On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2023

As we mark World Press Freedom Day today, the European University Institute acknowledges the critical role that a free and independent media plays in upholding democracy and stresses the need to promote a safe working environment for journalists and media professionals. 

“It is alarming to see the rising levels of insecurity, harassment, and intimidation faced by journalists across the globe,” says Pier Luigi Parcu, Director of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), adding that “the EU has made important progress with initiatives like the European Media Freedom Act, but there is still much work to be done to protect journalists from all forms of interference.” 

Insights from our research for the Media Pluralism Monitor 

Every year, the CMPF team assesses the state of media pluralism with the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM). They examine a wide range of variables and indicators, including the legal, economic, and social environment for media, the diversity of media outlets, and the legal protection for journalists and media professionals. It also looks at the level of independence and professionalism of journalism, the level of transparency and accountability of media ownership, and the overall level of political and economic influence on the media. 

The MPM produces a report for each European country (Member States and candidate countries), as well as an overall report that provides an overview of media pluralism across Europe. The tool is used to inform policymaking and advocacy efforts to protect and promote media pluralism in Europe, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that citizens have access to diverse, independent, and high-quality news and information. 

This year, our research for the MPM is highlighting that working conditions for journalists in Europe are still problematic. Many journalists across the continent face precarious employment, low pay, and limited access to social protection. These deteriorating working conditions are inextricably linked to the general worsening economic conditions of the media industry — an industry that is struggling to find new ways to finance the provision of media content in the digital environment. These economic pressures have significant implications for media pluralism and the free flow of information.  

Vexatious lawsuits, such as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which are set out with little or no chance of success and usually ask a disproportionate amount for damages, also encourages self-censorship and silence journalists.  As an example, a recent survey reported 951 active lawsuits in March 2022 in Croatia, 928 of which relate to defamation charges against publishers, editors or journalists. Some of these lawsuits were strategically raised in large numbers by individuals from public life, politicians and judges. 

Access to information also remains a huge problem in some places, with governments adopting all sorts of strategies to avoid releasing information that is in the public’s interest. 

Although things have gotten better for journalists in some countries since the peak of the pandemic, others, like Serbia, are still facing serious attacks. And it is not just physical assaults – online threats are becoming more common too. 

 In many cases, these difficult working conditions can lead to self-censorship, limited coverage of important issues, and a loss of talented professionals from the industry. It is critical that governments take action to address these challenges and to ensure that journalists can carry out their work safely, independently, and without fear of reprisal. 

Important steps are taken at the EU level 

In this context, it must be noted that the European Union has recently taken important steps to further support and protect this fundamental right. In September 2022, the European Commission unveiled its proposal for a European Media Freedom Act, which aims to safeguard the independence and pluralism of the media across the EU. 

The European Media Freedom Act is a significant development for media freedom in Europe. It recognizes the importance of a free and independent media for democracy, and it seeks to ensure that journalists can carry out their work without fear of harassment, intimidation, or violence. The act also aims to prevent media concentration and to promote diversity and pluralism in the media sector. 

A stronger EMFA needed? Read our paper on the European Media Freedom Act 

Despite these initiatives, media freedom remains under threat in many parts of Europe. Journalists face increasing pressure from governments, political parties, and other powerful actors who seek to control the narrative and silence critical voices. In some countries, journalists have been subjected to physical attacks, harassment, and even imprisonment for their reporting. 

At the European level, it is crucial that the European institutions maintain momentum and utilize the European Media Freedom Act to strengthen support and protection of media freedom. 

The day serves as a reminder that media freedom is a cornerstone of democracy and human rights, and that we must renew our commitment to protect and promote it.