The European Commission plans to bring forward to early next year new legislation targeting foreign actors and influence in the European media sphere, officials have indicated, as part of attempts to increase transparency.
The plans are set to be the latest planks of the European Democracy Action Plan adopted by the European Commission in 2020, which seeks to establish a framework for protecting media freedom and pluralism.
Speaking at an event organised by EURACTIV last week, Daniel Braun, deputy head of cabinet for European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourová, indicated that the new rules would be followed by a review of the EADP by summer 2023.
Braun described the EADP as a “reaction to democratic backsliding and trends that had been accelerated by COVID”, such as disinformation and foreign interference.
“We are in a very dangerous situation. People believe less that democracy works for them. Russia is aware of this,” he said.
The new rules will look at increasing transparency on foreign organisations operating in the EU’s media network.
Microsoft’s Cornelia Kutterer described the Media Freedom Act as “the ‘crown jewel’ of the democracy action plan because it goes to the essence of the need to safeguard media pluralism.”
In Europe and beyond, attacks on democratic institutions and fundamental rights are spreading faster than ever, and the spread of disinformation on social media and other media forms has been noticeable during the COVID-19 pandemic and now Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Last month, the Commission presented the European Media Freedom Act, a new set of rules to protect media pluralism and independence in the EU and take account of the digital transformation of the media space into account.
The EU executive also proposed to set up a new independent European Board for Media Services.
“We are not regulating content but ensuring that actors in the information space can mitigate the risks,” said Braun. “This is not a freedom of speech issue but rather a distribution issue,” he added.
“The long-term goal is resilience,” he said, adding that EU legislation relating to the media would not treat it like other economic sectors.
The Commission official added that the Media Freedom Act had emerged because of increased levels of surveillance of journalists in some member states, questionable mergers and acquisitions, and the need for tighter rules on transparency on media ownership and fair distribution of state advertising.
“We want to reach a situation where people can form their opinions free from manipulation. Empowering people to be able to do so, including people who feel frustrated or are on the fringes. It is a major challenge for democracies to deliver for these people.
In separate legislation on European political parties, new draft rules seek to tighten the screw on foreign funding for European parties.
Andris Gobins, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee, urged businesses to be more active in defending democracy pointing to the number of companies still operating in Russia whose taxes were helping to fund its war on Ukraine.
Alexandrina Najmowicz, secretary general of the European Civic Forum, said that “the biggest threat to democracy is people losing trust”, adding that “disinformation is an effect of a loss of trust.”
“Certain populations are more prone to disinformation. If we look at research and opinion polls, it is those who are left behind, on the fringes of society,” she added, pointing to the need for policymakers to focus on ensuring that communities are not left behind.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]