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EU Commission wants to protect journalists from surveillance and censorship

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The EU Commission wants to protect media freedom in Europe. The Media Freedom Act is intended to protect against interference by states and internet platforms.

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Media freedom is not guaranteed in Europe either. State-owned companies are buying into media houses in Hungary and Poland; Public broadcasting is often the target of political influence, which is currently being accused of executives of the NDR in Kiel. In Austria, the so-called advertisement affair caused unrest, the government there financed the press with advertisements. With the Pegasus affair, it became known that within the EU, state actors in Poland, France and Greece had attacked journalists with spyware.

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The Digital Services Act (DSA), which the EU passed in July this year, will oblige platform providers to moderate all content. Cultural politicians had previously fought for professional journalistic content to be exempt from this: freedom of the media should not fall under the terms and conditions of Internet companies.

Many of these conflicts are intended to be resolved by the new Media Freedom Act (MFA) proposed by the EU Commission on September 13. Article 17 of the MFA, for example, addresses the DSA problem: According to this, professional media providers, including journalists, should report their professional status to platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, YouTube or TikTok. The platforms should then treat these accounts more sensitively if they or their content should be blocked or restricted.

Tobias Schmid, Director of the State Media Authority in North Rhine-Westphalia (LfM), says that the DSA should now be dealt with. “The MFA is trying to find a compromise, creating something akin to media privilege.” It is now a question of using this law to ensure that freedom of the media remains guaranteed. In order to counteract undemocratic interventions, the MFA wants to prohibit states from influencing the decisions of the media.

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Tobias Schmid, Director of the Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia, sees a major weakness of the MFA in the lack of sanctions., Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia

Tobias Schmid, Director of the Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia, sees a major weakness of the MFA in the lack of sanctions., Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia

Tobias Schmid, Director of the State Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia, sees a major weakness of the MFA in the lack of sanctions.

(Image: State Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia)

Discussions about the limits of permissible state influence are likely to become intense. In Poland, for example, the state oil company PKN Orlen bought into the Polska Press publishing group – the Polish ombudsman for human rights lodged an objection, which a Polish court rejected. In Hungary, too, the media and the state are often closely linked. From the point of view of media regulator Tobias Schmid, criticism of such conditions could so far simply be dismissed as a political accusation.

The MFA is therefore intended to prohibit states from monitoring, searching, questioning or using coercive measures against media or media workers and their families, unless there is sufficient justification under EU law. Even spyware may only be used against them under the strictest of exceptions. An independent body is to monitor these bans, but it has yet to be created.

Not only large media providers could benefit from the MFA, because it covers the concept of media services very broadly. Full-time creative professionals and journalists should also be considered media service providers on YouTube, Twitch or TikTok and thus receive new rights. Tiemo Wölken, MEP of the SPD, welcomes this: “Protection against state influence or the ban on any surveillance is particularly important, but also protection against arbitrary decisions by platforms through algorithmic curating or deletion of their content.”

The Federal Association of Digital Publishers and Newspaper Publishers (BDZV) and the Media Association of the Free Press (MVFP) have vigorously criticized the MFA draft. Even before the EU Commission presented it, the associations declared: “In this form, the draft would be a ‘non-freedom regulation for the media’ and an affront to the values ​​of the European Union and democracy.” The associations are bothered by the growing influence of the EU and have called for the MFA draft to be revised or dropped altogether.

LfM director Tobias Schmid, on the other hand, thinks that problems are well recognized in the Media Freedom Act, but that there is room for improvement in the approaches to solving them. “The great weakness is beyond the constitutive issues: it is largely unpunished.” From the point of view of press publishers and broadcasters one has to ask oneself: “Can I also enforce my rights? Or just take part in a nice discussion group?” The MFA does not yet contain sanctions or even fines.

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