For the first time, the Media Pluralism Monitor, which assesses the risks to media freedom and pluralism in the EU and is part of the annual European Commission’s Rule of Law Report, has introduced an overall ranking of member states. This was clustered into five levels of risk, and Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovenia have been identified as countries at “high risk”. In public service outlets in those countries, editorial and governance independence need to be strengthened. Presenting the European Commission’s Rule of Law Report in July, Věra Jourová, the European Commission’s vice president responsible for values and transparency, said it was the developments in Slovenia that prompted the Commission to consider a Media Freedom Act that would apply to all EU member states.

“The report shows that there are deficiencies regarding the protection of journalists, the independence of public media and regulators as well as media pluralism (…). This is a worrying alarm signal,” said Maja Sever, president of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ). Furthermore, she urged the EU Commission “to adopt a strong Media Freedom Act, which would concretely strengthen the protection of journalists and the independence of the media. (…) It should also impose more transparency and full respect for editorial autonomy on the media industry”.

EU’s upcoming Media Freedom Act – what to expect? 

The European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) is expected to be presented in mid-September by the EU Commission, while an anti-SLAPP directive was proposed in April. Strategic lawsuits against public participation – commonly known as ‘SLAPPs’ – are lawsuits filed against journalists, media outlets, and activists. They are regarded as a particular form of harassment against journalists, as the lawsuits typically drag on for years and hence require huge amounts of money and time from the defendant. This phenomenon has been gaining ground in the EU. The EU Commission intends to create effective safeguards in order to prevent such harassment from silencing journalists. According to the EU Commission, alleged defamation is one of the most common reasons why SLAPPs are filed against journalists. 

Various press freedom organizations have high expectations for the proposal on EMFA. According to the Commission, the proposal will focus on eliminating barriers to the establishment and operation of media services. In particular, it aims to complement the recommendation on the protection, safety, and empowerment of journalists, the recently adopted Digital Services Act and the anti-SLAPP initiative to protect journalists and rights defenders from abusive litigation. But what is the situation in the member states?

Media in Slovenia face major challenges 

The Slovenian media has been facing problems for years. Apart from the rather shallow market, Slovenian media had to stem the economic and social transition. They have to deal with a lack of transparent and strategically oriented media ownership, underfunding, faulty regulation and interference in the autonomy and independence of journalists.

The suspension of statutory state funding of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) in 2020 and 2021, attempts to change media legislation and efforts to undermine the credibility of public media and subjugate them to ruling politics under the Janez Janša government lead to concerns by Slovenian and international journalistic associations and the European Commission.

The Commission expressed concerns about media freedom not being respected and issued warnings that Slovenia could follow in the footsteps of Hungary, partly because Budapest was involved in the financing of some of the media with close ties to Janez Janša’s Democratic Party (SDS).

Taking over in June, the Robert Golob government pledged to overhaul media legislation. It has drawn up a bill aimed to depoliticize the public broadcaster RTV Slovenija and boost its independence, but the SDS party has filed for a referendum on the bill, meaning it cannot enter into force for the time being.

Additional strain has been put on the public broadcaster since May of this year by a strike organized by journalists’ trade unions. They demand journalistic autonomy, alleging political pressure and interference in staffing and editorial decisions by the leadership appointed under the previous government and the new director of Televizija Slovenija, who was appointed after the April elections.

The public in Slovenia is losing trust in the media. A survey conducted by pollster Valicon in April showed that the public broadcaster saw the biggest decline in trust among all institutions that experienced a  downward trend,  and that overall trust in the media was decreasing.

Italy’s fall in rankings

In neighboring Italy, the situation is volatile as well. The country has dropped by 17 places in the annual worldwide ranking of press freedom conducted by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), plummeting to the 58th rank out of 180. Following a landmark 2021 constitutional court ruling, prison sentences for libel have been largely abolished. Of concern, however, is the increasing prevalence of SLAPP suits and the rise in  criminal and civil prosecution of alleged defamation.

Croatia: nearly 1,000 SLAPPs against journalists and media outlets

Croatia’s media scene has become diverse and dynamic, but the government is failing to protect journalists against legal attempts to muzzle them. According to RSF, the government itself represents a threat to press freedom in Croatia. Half a dozen national newspapers appear each day, but their ownership is concentrated. Two media companies, Styria and Hanza Media, control three-quarters of the market. The two major private television networks, Nova TVZ and RTL, provide nationwide coverage and compete with publicly owned HTV, whereas most radio stations only have a regional reach.

Working as a journalist in Croatia can sometimes be hazardous. Reporters investigating corruption, organized and war crimes, especially at the local level, are often hit by harassment campaigns. Physical assaults, threats and cyber violence are a major problem. The authorities remain silent. Government interference in the management of HTV persists, the RSF say.

Defamation is a criminal offense in Croatia and is regularly invoked by politicians and business people to discourage journalists’ questions about their activities. In addition, insulting “the Republic, its emblem, its national anthem or its flag” is punishable by up to three years in prison. Even more serious, comments deemed “humiliating” are criminalized. Gag-order lawsuits (SLAPPs) remain a scourge. The RSF’s report states that nearly one thousand legal actions against journalists or media organizations are pending.

According to the Freedom House report for 2022, the media in Croatia is highly polarized. Journalists continue to face threats, harassment, and occasional attacks, which has created an atmosphere of self-censorship. Croatia ranks 48th on the 2022 World Press Freedom Index published on May 2 by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). This is an improvement compared to 2021, when the country ranked 56th.

The situation of press freedom in non-EU countries 

Citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) trust media and religious institutions the most, whereas they trust politicians and political parties the least. These are the results of the study  “Media freedom in BiH in 2022”, jointly conducted by the association BH Journalists and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Although more than 80 percent of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina said they trust the media, many of them believe that political parties and politicians exert a great influence: Two-thirds of respondents believe that political and financial dependence is the main obstacle to media and press freedom.

According to journalists’ associations, media laws in BiH are relatively good, but many media outlets, especially local ones, are financially dependent on political or economic power centers. The advertising industry is among the smallest in Europe, and media literacy is low. On the other hand, defamation has been decriminalized, which undoubtedly has a positive effect on media freedom in BiH.

North Macedonia: widespread misinformation remains a threat 

Compared to last year, North Macedonia has climbed 33 places in the Reporters Without Borders’ media freedom rankings. The country ranked 57th out of 180 countries in 2022, whereas it held place 90 in the 2021 rankings.

According to the report, although journalists in North Macedonia do not work in a hostile environment, “widespread misinformation and lack of professionalism contribute to society’s declining trust in the media, which exposes independent outlets to threats and attacks”.

Regarding the media in a political context, the report notes that transparency of institutions is poor, and due to strong political polarization, the media can be subjected to pressure by authorities, politicians and businessmen. The two largest political parties, the report highlights, have created parallel media systems, through which they exert their political and economic influence. The report points out that judicial abuse of the Law on Civil Responsibility for Defamation incites self-censorship in the media. “Lawsuits are used as a tool for intimidation and pressure on independent media,” the report says.

“Although certain types of media concentration are prohibited by law, the editorial staff of some of the major TV channels are exposed to economic pressures from their owners. State funding is limited and non-transparent, and independent media rely heavily on donors.”

EU member states passive on the deterioration in media freedom

Overall, defamation and self-censorship pose a threat to media freedom and freedom of expression in Europe. Counteracting the deterioration of press freedom and media pluralism continues to be a challenge. EFJ President Maja Sever urged that “too many EU member states remain passive in the face of deteriorating working conditions for journalists and the decline of press freedom.” It remains to be seen how the pending Media Freedom Act will affect this.

This article is published Fridays. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.