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Media Freedom: How to Handle Democracy Cautiously

Laura Saracino in a two-part Roar News x European Horizons collaboration on democracy and the freedom of the press. 

According to the 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, Europe is the most favourable continent for media freedom. Despite RWB global indicator of press freedom worldwide deteriorating by 12% since 2013, Europe has still maintained its position as the leading region worldwide, with nations in the Scandinavian area at the top of the ranking. But the landscape for journalists is changing as the polarization of national politics grows stronger. Furthermore, there is a shadow cast by the unresolved murders of Ján Kuciak, Martina Kušnírová and Daphne Caruana Galizia, three journalists killed in Europe while engaged in investigative work. The crimes went on and off the news but without striking consequences on collective conscience or political actions. Indeed, little is known about the laws and regulations that limit and theoretically safeguard journalists.

The issue of safeguarding journalists is a global problem: data released by the Committee to Protect Journalist shows that 1962 journalists have been killed between 1992 and 2021, 49 of them in the past year, and already five more in the first third of 2021. These numbers are symptoms of a system requiring fast and resolutive actions. The documents published by the European Union are an attempt to take into consideration the variety of potential threats media workers face daily. Crucial for raising awareness are organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists and the aforementioned Reporters Without Borders whose missions are to safeguard journalists and their labour around the globe.

At an institutional level, the working conditions of people involved in investigative journalism, reporting, and freelancing are only a few of the many elements to be aware of. Policies regarding media services, news, codes of conduct and the complex structure of ever-evolving rights and duties may go unnoticed to industry outsiders. Essentially, there are too many variables that it simply seems impossible for all of them to be addressed. Questions of authority domain, supra-national research fields, multi-layered relationships with institutional bodies, and many more are difficult to be addressed constructively.

Nevertheless, those regulations do exist. Whether they are impactful, that is a different question. The latest example of such a policy is the EU Parliament regulation issued on November 15th, 2020 after a plenary session with a single agenda, namely media freedom. Endorsed by almost all the MPs in European Parliament, the document was aimed at highlighting all the problems brought about during the pandemic concerning media workers as well as freedom of speech and information. A noble purpose surely, but with no particular nor an influent power of change. Its main purpose, intrinsic in its nature as a European resolution, is that of providing a guideline for the member states to draw upon for the formation of their national laws. Other than that, it is left as no more than friendly advice.

The regulation, for those who are not familiar with official documents, follows the basic format of a parliamentary resolution. It begins by stating first the articles and previous evidence from which the new document seizes on, and then lists the new points aimed at providing ground for further dispositions.

One of the features that make this document stand out from pre-existing regulations on this issue is the number of times the word “online” appears in the text. Certainly, an element that gives hope; only once the state of affairs in contemporary information and the deep links between online platforms and issues such as fake news, cyber-attacks, defamation, and privacy protection is acknowledged can we truly begin to address them.

Briefly exploring copyright protection guidelines and condemning the concentration of power in the hands of the tech giants, the main body of the regulation is divided into four different sections regarding media freedom, media pluralism and the protection of journalists in Europe (points 1-23); hate speech (24-33); disinformation and the role of platforms (34-45); media literacy (46-51).

Far from adding resolutive points into the discussion, it is limited to the enumeration of current problems and challenges of both journalists and laypersons in gathering, accessing and managing information either online or offline. It is worth noticing, however,  that some of the points can be used effectively to instigate/incite concrete action and open the debate.

Additional elements mentioned in the adopted text denounce the tremendous rise in fake news across online platforms, intensified by the public reactions on social media on the institutional responses implemented against the Covid-19 outbreak. The consequent loss of fact-checking mechanisms as a benchmark for distinguishing between news that is reliable and news that is not, as well as the questioning of authority, competence and trust in expert knowledge, represents one of the current most urgent threat as witnessed during the pandemic unfolding. In other words, the conditions of journalists and the right to reliable information have deteriorated. Exceptional measures adopted by governments and institutions designed to mitigate or suppress media transparency and restrict media access to Covid-19 related information are also responsible for the deterioration in this regard, jeopardizing the role of journalists as democracy watchdogs even further.

The call on public figures to refrain from denigrating journalists in public and on social media as it undermines the trust in media across society is also reiterated several times in the document. Verbal attacks on the media have become a common practice in the age of populist politicians, and it is argued that this has become an obstacle for the media industry in fulfilling its social role. In this framework, the aim to implement a minimum set of common standards into EU member states national legislation for the protection of journalists experiencing any type of threats, whether physical, intellectual, or legal is more pressing than ever. It is worth mentioning the document openly condemns SLAPP practices (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) used to permanently muzzle media workers who are involved in investigative reports on powers that be.

Two notable points must be made. First, the stance against online and offline hate speech needs to be endorsed within a legal framework, starting by taking measures against the deplorable increase in using hate speech in political communications. Internet shaming proliferates due to the anonymity and impersonality features of online platforms, which became environments conducive to diversity-based harassment, discrimination, and violence. Hence the call for policing online spaces as well as providing the removal of online non-verified content and the urge to flag disinformation. Second, it stresses the need to promote media and information literacy to increase the recognition of online threats as well as give an accurate toolkit to better recognise trustworthy sources. This project can be brought about by engaging different age ranges in educational activities, implementing school curricula with media literacy dedicated modules, as well as encouraging and strengthening communication in different languages.

The document highlights converging areas of crisis that combined are affecting the quality, the effectiveness, and the future of journalism. The global public health crisis is a factor further compromising these precarious conditions. European countries in the south and the east of the continent have passed specific laws against false information as a response to the coronavirus related facts, resulting in disproportionate persecution of government critics, tackling freedom of information more than fake news. Instead of being society’s third parties, most crucially in countries where populist governments are rife, journalist are being intimidated into silence and conformity.

It is time for the European Union to prove the leadership capacity it still maintains in the global landscape for media freedom. The importance of information in a democratic society cannot be stressed enough. Misinformation is a fundamental issue permeating all levels of societies and it requires the right degree of attention and action. The right to information is the basis of democracy. Democracy must be handled with care and preserved: the adopted text brings relevant concerns to the fore, now it remains to be seen if it will effectively guide member states in steering a new path or if instead, it will come to nothing.

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