Newsroom / News / Media / Info Magazine LGP NEWS 01/2022 / The EU Commission’s New Rule of Law Report

The EU Commission’s New Rule of Law Report

The EU Commission’s New Rule of Law Report

The European Commission has been publishing annual reports on the rule of law in the Member States of the European Union since 2020. From a legal point of view, it may come as a surprise that these reports do not only focus on the independence of national courts: they also look at media pluralism and media freedom, as well as the fight against corruption. 

Of course, it looks at all the “usual suspects”, but it also subjects all Member States, without exception, to close scrutiny. The report reveals some unexpected findings: for example, in the chapters on the state of the media, the following issues are specifically addressed: media pluralism, the independence of media oversight, transparency of ownership, the transparency and fair distribution of state advertising, political pressure and influence, access to information, the protection of journalists from threats and attacks, and the impact of the pandemic. This approach, which is not strictly law-related, can certainly also be seen as a positive example of a stronger politicisation, or even realism, of the EU Commission’s actions. 

The general assessment of media pluralism is based on the Media Pluralism Monitor 2021, which is produced annually by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom and co-financed by the EU. As in previous years, the Member States where the independence of the media is most at risk continue to be Bulgaria, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Hungary. Austria is a low-risk country in terms of the basic protection of media freedom, although in the three other categories (plurality of the market, political independence, social inclusiveness), the country is given a medium risk rating. As far as the independence of media regulatory authorities goes, progress is noted in some Member States, but the situation in Malta, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Hungary is viewed in a critical light. The situation in Austria (KommAustria, RTR, Press Council) does not come in for any criticism. Several Member States have recently adopted improved regulations on transparency of ownership, including Greece, Finland and Ireland, although a lack of transparency is noted for Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. 

In terms of the transparency and fair distribution of state advertising, the Commission criticises the continuing lack of legislation in many Member States and the absence of transparent regulations and fair criteria for the public allocation of advertising. 

The Commission maintains its concerns in relation to Austria that the large amounts of money allocated to state advertising are not given out in a sufficiently transparent and fair manner, and reiterates its fears regarding the insufficient consideration given to media pluralism. The targeted public financial support to the media sector during the pandemic is viewed as effective, but doubts remain about the objectivity of the criteria used for awarding this. The situation is also considered to be problematic in Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, where a disproportionate share of state advertising contracts is awarded to government-affiliated media companies as well, thus undermining the independence of the media. 

Political influence is increasing across the EU 

However, the Commission also sees political pressure and influence on the media as being facilitated by a lack of regulations protecting against political interference. It also sees this as being exacerbated by the fact that, in many Member States, certain rules allow political stakeholders to hold ownership of media companies. Criticisms include the political disputes over the Czech television regulator and the fact that, in Malta, the two main political parties own their own television and radio stations. In Slovenia, the possible changes to the financing of the country’s public broadcaster and the political pressure on the national news agency come in for criticism, while in Poland the possible takeover of a large private press group by a state-owned oil company is noted. The fact that one of Hungary’s last independent radio stations has had to cease operations is not only mentioned by the Commission in the report, but has even seen Hungary be slapped with infringement proceedings. 

The right of access to information held by public authorities seems to be already regulated by law in every Member State except Austria. However, in many EU countries, including Luxembourg, there are a number of practical problems in effectively enforcing this right, which is so central to democracy. 

The growing number of murders of journalists in recent years renders the increased protection of this professional group a particularly sad necessity. The relevant platforms also show that figures for other crimes are on the rise as well. Assaults by demonstrators or police during public protests are reported in France, Germany, Greece and Poland. Online threats have increased across the Union, particularly affecting ethnic minority journalists. In Slovenia, politicians have also been involved in harassing and threatening journalists. As a consequence, several Member States, such as the Netherlands, Italy, Finland and Sweden, have taken initiatives to improve the protection of journalists. In Austria, there is no specific legal protection for the safety of journalists: the only measure in play is the formation of special police units for their protection during anti-Covid protests. The numbers of insulting and threatening statements made against journalists continue to rise. 

In several EU Member States (e.g. Croatia, Poland), “Strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPPs) have had a major impact, especially on smaller and local media companies. These lawsuits, strategically deployed to intimidate journalists and public prosecutors, are gradually becoming a common sight in Austria, too, and pose a real threat especially to freelance journalists. 

Conclusion: we cannot say that every report issued by the European Commission is easy to read; quite the opposite. That said, the current report on the rule of law is eminently readable and will hopefully also be taken by the Austrian Federal Government as an opportunity to get to grips with much-needed reforms. 


AUTHOR:

Former Federal Minister, Hon.-Prof. Dr. Maria Berger, Senior Expert Counsel at LGP

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