Putting Numbers on Media Freedom in Southern Europe

IPP chapter of the PromethEUs Joint Paper “EMFA: Securing an independent and transparent media sector across Europe” takes stock of the present state of media freedom, plurality and independence in the four countries involved (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain) and provides some pointers as to whether the measures foreseen in the draft Media Freedom Act address the structural and evolving weaknesses of the media sector in these countries. We draw on a large variety of sources and measures of many different dimensions of media freedom, offering comparisons between the four countries and with a European Union benchmark.

We consider the media demand side and institutional environment (press freedom, trust and fake news), the media supply side (media independence, bias, plurality), media governance (media ownership concentration, institutional framework), and industry developments and financial sustainability(digitalization of media, financial performance).

Thus, we find that trust in news media is rather low in Greece, Italy, and Spain, but somewhat higher in Portugal, although all four countries coincide in their citizens’ very low trust in news on social media. Greece and Spain stand out for the frequency of reported exposition to fake news, and in all four countries a large majority of respondents indicated concerns about their effect on the functioning of democracy.

All four countries rank worse than EU average on media integrity and political bias. Greece has the worst score on political independence, perception of media corruption and conditions for self-scrutiny of power, while Spain is perceived to have the highest level of political bias. As concerns media plurality, again Greece is worst placed, while all four countries are below EU average on social inclusiveness.

In the media governance dimension, we find Greece with the lowest press freedom, and both Spain and Greece with lower freedom of expression and higher risk for the press. As for measures concerning ownership, we again have low rankings of Greece on transparency, management, and economic control; of Italy on relations and distribution; and of Spain on risk, legal ownership and management.

Finally, our data confirm that most of news consumption has moved online. While still a large share of respondents obtains news from TV, an even larger share consults the internet, while print news reaches less than a quarter of respondents. At the same time, still very few readers in the four countries are paying for online news. Roughly half of respondents access news through social networks, though significantly more in Greece. Media viability risk is found to be especially high in Greece and Portugal.

Our results are corroborated by the European Union’s 2022 Rule of Law Report, whose country chapters include a qualitative analysis of the institutional frameworks of national media markets.

In our chapter we show that in Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain several issues arise, often at a similar level. An important issue is the perception that the press is often subject to political pressure and not sufficiently independent. The MFA intervenes in this field in several dimensions. First, governments are required to disburse public funds (including advertising) for media transparently and in an objective manner, which is especially important since the financial sustainability of the media in all four countries has been found to be problematic. Governments will also be prohibited to interfere in editorial independence and to use spyware and surveillance tools against journalists.

Furthermore, the MFA strengthens the rules for independence of and plurality of public service broadcasters, with the aim to foster balanced and impartial media coverage. It also touches on the assessment of media market concentrations by increasing the powers of media regulators to intervene in mergers that negatively affect pluralism and independence.

In some of the four countries transparency of media ownership has been found to be low. Here the MFA steps in with a requirement that media organizations themselves must publicly provide this information, though this measure has been criticised as not going far enough.

The independence of national media regulators will be strengthened with the creation of the European Board for Media Services that will work with the Commission and emit opinions on national media topics. This should lead to more convergence between regulatory regimes.

The MFA also introduces obligations for governments to guarantee the fairness of audience measurement systems, whose results are both used to allocate public funds and private advertising expenditure. The European Commission will monitor the media market annually.

As concerns the transition to digital, the MFA foresees that very large online platforms (VLOPs) have additional obligations for justifying the removal of content, though this issue seems already to be covered in the platform-to-business (P2B) regulation.

This said, the MFA only indirectly addresses the challenges for the media landscape in the transition from the traditional media field (with editorial quality control) towards a digital wilderness where anything can be published and where popularity and financial sustainability are determined by virality and not by reliability. As a result, it will not do much in supporting the financial sustainability of quality media outlets.

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