Webinar takeaways: How to build independent media to counter political interference?
On 19 and 20 April, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) hosted two webinars on how to build independent media to counter political interference as part of a project funded by the Open Society Foundations. The webinars highlighted the importance of independent media against the background of increased polarisation, disinformation and attacks against journalists and shared good practices, in particular by journalists’ unions on how to counter political pressure.
The EFJ welcomed distinguished speakers, ranging from MEPs and researchers to media consultants and representatives of media councils, journalists’ unions and international organisations. At the end of the two-day webinar, strong calls for a holistic approach on media pluralism and media freedom including a well-functioning EU rule of law mechanism, self-regulatory systems, support for independent public service media and more long-term supports from EU institutions were made.
MEPs Ramona Strugariu (Romania), Yana Toom (Estonia) and Anna Donath (Hungary) discussed why media independence matters, followed by insights into a background paper by Marc Gruber and the project “Illiberal Turn” by Vaclav Stetka.
Renate Schroeder, EFJ Director, welcoming all participants and and moderating the first panel, said: “Political interference has always existed, but all our monitoring shows it is a growing phenomenon. We experience an ‘illiberal turn’ in Europe, where in some countries populist voices are given more space than facts. Journalism as a public good must be protected by all stakeholders including the public for the public’s right to know. ”
Ramona Strugariu said that due to media concentration journalists, freelancers and watchdogs are put under enormous pressure. She called for specific programmes to be implemented in order to help those journalists. As has often been highlighted, with the pandemic, the role of the media to provide trustworthy information has become even more crucial. However, “without media independence, we cannot get reliable information,” Strugariu called on the European Commission to do more and pledged for unity among journalists’ organisations.
Yana Toom pledged for more support for minority media. As a former journalist from the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia she pointed out that even though there is a big Russian minority in the country, there are no newspapers in Russian, meaning that they refer to Russian media. “People are living in different information spaces. This is not only about social inclusion, but it is also a security risk,” Toom said.
In Hungary, as Anna Donath said, the society is extremely polarised, media concentration is on the rise while media literacy is low. There are still some independent media outlets, but according to Donath, the only free public sphere is on social media. “That is why the EU Digital Services Act is so important and online content needs to be monitored and controlled. Now, everyone thinks that the others are reading “fake” news.” Donath emphasised that the protection of media pluralism has to be highlighted at European level as well and that also journalists’ ethics and media literacy need to be improved – not only in Hungary.
Marc Gruber, researcher and media consultant, presented the background study for this project based on findings with interviews and a questionnaire with EFJ unions and associations from the countries discussed in this webinar. The study found that interference and pressures on public service media are by far the most worrying threats. Also, in repressive environments, such as Belarus or Turkey, the legal context is logically linked to political interference. Regarding positive developments, Gruber pointed to 1) efficient self-regulation, such as the UK, Spain, Austria or North Macedonia and 2) actions and campaigns by journalists’ organisations, for example the NUJ’s “Hands off our BBC” campaign or the creation of new media, such as Journo in Turkey.
Gruber also put forward specific recommendations aimed at the European Unions’ institutions and international organisations. One major point, that recurred during the webinars, is the need to follow a more long-term, sustainable perspective and political approach to support independent journalism, rather than short-term projects. Also, more must be done against SLAPPs at a European level, not just in principle, but legally. Gruber stated that collaborations and the exchange of experience and information should continue. The study will be published and made available to the public in the coming weeks.
Vaclav Stetka presented the findings of the project on “The Illiberal Turn: News Consumption, Political Polarization and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe” on the Czech Republic, Serbia, Poland and Hungary. The research shows a strong relationship between the consumption of news media that are under heavy political influence and illiberal attitudes of their audiences on topics such as democracy, immigration or gay marriage as well as with their propensity towards believing in conspiracy theories. Under this condition, more liberal-minded people tend to turn to digital and social media and digital platforms which are seen as a counter-balance to the government-controlled news.
“While digital platforms remain a significant source of disinformation across the CEE region, in many countries the biggest risks to democracy stem from the government and state-controlled media,” Stetka concluded. Over-regulation as part of the fight against fake news could even play into the hands of illiberal governments. Therefore, politically independent PSM remain indispensable to bridge divides and promote democratic values and quality journalism standards.
On the second day, three panels took place. First, Volha Siakhovich from the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), Mustafa Kuleli from the Journalists’ Union of Turkey (TGS) and Sergiy Tomilenko from the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine (NUJU) discussed the situation to build independent media in challenging regimes. Then, Gregor Kucera from the Austrian Gewerkschaft GPA, Marina Tuneva, Executive Director of the Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia, and Joan Barata from PDLI Spain discussed the situation in their countries. Lastly, Elda Brogi and Roberta Carlini from the Centre for Media Pluralism and Freedom and Marie Frenay working for the EC cabinet of Vice-President Věra Jourová discussed EU policies and instruments aiming to ensure media independence.
In the first panel, moderated by Andrey Rikhter, Senior Adviser at OSCE, Volha Siakhovich shed light on the extremely adverse conditions for journalists in Belarus, where “political interference equals state interference” and access to information is highly limited. However, following the 2020 elections, independent journalism proved to be highly professional.
Currently, there are 12 journalists held as political prisoners, yet independent media continue to provide information, blocked websites work through “mirror websites” and telegram channels and, ending on an inspiring note, “the information war is not won by the government” said Volha Siakhovich and urged the participants to “inform your governments, political parties about the situation in Belarus, because there is a lot of disinformation”. Writing letters of solidarity to the imprisoned journalists is also recommended, an updated list is found here.
Mustafa Kuleli emphasised that quality journalism is needed to work through the ongoing catastrophe in Belarus or Turkey. He described three approaches to achieve this. First, training for dismissed journalists is crucial to create opportunities for media professionals lacking, for instance, digital skills. The TGS academy was created six years ago to address this skills issues. Second, financial support to journalists and spaces for quality journalism, such as Journo must be provided. Third, public awareness on the value of journalism must be raised.
“In Turkey, many journalists think they should serve national interests. The young generation doesn’t even know there is another way of doing journalism. We have to fight against this wrong idea. We have to underline it again and again,” Kuleli said. “Data analysis is a great tool to fight polarisation, he added.
Sergiy Tomilenko described that in Ukraine, attacks on journalists and media are frequent, independent media rarely exists and politicians see them as a tool to exert influence and produce propaganda. The main challenges for media and journalists are the country’s context of war and conflict, legislative initiatives by the authorities restricting journalists’ rights, political polarisation, media’s dependence on oligarchs and donors and physical attacks.
“The concept of “patriotic journalism” and the belief of many that we have to write in the national interest is misleading and contrary to the concept of public interest journalism,” said SergiyTomilenko.
He shared various actions, such as the #JournalistsAreImportant information campaign to draw attention to the key role of the journalistic profession, the campaign against the draft law on media, where the president and parliament were addressed through collective letters, the fight against impunity and the anti-crisis plan for economic support of the media, which was discussed in a previous meeting with 200 newspaper editors and officials from the government and parliament. “Local media are the engines of the fight against misinformation and fakes,” Tomilenko highlighted.
Self-regulation was the main theme of the next panel moderated by EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez. In the context of Austria, Gregor Kucera, journalist and union leader from Austria, noted a strong public criticism against journalists and demands to end the funding for the public broadcaster ORF. “It’s daily business for government parties and right-wing parties to attack media freedom. This is further intensified by self-censorship of some media.” However, national and international cooperations, for instance in the case of the Ibiza videos, have improved the monitoring of those in power. Priorities to improve media independence in Austria, according to Kucera, should focus on increasing transparency, solidarity, media literacy and an independent council for all press funding and legal actions.
Regarding North Macedonia, Marina Tuneva stressed the long tradition of political manipulation via pressure and intimidation welcoming some improvements after a change of government. In 2013, a press council was established, which first faced resistance and scepticism, but was gradually accepted. “We realised it was important to have such a body and to include other stakeholders, such as authorities (…) We started receiving press complaints from politicians themselves. Instead of using lawsuits, they started filing complaints,” Tuneva explained. Being part of the dialogue together with journalists’ associations and unions, and being involved in consultation processes when amending or drafting laws has been a big step forward.
Joan Barata said that in Spain there are still many problems when it comes to media freedom focusing on the need for a legal framework for freedom of expression. Judges need to be trained on the role of journalists. Currently, Barata is working on a new toolkit in English for such training. However, laws do not solve all problems related to media independence: political and social culture must be improved beyond the law. “Self-regulation is the best antidote for statutory regulation,” Barata said, as some issues should not be dealt with via statutory regulation.
The last panel, moderated by the EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, explored various European initiatives and policies in countering political interference. Elda Brogi from theMedia Pluralism Monitor, said that media pluralism is an indicator of the level of compliance with the rule of law. She outlined the MPM and stressed the importance of the holistic approach it is based covering many components of media freedom also including working conditions, social inclusion and media viability. We must make use of the monitoring tool to lobby politicians. Roberta Carlini added that since 2019, there are also questions on the digital dimension and its risks to media pluralism. “The main threats come from the economic situation, the disruption of models based on advertisement. This is not new, but it worsened under the pandemic,” she said. Carlini outlined the monitor on media ownership transparency and said that public subsidies need to be directed in a transparent way to help the media in this context.
Notably, the 2020 Media Pluralism Monitor report found either “general stagnation or deterioration in all of the four major areas encompassed by the MPM: Basic protection, Market plurality, Political independence, and Social inclusiveness.” As Marie Frenay from the European Commission elaborated on, the MPM analysis is important “to help define our actions”, which are built on 1) the Democracy Action Plan and 2) the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan. According to Frenay, the safety of journalists is a top priority, with the recent shocking example being from Greece, and self-regulatory mechanisms are supported. As part of the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan, a major focus is on recovery, media pluralism and journalistic cross-border and investigative partnerships. Soon, there will be an interactive platform published to help the sector find new funding opportunities. Another possible measures taken by the European Commission could be a European Media Freedom Act, which has been announced by both EU Commissioner Thierry Breton and Commissioner Vera Jourova.