Media Owners Never Hit the Headlines. How Come?

Panagiota Sdoukou, Lina Dahbour, Camilla Falsetti, Lucas Moore, María Migallón, Evelina Nõmme, Louis Toussaint, Yavuz S. Ugurtas

Transparency over media ownership: What is the status quo in Europe?

“Access Info Europe has carried out a research across Europe and we proved that it is impossible to know who is behind the media” says Helen Darbshire, Excecutive Director, Access Info Europe.

According to the Center for Media Pluralism and Freedom “Media ownership concentration remains one of the most significant risks to media pluralism and is seen as creating barriers to diversity of information and viewpoints.”

Unfortunately, there is no generic answer to the question “what is the state of media ownership transparency in Europe”. Over the past years, there were extreme cases of media manipulation unveiled in Europe, which have sparked a debate on media freedom and media ownership.

“The news is bad in Hungary. Vitkor Orban didn’t like what the press was reporting, so he took it over,” writes Pamela Druckerman, Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times.

One of the most infamous cases involves the Berlusconi family in Italy, who in the past thirty years have gathered the control of the three most important Italian television channels (the Mediaset empire) as well as the newspaper Il Giornale. When Silvio Berlusconi was ordained as prime minister, he maintained a tight grip on the national broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI). Together, Mediaset and Rai controlled around 90% of the national audience and advertising revenue shares. Media in Italy became partisan-like, forcing smaller independent media outlets to struggle with their criticism and facing intense scrutiny.

Another example of media manipulation in regard to the independence of Catalonia in Spain – and the degree of variance in the information released depending on the regional location of the media source. Some went as far as spreading false images and tempered data about the illegal referendum of the 1-0.

Citizens and, on a greater scale, our democracies are now at risk. The danger of losing our free press is greater than ever, but more importantly, it is our neglect for the importance of unbiased information that is also in question. We may not like our individual national situations, but merely accepting it and passively being subject to wrongdoing cannot be an option, either.

European citizens have the right to know

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“The civil society has the right to know who is speaking to them,” says Alexander Kashumov, Head of the Legal Team; Access to Information Programme, Sofia, Bulgaria.

When discussing media concentration most citizens will readily think and understand that media may often be exploited to exert political influence and generally shape public opinion. On the reverse side of the coin though, lies the greater risk of this hidden arm that is able to divert people’s actions towards certain given attitudes.

Think of the refugee crisis, immigration, or religious discourse – why is it that some nations are considered more tolerant or more extreme towards such topics than others? Is it mere coincidence that citizens who live in proximity tend to share the same beliefs and opinions? Or could it be that specific communities are being subjected to a direct exposition of particular media and hence guided towards a certain set of reactions?

Certain media outlets may cast their spotlight on a set of given topics, and some may completely exclude others. How can one then explain the existence of media conglomerates, who control extensive segments of the media landscape through mergers and collaborations, in effect garnering an incredible amount of editorial power. How can diversity, plurality and objectivity thrive in such an environment?

Do we, as consumers, even know what goes on in the European media arena?

It is our right to know who serves the news, who produces our shows, and whose voice we are given to hear.

“Media products can affect and influence the way people think, what decisions people take; and so, knowing who is behind the media, or a media enterprise, is key to a transparent society,” says Florian Skrabal, Founder of dossier.at.

Transparency over media ownership is a key feature of a healthy and developed media ecosystem. Furthermore, it is embedded in the value of democracy itself and ought to be a common denominator for the western values supposedly predominant in the European member states.

The under-representation of certain narratives and viewpoints as a result of media concentration can only result in a limitation of scope within the social debate, diminishing its public service. When the media landscape is less transparent and diversified, then the risk of political abuse and editorial dependence increases. Media transparency represents an adequate measurement of democracy and the legitimacy of a public sphere.

“Media transparency is important for those who consume media. If I’m reading a newspaper, or watching television, I would like to know who is providing me with this information,” says Alison Harcourt, Associate Professor at the University of Exeter.

To put it simply, it is a matter of freedom, plurality and democracy to know who stands behind sources of information. Transparency over media ownership is of extreme importance, not only for consumers of media but also, for journalists in the exercise of their duty.

What does the European Union do?

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At the European legislative scale, making real changes and reaching solid improvements will be a long-term investment, one that can no longer be ignored. In a fast-paced industry such as the media sector, no one can afford to lose time – especially not its consumers.

The European Commission has been steadily launching various initiatives in the aim to create a new framework for co-operation on the activities in the information and communication industry, promoting transparency to its citizens.

Commission stresses the need for transparency, freedom and diversity in Europe’s media landscape (Press Release IP/07/52, Brussels, 16 January 2007) and  calls the High Level Group of Media Freedom and Pluralism to answer  “the question of the concentration of media ownership and its consequence for media freedom/pluralism and on the independence of journalists”. The European Council on 12 May 2014 commits that the EU will “Support actions by third countries to improve transparency of media ownership, the adoption of measures against media concentration and fair and transparent licensing allocation as the associated risks have grown more acute in the digital age.”. In the Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)1 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on media pluralism and transparency of media ownership it is clearly mentioned that “States should ensure transparency of media ownership, organization and financing and promote media literacy so as to provide individuals with the information and critical awareness that they need to access diverse information and participate fully in the multimedia ecosystem”

The EU is recognizing the problem but in the Independent Study on Indicators for Media Pluralism in the Member States –Towards a Risk-Based Approach, on 2009 is clearly mentioned that “the regulatory framework cannot ensure transparency of ownership/control of media”. The Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM), the User Guide (UG), which explains how the Monitor can be applied in practice and The Country Reports are only the first steps towards transparency over media ownership in Europe. The MPM 2016 results show that media ownership is still “highly concentrated and non-transparent in many countries” indicating that the problem remains proving the inefficiency of the EU’s actions.

European policy should be geared towards citizens, with the sole purpose of communicating the whole picture of the European media landscape. Brussels and the European Commission has already started the discussion on the lack of transparency over media ownership, but the means available to enforce European policies should also be clearly stated.

The EU should shift from recommendations to legislation and regulations. Transparency over media ownership in Europe is a matter of freedom, is about plurality, and it has become an issue of democracy.

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