The best antidote to disinformation is a sustainable media ecosystem


Together with 38 experts, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) participated in a EU High-level Expert Group (HLEG) set up by the European Commission, since January 2018, in order to tackle the phenomenon of so-called “fake news” and disinformation. The final report of this group has been published today in Brussels by the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel.

The EFJ welcomes the final report despite some doubts on some specific proposals.

The report clearly indicates that the real threat is disinformation, not “fake news”. Disinformation is defined as “false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.”

“In our view, the most important outcome of the report, which is the result of a compromise between stakeholders, is the proposed set of actions to safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem,” said the EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez, member of the HLEG. “Public authorities should definitely understand that a sustainable media and journalism sector is the best antidote to so-called “fake news” and disinformation. More than ever before, we need to promote ethical journalism, investigative journalism and much more transparency from those in power, including the online platforms.” 

During the HLEG discussions, the EFJ insisted on the fact that journalists and legacy media can do more to tackle disinformation, but they are far from being the main problem regarding this issue. We believe that the European Commission should focus on the main responsibility of online platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube…) in the distribution and monetization of disinformation. Together with the European Consumer Rights organization (BEUC), we believe that an EU sector inquiry on “social media driven business” would be a useful tool to tackle online disinformation fostered by the platforms advertising revenue policies.

The EFJ also demanded more clarity regarding the suggested independent “multi-stakeholder Coalition” mandated to develop an “European code of practices” on tackling disinformation. Together with the representative of the media employers, the EFJ managed to ensure that journalists organisations will be represented within this “Coalition”; we also ensured that the proposed “Code of practices” will not impose any additional burden to journalists and media outlets, already subject to the existing journalism deontological codes, ethics and standards.

The report states that “initiatives aimed at countering specific problems of disinformation (…), need to be very precisely targeted and formulated to ensure that they do not by accident or design enable public or private authorities to restrict free speech.”

While some governments are adopting restrictive legislation that can encourage censorship (German law on hate speech; announced French law on Fake News…), the EFJ welcomed the global multidimensional approach of the report, based on five pillars:

  1. enhance transparency of online news, involving an adequate and privacy-compliant sharing of data about the systems that enable their circulation online;
  2. promote media and information literacy to counter disinformation and help users navigate the digital media environment;
  3. develop tools for empowering users and journalists to tackle disinformation and foster a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies;
  4. safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem, and
  5. promote continued research on the impact of disinformation in Europe to evaluate the measures taken by different actors and constantly adjust the necessary responses.

The EFJ welcomes in particular the following concrete proposals:

  • the need to support adequate and independent funding for the sustainability of the journalistic profession, including State Aid “for well-defined activities aimed at increasing the long-term economic sustainability of a pluralistic news media landscape”;
  • the fact that EU member States, in addition to existing forms of State Aid (to be maintained), are also encouraged to examine other options like VAT exemptions or other types of tax breaks in order to fund projects supporting quality journalism, non-profit news outlets, journalists’training programs (including digital skills, innovation in news media services, cross-border cooperation and exchanges, etc.);
  • the empowerment of journalists (media companies should equip newsrooms with professional automatic content verification tools; they should deliver training for journalists possibly supported by public funding schemes, etc.);
  • the call to media outlets to invest more in innovation and the call to the European Union to increase R&I funding dedicated to news media innovation (fact checking tools, artificial intelligence, augmented newsrooms, conversation journalism, language technologies and big data for media);
  • abandoning the idea (initially suggested) of any measure aimed at measuring the quality of editorial content (“credibility indexes”, etc.) and the promotion of more objective criteria, like the mentioned “source transparency indicators” to be defined in cooperation with Press Councils and their European organisation, the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE);
  • the fact that the European “Code of Practices”, as regards media organisations, will refer to the existing journalism codes, ethics and standards to guarantee quality in the methods in which news is produced, including guidelines issued by international organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists or national bodies;
  • the call to EU member States to implement rapidly the 2016 Council of Europe Recommendation on the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists.

The EFJ calls on its member organisations, at national level, to consider tripartite negotiations between governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations to improve existing forms of State Aid to the media sector and to discuss VAT exemptions and other types of tax breaks in order to fund projects supporting quality journalism, journalists’ training programs and non-profit news outlets.

Pictures credit: Veni Markovski.