“Check against delivery”
Mr President, Honourable Members,
Thank you for including this important issue on the plenary agenda.
Media are not just an economic sector, but an important pillar of democracy and the rule of law. Press freedom and media pluralism are vital to democracy. Independent media play an essential role to help citizens make informed decisions, to fight disinformation and the manipulation of the democratic debate.
That is why, the Commission has included media freedom and pluralism as one pillar of our annual Rule of Law Report, with the first one published last September. The Rule of Law Report assessed in particular the independence of the media regulatory authorities, transparency of media ownership, state advertising, the safety of journalists and access to information.
It looked at the situation in all Member States, including in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. The problems and our concerns were made very clear. We will continue to cover media pluralism and freedom also in this year’s Rule of Law Report which is expected in July.
Each Rule of Law Report is preceded by fact-finding visits in all EU countries, discussions with national authorities and a wide range of stakeholders.
Media is also covered in the Article 7 procedure launched by this house in relation to Hungary. I expect us to soon have an occasion to come back to the Article 7 procedure in the General Affairs Council, where we have to discuss recent developments in relation to media.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown more than ever the essential role of journalists to inform citizens. But at the same time, the media face an economic crisis which started well before the pandemic. More than ever it is time to support the work of the media, not put additional burdens or pressures on them.
This is exactly what the Commission proposed. In December, for the first time ever, we presented a comprehensive approach for the media.
With the European Democracy Action Plan we put the media where they should be: at the core of democracy.
Let me highlight two initiatives in particular that we will present this year: a Recommendation to Member States to improve the safety of journalists and an initiative on tackling abusive litigation – the so-called SLAPP cases: strategic lawsuits against abusive litigation. Very often threats and groundless lawsuits are used to silence free media. We will also take action to increase the transparency of media ownership and of political advertising.
With the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan, which we also adopted in December, we help the media recover economically from the crisis, adapt to the digital transformation and develop new business models. The stronger the economic situation of the media, the easier it is to resist political pressure.
But there should be no political pressure in the first place. Strong leaders are those that gain respect through their actions, that accept diversity of opinions and that allow citizens to be duly informed, not those that try to silence critical voices. In democracy, independent media should do their work and ask questions without fear or favour. Our job, as politicians, is to answer with facts, not with attacks.
Unfortunately, in recent months additional worrying developments have happened. Allow me to name some of them which are just examples of the worrying trends. In Hungary, most notably, we have seen that the independent Klubrádió was denied renewal of its licence on grounds which have raised concerns and it remains off air awaiting the outcome of a new procedure.
In Poland, a draft legislation on an advertising tax targeting media outlets led to black screens as a sign of protest. I spoke about it here in the Parliament after this happened. This draft is now being reviewed and we expect that the voices that raised concerns, will be properly heard.
In Slovenia, continuous attempts to undermine the sustainable funding and the independence of the national press agency and frequent verbal attacks against journalists are also a cause of serious concern.
For each of these cases, the Commission has been in contact with the national authorities and continues to monitor the situation. And let me assure you that the Commission does not hesitate to act when there are issues about the compliance of national laws or decisions with EU rules.
In particular, I would like to highlight that we are analysing closely the transposition of the revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive which introduced, for the first time, new independence requirements for national media regulators.
We will also watch closely the transposition of the modernised copyright framework and continue striving for a level playing field in the online world – this is also the aim of the new Digital Services and Digital Market Acts. This is essential for the sustainability of the media sector, as I already mentioned earlier.
And in the concrete cases at hand we watch for instance the potential impact on telecom and taxation rules.
However, the reality is, as you know well, that the competences of the Commission when it comes to media are very limited. Whilst we will use those competences in a very diligent manner, I want us to identify how we can widen and strengthen the toolbox that the Commission has, from financial support, to regulation and enforcement actions. We need a tool which recognises the role of media as the key players in democratic society. At this moment, we only have the rules which recognise the role of the media as the actors on the European Single Market and this is what is limiting our ability to act.
We will play our role. But governments also need to fulfil their obligations to ensure that media freedom is safeguarded and to enable a healthy environment for media pluralism.
Thank you for your attention.