Information as a public good: report of the Europe Forum – UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2021

Information as a public good: report of the UNESCO Europe Forum (30 April 2021) to the “Voices from regions” plenary session of the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day 2021 conference (3 May 2021).

The Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom was asked by UNESCO to co-organise the Europe Forum within the global conference for Press Freedom Day 2021 (see here for the programme). The text below is an extended version of the report on the Europe forum given by Elda Brogi to the “Voices from regions” plenary session on 3 May 2021.

In 1997 the Sofia Declaration acknowledged that: “The advent of new information and communication technologies representing new channels for the free flow of information could and should contribute to pluralism, economic and social development, democracy and peace”. 24 years later, today, we still think that the Internet is a terrific tool that allows the diffusion of information and contributes to democracy, but press freedom needs to be asserted, again, against not only the control by the states, but also against the control of online platforms, the giants of the Web. Information, as a public good, must be safeguarded in the online environment as well as offline. 

The UNESCO European Forum for the World Press Freedom Day discussed some of the risks for pluralism and democracy in the new media and information ecosystem. And it did it having regard to the “European way” of doing it, to how European countries, the European Union (Vera Jourova, Vice President Value and Transparency of the European Commission and Ramona Strugariu, Member of the European Parliament), Council of Europe (Jan Kleijssen, Director Information Society/Action against Crime) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (Teresa Ribeiro, representative for Freedom of the Media) are trying to tackle such risks. In addition, some voices from the civil society and the academia were heard as well: Renate Schroeder, representative from the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Mariya Saduskaya-Komlach, Free Press Unlimited (FPU), Nicola Frank of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Vaclav Stetka, Loughborough University, and Marko Milosavljevic, University Ljubljana contributed to an overview of the state of press freedom in Europe, building also on the introductory remarks of Damiam Tambini,  London School of Economics (LSE), and Pier Luigi Parcu, Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (EUI) who set the scene for the discussion.

The main challenges for press freedom and how to tackle them

One of the main issues at stake in the online environment is the spread of disinformation, particularly when it has an impact on the integrity of the democratic debate and on elections. This issue appeared to be particularly pressing in 2020, with the spread of disinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When it comes to tackling disinformation and to regulations for content curation online, public independent oversight and co-regulation has become the preferred type of governance in Europe. As noted by Damian Tambini, self-regulation has predictive weaknesses, depends on incentives and does not set common rules in the region. On the other side, a positive regulatory framework (so called “hard regulation”) brings with it some dangers for freedom of the press. Therefore, the EU is slowly moving away from the idea of leaving to the platforms the task to merely self-regulate and it is preparing a set of policies and stricter rules to enforce increased transparency and accountability for platforms. This includes a Digital Services Act (DSA), an update of the Code of Practice on Disinformation and regulation of online political advertising. The latter addresses the impact of online campaigning on the legitimacy of elections, and asks for an increasing responsibility of platforms, looking at the role of algorithms in issues as the privatization of public debates and the convenience of filter bubbles as business models for platforms. As underlined by Vera Jourova, Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, citizens cannot be treated as common consumers of products in the field of information. 

Among other things, platforms may be asked to prioritize public interest and reliable content: there is a need to strengthen the EU framework in this sense, for example around the meaning of “prominence”. There are challenges for press freedom when defining what is “trusty” and “reliable”: in this sense, the role of fact-checkers and of civil society working on these themes is crucial, and should be empowered. 

The need of framing balanced policy solutions and the need to act in line with the digital single market imply that these governance processes are taking some time: consequently, different EU Member States (e.g., France and Germany) adopted national legislation tackling hate speech and disinformation. There was an evidence-based need to react to these issues and they showed impatience towards the EU self-regulatory measures. Also, the CoE is preparing recommendations that will set the standards for the new governance in the digital information ecosystem.

However,  the emphasis on the online environment should not prevent from stressing that, in particular in some national contexts- that could be defined as “illiberal democracies”- disinformation is not only shared through social media platforms but also through state-sponsored and government-controlled media networks and outlets. The research carried out by Loughborough University’s project Illiberal Turn points in this sense, Václav Štětka outlined: for example, people who watch Tv in Hungary and Poland are more likely to believe conspiracy theories than those finding information online. Therefore, it is particularly important to keep the attention high on legacy media and to support independent media in these contexts: within Europe, the situations are very different from one country to another, so adapting the related solutions is needed, OSCE’s Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro underlined. 

Restoring trust in news media is another crucial objective that needs to be addressed among other things through policy-making. One of the tools to do so is investing in media and information literacy, giving to the citizens the necessary tools to critically navigate and select the huge amount of information and disinformation they are exposed to. In fact, as outlined by the European MP  Ramona Strugariu, disinformation works on emotions and fear, and is less effective on better educated people who are able to discern it and ignore it. As underlined by Jan Kleijssen, media literacy is essential for citizens to understand privacy, and more generally to understand the rights they are entitled to in the online environment: therefore, empowering individuals in this direction is key. 

At the same time, support to independent media and an increased protection of journalists must be ensured: distrust in media has a terrible impact on the safety of journalists online and offline, and on downgrading of the profession. The increasingly difficult situation for the safety of journalists refrains them from continuing in the profession or to even enter the market, especially if they are working for small local media, Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach pointed out. In that respect, the European Union is working on a Media Freedom Act.

Another takeout of the Forum is that being information a public good it must be supported and funded as such. Pier Luigi Parcu, Director of CMPF, noted that in theory media freedom could benefit from the lower costs of digital tools, but this is not what we are witnessing: instead, lower revenues and salaries are increasingly the case in the media sector. 

The news media sector faces market failure and urgently needs new funding models, a mix of private and public as well as increased direct and indirect public support, fully taking into account the respect for editorial independence. In this sense, Nicola Frank from EBU underlined that public service media (PSM) suffer an increasing pressure on their editorial independence, and the pandemic has amplified the challenges: the health emergency was used as pretext for enacting legislations restricting the PSMs independence in various national contexts in the EU. 

To secure the long-term financial stability of journalism, EFJ’s director Renate Schroeder suggested to:

o   Enhance financial support to local media and freelancers;

o  Sustain funding to independent PSMs, researching and supporting innovative mix of funding;

o   Support investigative journalism;

o   Set up EU and national News Innovation Funds;

o   Defend journalists’ fair remuneration and copyrights.

Considering the national peculiarities of the media systems, Marko Milosavljevic of the University of Ljubljana pointed out that a pan-European approach is needed, also referring to a “pan- European financial trust”, to avoid limitations and attacks by national authorities.  

There is no one-size-fits-all solution when addressing the complexity and challenges for freedom of the press, especially in the online environment. But it is not wise to rely on the hope the issues mentioned above will be solved by the market itself: a very basic takeout comes from the Forum, namely compliance of online platforms with human rights standards cannot be left to companies alone. The “European way” to deal with this new information ecosystem is a holistic approach that is betting on new governance tools, and on stronger economic support to journalism, on a vision of a democracy that should not be disrupted, but enhanced, by the digital information ecosystem.