Media freedom in times of crisis: growing concerns and unsettled issues in the EU

By Myriam Marino

Poland and Hungary, already protagonists of the dispute connected to the rule of law mechanism of the EU budget in the ending months of 2020, are once again at the center of a question pertaining to rule of law and democracy. 

More precisely, on Wednesday March 10th, 2021, a debate took place in the context of the plenary session of the European Parliament in relation to new potential risks of breaches of EU fundamental rights. This time, concerns were manifested with regard to the freedom and independence of the media and were directed towards three specific Member States: Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.

Last year, the veto on the Recovery Fund was settled, enabling the aid package to proceed with a smooth and fast implementation. On the other hand, apprehension towards the status of media pluralism in the countries under scrutiny does not represent a novelty among MEPs. As a matter of fact, the last concrete attempt to manage the issue was in last November, when the fundamental role of freedom of expression and information within democracies was emphasized in the context of the European Parliament. Over the course of these discussions the alarming conditions of the media environment in a number of Member States emerged, and the focus was put on the effects of media centralization and censorship regarding the safety of journalists and on the work of independent media outlets. This debate eventually led to a resolution, adopted on November 25th, reiterating the European Parliament’s intention to promote media freedom and fight disinformation, encouraging Member States to stick to democratic standards. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that both Poland and Hungary are subject to the procedures of Article 7(1) of the Treaty on European Union due to serious risks of violation of EU fundamental values. 

Nonetheless, one recent specific occurrence has acted as a triggering event and revived existing worries related to weakening media pluralism, namely the shutdown of the Hungarian radio station Klubrádió. While representing the latest development in terms of changes within the country’s media environment, this event is oftentimes represented as part of a long process that, since early 2010s, has progressively resulted in a rather extensive restructuring and centralization of the media market of the country. The official decision in court -taken in September 2020- in favor of a suspension of the activities of the radio station was the consequence of apparent recurrent violations of broadcasting rules, identified by the Hungarian Media Council, which eventually led to the denied renewal of the radio’s license.

As far as Poland is concerned, a similar re-definition of media ownership has recently been brought about by the acquisition of a prominent German newspaper chain from the national energy group PKN Orlen, with the objective to add a “Polish viewpoint” to it. Moreover, worries over Polish media freedom are nowadays predominantly related to the Government’s initiative to introduce a tax on advertising, justifying it as a means to support the health sector during the pandemic. The reaction to the mentioned measure was a national strike of Polish independent media outlets that took place on February 10th.

Finally, concerns on the Slovenian media sector are rising as a result of growing political interference both in the context of public and private outlets, enacted through manipulation and explicit attacks towards journalists, while simultaneously reducing funds to certain outlets.

Contextually to the debate that occurred on March 10th, a majority of the MEPs suggested severe measures to be taken in respect to the involved countries to avoid a deterioration of the situation. Among the suggested proposals the rule of law conditionality was once again called into play, with few MEPs asking for it to be immediately put into effect. If the circumstance of emergency related to the veto enacted by Hungary and Poland required for a fast solution to be reached, the stance adopted now shows a less flexible attitude towards the two countries. On the other hand, however, a number of MEPs perceived the concerns expressed as lacking objectivity and as being influenced by differing political viewpoints. 

Media freedom represents a fundamental principle to uphold within democracies. However, safeguarding this value becomes indispensable in times of crisis. The resolution adopted in November already stressed how a concentrated media environment can lead to increased disinformation and hate speech. Similar consequences, indeed, must be necessarily avoided, particularly in the course of a pandemic. Furthermore, both on that occasion and in the last plenary session of the European Parliament it was emphasized how political actors strongly leverage the health crisis to undermine democratic standards. Therefore, in similar circumstances, MEPs have oftentimes focused on the necessity to ensure that EU funds are not exploited to strengthen state control over the media and/or for pro-government content. Perhaps encouraging the investment of funds in favor of media pluralism and freedom of expression would be a better approach.

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