A Loss for Media Freedom at Home plus a Victory in the European Parliament

Labour Party

As Rupert Murdoch seems almost certain to gain control of the 61 percent of BSkyB he doesn’t already own, the vitally important though very thorny issue of media control and media plurality is very much on the UK agenda.

To the shame of the Tory-led government’s Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the detriment of the British people, Mr Hunt intends to permit this £8 billion deal impeded only by a 10 year agreement to hive off the loss making Sky News.

However, we are not the only EU member state to feel the cold winds of such control and repression of freedom.  I have in the past blogged about Hungary where the right-wing parliament is seeking more powers over the media.  The European Commission has attempted to rectify the situation, but with little success.

Accordingly the European Parliament passed a resolution today asking the Hungarian authorities to suspend the implementation of the new media laws and for the European Commission to set a deadline for this.

The text of the main points of the resolution is set our below.

This is a major step forward and demonstrates that MEPs will not sit idly by while media freedom is compromised.

  • Calls on the Hungarian authorities to suspend the implementation of the new media laws, as the government’s 2/3 legislative majority does not give it a right to decide alone in matters of media freedom; and instead start the legislation anew in parity-based discussion forums that include opposition and civil society, with a view of improving the laws also on the basis of the remarks and proposals made by the European Parliament, the Commission, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights, recommendations of the Committee of Ministers and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights;
  • Calls on the Hungarian authorities to restore independence of media governance, with a parity based political composure and participation of journalists associations, while restricting media governance to the audiovisual field, removing its control over press and the internet; restore constitutional safeguards for media pluralism and true judicial overview by appeals to ordinary courts; limit the state interference with freedom of expression concerning balanced coverage to television only; protect investigative journalism by protection of confidential sources, removing news prescriptions and registration as a pre-requisite for operation; respect the country of origin principle enshrined in the Audio-Visual Media Services Directive;
  • Calls on the Hungarian authorities to involve all stakeholders in relation to the revision of the Constitution, which is the basis of a democratic society based on the rule of law, with appropriate checks and balances to ensure the fundamental rights of the minority against the risk of the tyranny of the majority;
  • Calls on the Commission to set a close deadline for the Hungarian authorities to change the law on the points raised by OSCE, the Council of Europe, the Commission and the European Parliament, and shall the deadline not be met, proceed with infringement proceedings;
  • Requests the Commission to submit a proposal for EU legislation on media freedom, pluralism and independent governance before the end of the year, hereby overcoming the inadequacies of the EU’s legislative framework on media, making use of its competences in the fields of the internal market, audiovisual policy, competition, telecommunications, State subsidies, public service obligation and fundamental rights of everyone on EU territory, in order to define at least the minimum essential standards that all Member states must meet and respect in national legislation to ensure, guarantee and promote freedom of information, an adequate level of media pluralism and independent media governance;
  • Calls on the Commission and the Council to ensure that democratic values including media freedom are respected within the EU and remain central to its foreign policy, while continuing to show support to media freedom campaigners inside and out of the EU;

 

The Socialist and Democrat Group is ahead of the Pack on Control of the Media

Labour Party

First we had Silvio Berlusconi and now there’s Viktor Orban and the right-wing Fidesz government in Hungary. Control of the media, who owns it, who works for it and who distributes it – media pluralism in the jargon – is a subject which bubbles away under the surface much of the time in Brussels. However, the Hungarian new media legislation has put the issue very much on the current agenda.

This would perhaps not be such a big story if it wasn’t for the fact that the Hungarian government have just assumed the presidency of the Council of Ministers and are in the process of telling us their priorities for the  next six months.  Many of these seem to me to be very constructive and forward thinking, but unfortunately, they are being obscured by the furore surrounding these highly questionable new media laws.

Today though, the Socialists and Democrats had the pleasure of hearing what the European Commission have been doing to help tackle the issue of media pluralism.  In 2007 the Commission came up with a three stage plan for media pluralism.  The first stage was a working paper that looked at what efforts were being made already to promote media pluralism.  Then they commissioned an independent study to establish the parameters for judging whether a media is diverse and diffuse enough.   The final stage is to be a Commission Communication addressing the issue, but since stage two has only just been completed, this is still to come.

In the meeting we first heard from Mr. Adam Watson-Brown, who is the Head of Unit from the Commission’s task force on media pluralism.  He pointed out that ownership of media providers was only one indication of the plurality of a countries media and not always the most conclusive element since you had to take in to account media licensing and public service broadcasters.  Mr. Watson-Brown also pointed out that new technology was adding further difficulty to the discussion of media pluralism as large and established content providers could expand much faster in to new areas and begin to dominate nascent markets.  This isn’t necessarily sinister, we just need a period of adjustment.

The second speaker was Dr. Peggy Valcke from the Catholic University in Leuven, who was the project leader for the Commissions report on media pluralism.  She spoke extensively about the exhaustive methods used to establish a set of criteria for judging the media plurality of a country.  It was very interesting indeed and far too complex to go into here, but if you fancy an interesting and very technical explanation, you can read the report in full here.

So we wait now for the Communication from the Commission.  Media pluralism is one of the most important aspects of modern democracy.  We need a diverse media providing contrasting views to ensure that citizens can access all the information and form their own opinions.  I hope the Commission can provide some constructive solutions for this difficult problem.

The Political Divide over Press Freedom

Labour Party

silvio_berlusconi_10

Few issues have divided the European Parliament in the way that Silvio Berlusconi has managed to do.  I am talking specifically about his iron grip on the Italian media, though there are, of course other issues – ultra right wing views, corruption and young women from escort agencies – to name but a few. 

While not as gripping as the original debate, the sequel to my original post  shows just how much media pluralism is a left-right issue.  This is not really surprising when you consider that it is the right who concentrate media in their own hands, Rupert Murdoch being a good example to go along side Mr Berlusconi.  I could also cite the Rothermere family, hardly a bastion of progressive thought.  The Guardian/Observer are, unfortunately, hardly in the same league.

I did not, therefore, find it surprising that when we came to approve this week’s agenda for the plenary session of the European Parliament here in Strasbourg, the EPP raised objections to the resolution reported in my post.

They objected first of all to the title of the resolution which had already been changed to include “in the European Union” so that it didn’t refer exclusively to Italy.  The EPP, of course, wanted to take out the reference to Italy all together, prior to their other amendment which was to postpone the whole debate.  However, the EPP lost their chance to take Italy out, largely I think because the majority in the House realise just how poisonous Berlusconi actually is.  Having lost this vote, the EPP then withdrew their call to postpone the vote on the resolution itself.