulation and related data protection measures in the digital age to ensure that they facilitate the financing of media content. Research into the impacts of online advertising, the use of data, collaboration around data, and media innovation should be a constant focus. Platforms should take responsibility to adequately remunerate media content providers and authors for the content monetised by platforms and ensure that they respect intellectual property rights. Platforms should be subject to transparency regulations leading to the disclosure of the central criteria for the aggregation, selection, and presentation of media content and their weighting, including information on the functioning of the algorithms used, while respecting trade secrets. The provision of information should be made in a language that is simple, concise, and understandable for users, in order to enable them to make informed decisions. Online platforms with a gatekeeper role should abide by non-discriminatory rules for access and equal treatment for media content providers.
In order to withstand competition, cooperation between media service providers – public and private – should be encouraged. Service providers are free to form alliances to successfully produce and distribute media content of general interest without being dependent on large platforms, while carefully taking into consideration the possible impact on media pluralism.
The Council recommends a “European Media Forum” to be established to discuss current media policy issues among all relevant stakeholders on a yearly basis.
The document explicitly points out that safeguarding media pluralism also means ensuring freedom for users to participate and engage with media content online without fear or risk of harassment. Guarantees for this should be based on the protection of the fundamental core values of a free media system which include protection of freedom of expression, protection from violence and hatred, protection of human dignity, protection of minors and protection of consumers. With regard to the importance of freedom of speech, states and administrative regulatory authorities as well as private platform providers, should abstain from defining quality content or the reliability of content itself. This should not prevent platforms from promoting public communications and announcements in case of crisis or emergency situations.
In order to support trustworthy media across Europe member states should promote the development of structural and procedural indicators for trustworthiness of news and media outlets and thus promote compliance with professional norms and ethics. It is essential for them to work with civil society organisations, researchers, professional journalists and other relevant experts, to develop tools identifying disinformation (i.e. by technical fact-checking processes). All these measures aim to make citizens aware of any concerns regarding the trustworthiness of the given information. Indispensable to these efforts is the creation of European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO). The media observatory is designated to play a prominent role in campaigns that aim at detecting and exposing disinformation across different social networks and digital media, as set out in the EU Action Plan against Disinformation.
In a communication published right after the adoption of the EU Council Conclusions, the European newspaper and magazine publishers welcome the act and support its clear recognition of the vital role the media plays in the European democratic system. Publishers consider the document the appropriate framework that will bring original and high-quality content to Europeans every day and help media outlets compete successfully with tech giants. However, press publishers also warn against the suggested development of indicators for the trustworthiness of news and media outlets as well as the promotion of fact-checkers by the EU or member states. Such indicators, that influence algorithmic decisions on a platform, might have catastrophic consequences for the availability of content and could potentially deprive large groups of users from their news sources.
Compiled by Media 21 Foundation from https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-13260-2020-INIT/en/pdf