Stand up for journalism as a public good

Op-ed by Renate Schroeder, Director of the European Federation of Journalists

Europe’s information ecosystem is at a crossroads. Misinformation and filter bubbles, oligarchic media capture and attacks on public-service media, indeed unprecedented attacks on journalists amid their subjection to precarious working conditions—all are leading to a brain drain from the industry. This could have a devastating impact on the quality of journalism and media pluralism, already threatened by ‘click-bait’ profit-seeking and local news ‘deserts’ deemed unprofitable. And generative artificial intelligence cannot fill the gap: it has much potential but carries many risks.

Many international human rights bodies, including the Council of Europe, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) are concerned that the erosion of protections for freedom of expression and media freedom is a key factor in the wider democratic backsliding that Europe has witnessed in recent years. The just-published report “Press Freedom in Europe: Time to Turn the Tide”, the annual assessment of press freedom in Europe by the partner organisations of the Council of Europe Platform for the Safety of Journalists, focuses on issues, which may determine the freedom and integrity of electoral processes. Lack of independence and inadequate funding for public-service media and media regulators, media capture by political or private interests, state surveillance, and SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) all constrain journalists’ freedom to report on matters of public interest.

Spyware surveillance

Journalists across Europe face threats, arrests, restrictive legislation, abusive lawsuits, and verbal attacks by politicians which may be used as an excuse for violence against journalists. The unprecedented use of surveillance mechanisms, including spyware, intimidates journalists—as is its intent—and can deter them from investigating sensitive stories. The Pegasus scandal, exposed by a collaborative network of media outlets led by the international organisation Forbidden Stories, revealed in 2021 that nearly 200 journalists around the world had been targeted with that branded spyware, including in Azerbaijan, France, Greece, Hungary, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

This was the main reason why the European Commission included an important article on protection of journalists’ sources and restriction of the use of spyware in its proposal for a European Media Freedom Act. France fought to the very end for a ‘national security’ exemption in the act, showing the lack of clear commitment by politicians to media freedom.

Thanks to intense advocacy by journalists’, digital-rights, and other civil-society groups, however, this was not included in the final text adopted both by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers a few weeks ago. However, the possibility of spyware being deployed against journalists will still need to be strictly monitored through transparency and judicial control.

Precarious conditions

Hand in hand with the rise of misinformation, the business model for independent journalism is withering and the status of professional journalists is at a low ebb. Precarious working conditions, especially for freelancers, threaten the quality and independence of their work. According to the latest Media Pluralism Monitor from the European University Institute’s Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), only four European countries out of 32 analysed offer good working conditions for journalists: Denmark, Germany, Ireland, and Sweden. The results show a particularly worrying labour situation in Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, and Romania, where journalists who do not enjoy the status of employee often lack adequate social protection.

This precarious status is most apparent in local media. Although these outlets—especially local radio—are the most trusted and important when it comes to debunking disinformation and providing context to national and European news, a recent CMPF study highlights the increasing number of news deserts throughout the EU where such media are no longer available, as well as the related decline in local journalists and deterioration of their working conditions.

Another EFJ report, Sustainable journalism, from local to global: Good practices in Europe”, also sheds light on the many challenges local journalists often face. From job insecurity to precarious contracts and declining wages, they navigate a landscape of obstacles, in comparison to their national and international counterparts. Their independence is also weakened by close ties with local politicians and powerful local businesspeople. Despite these challenges, the report stresses that local media play a pivotal role in driving economic viability. By providing comprehensive coverage of local businesses and economic trends, they arm communities with the knowledge needed to make informed decisions and shape the economic trajectory of their regions.

Trust in journalism

All this has a potentially devastating impact on trust in journalism, the most important currency for the future of the profession. It obliges all who defend democracy to stand with journalists and support holistically journalism as a public good. Indeed, there may have never been a time when accurate reporting was more important.

AI may be seen as a means to transform the information ecosystem. But generative AI in particular carries the risk of increased misinformation and so falling public trust. The use of AI needs to be regulated accordingly, so as to empower journalists to be quicker, more efficient, and more innovative, rather than substituting for their absence.

We need a broad alliance of civil society—readers and listeners, journalists’ organisations and trade unions, and academics—to sustain journalism and convince policy-makers and politicians that, just as environmental protection is urgent to counter the climate crisis, protection of journalists and journalism is essential to resolve the information crisis. Without citizens enjoying the right to know, without accountability and transparency—without ethical journalism, in other words—there is no democracy.

The EU has done more than ever before to create a more safe and sustainable space for journalism, not least by pursuing the European Media Freedom Act. It has supported many projects linked to press freedom and journalistic self-regulation, media deserts, the safety of journalists, cross-border investigative journalism and freelances, as well as social dialogue, skills and training. Altogether, around €50 million per year has gone to media organisations under these rubrics.

This is however not enough. Independent professional journalism, the best antidote to misinformation, is expensive. Audience engagement, new journalistic formats, support for media literacy, and the right use of AI are crucial to making journalism a tool for citizens to connect, debate, learn, and engage in public discourse in today’s polarised societies. But that requires sustainable business models, which guarantee decent working conditions and fair remuneration.

Viable and safe

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), representing 73 journalists’ trade unions and associations in 45 countries, is calling upon EU policy-makers and civil society to stand up for journalism and journalists in Europe. In the run-up to the June European Parliament elections, the EFJ has set out an agenda to make journalism as a public good viable and safe and to regulate AI.

First, the viability of journalism requires:

  • massive investment—combining transparent, arm’s-length public funding, ‘audience wallets’, and philanthropic support;
  • guaranteed independence and sustainable funding for public-service media specifically;
  • taxing Big Tech—guaranteed remuneration by platforms for journalistic content published;
  • fair remuneration and author’s rights for (freelance) journalists, and
  • a permanent EU budget for independent journalism projects, media literacy, monitoring of violations, and other assistance.

Essential to promote the safety of journalists are:

  • an environment that protects them from physical and online violence, in particular women and journalists from marginalised groups;
  • an end to impunity;
  • prevention of abusive legal proceedings, intended to silence journalists, and
  • a stop to the unlawful deployment of spyware against journalists.

Finally, regulating generative AI entails:

  • maximising transparency on the training of data and artificially generated content;
  • mandatory remuneration of authors for AI-generated content using journalistic work;
  • guidelines on responsible development and use of journalistic AI, and
  • making AI integral to journalists’ and other media workers’ training, to prevent any misuse of generative AI and consequent misinformation.

These elections will set the direction for the EU in the next term. We need a parliament and a commission committed to a fair Europe, respecting trade-union and human rights, the rule of law, media freedom and pluralism, and overseeing implementation of the crucial regulatory mechanisms accomplished in the last five years: the copyright directive, the Digital Services Act, the Artificial Intelligence Act, the anti-SLAPP directive and the European Media Freedom Act.

For facts to thrive, we need to join forces to build a healthy information ecosystem. Check out here the EFJ Manifesto, available in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, and Croatian.