Report - Media pluralism and media freedom in the European Union - EP Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs

The EU Parliament REPORT on media pluralism and media freedom in the European Union has been published online.

Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
Barbara Spinelli


Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs
  • Rapporteur: Barbara Spinelli
  • Rapporteur for the opinion (*): Curzio Maltese, Committee on Culture and Education
(*) Associated committees – Rule 54 of the Rules of Procedure



Through the adoption of Lisbon Treaty, the European Union has identified itself as a community of values in which human rights represent its cornerstone. Freedom of expression and information is internationally recognized as one of the core elements of the human rights and fundamental freedoms’ architecture. It has been enshrined – among others – in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights. The case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the work carried out by several international organization (UN, OSCE, Council of Europe), has developed and clarified its field of application. Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union has formally broadened its scope by including freedom and pluralism of the media in the domain of protection. Taken together, all these instruments consolidate a precise responsibility of the Member States and the EU itself to fully protect this fundamental human right and, at the same time, to put in place positive measures to proactively promote its progress.

Besides its intrinsic status as human right, freedom of expression and pluralist and independent media perform also a fundamental social role, acting as public watchdog, sheltering citizens from States’ as well as private interests’ abuses and empowering them to actively participate in the democratic life.

The conditions of effective media freedom, pluralism and independence from political pressure and economic interests have been aggravated since the adoption of the European Parliament resolution of 21 May 2013 “on the EU Charter: standard settings for media freedom across the EU”, as stressed by the findings of the 2017 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF)(1) and the conclusions of the 2017 Policy Report of the European University Institute(2).

Threats to freedom of expression and media pluralism are manifold and encompass a wide range of measures put in place both by States’ actors and private parties.

Violence, threats and pressures against journalists

Even in the EU Member States, journalists continue to be the target of deadly attacks. The assassination of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia represents only the last episode in this sense. However, pressures against journalists take different and multi-faceted forms. As highlighted by the European Agency of Fundamental Rights, these include threats of violence; incidents in the context of public assemblies; alleged interference by political actors; pressures to disclose confidential sources and materials; interference through security and intelligence services; as well as financial and economic pressures(3). These factors, coupled with political interferences as well as a high degree of concentration in the media sector, are also expanding the phenomenon of self-censorship, as illustrated by the Council of Europe’s study “Journalists under pressure: Unwarranted interference, fear and self-censorship in Europe”(4). The worsening of the working and economic conditions in the media sector deriving from the economic crisis, together with the emergence of new international actors such as high tech giant or social media platforms able to dominate the online advertising market and with budget cuts operated in some Member States against public service broadcaster, are enhancing precariousness while magnifying self-censorship.

The digital sphere

Digital technologies have undoubtedly provided with new and deeply transformative instruments of participatory democracy, enlarging it in a revolutionary way and enabling citizens to turn from information-users into information-producers. The risk of disinformation implicit in the viral spreading of the internet content, in the difficulties of challenging and correcting it in time, as well as in the censorship power that might be exerted by social media platforms and tech giants, represents the flip-side of that. However, from the perspective of international law, the issue of “fake news” must be approached with extreme caution, keeping in mind that mainstream legacy media have been – and are – equally prone to spread false news, and that prohibition of “fake” or “false” news has often served as an instrument to control the media and restrict editorial freedom. We are cognizant that deceitful information can cause serious harm (damaging individuals’ reputation, violating their privacy), but restrictions on “fake news” are not the solution. Final “truth” and “objectivity” are ambiguous and dangerous concepts. The demand to publish only absolute true reports is not only unrealistic but also illiberal. Moreover, we should bear in mind that the digital age has made the verification of facts easier than it ever was in traditional media: manipulation of digital material can be investigated, if the will is there, and internet has at its disposal the instruments and offers the infrastructure for checking sources and facts. Allowing public officials to decide what counts as truth is tantamount to accepting that the forces in power have a right to silence critical voices. As for “hate speech” or “terrorism”, the notion of “fake news” is too vague to prevent subjective and arbitrary interpretations. Nor would it be reassuring to have private entities like Facebook making these assessments instead of public authorities.

National measures and the Copenhagen dilemma

National security and fight against terrorism are becoming a common thread for the Member States leading to the adoption of legislative acts and other measures bound to have a deep impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms, as proved by the Snowden case and the relevant case-law of the Court of Justice. Recently enacted national laws in various Member States enhancing surveillance powers conferred to security and police forces and secret services, the monitoring of communications and the retention of personal data, risk – without proper due legal guarantees and remedies – to undermine the very essence of the right to freedom of expression as well as other fundamental rights such as, for instance, the right to privacy and data protection.

Similar measures limiting the enjoyment of the freedom of expression and information or the basic functions of free and independent media, as for instance the very existence of criminal defamation laws, have the same potential to corrupt the democratic debate.

Candidate countries must prove to respect, according to article 49 TEU, the EU values listed in article 2 TEU: an obligation enshrined in the Copenhagen criteria. However, no real EU instrument is in place to guarantee the effective observance of human rights and rule of law by Member States, except for the so-called “nuclear option” provided for in article 7 TEU. The political interferences occurred in recent decades in, among others, Italy, Poland, Spain and Hungary prove the need to have a proper EU institutional mechanism of monitoring and redress.


Whistleblowing has been widely recognised as a fundamental aspect of freedom of expression and an essential tool for guaranteeing transparency and accountability of the democratic institutions. The need of an effective whistle-blowers protection has been repeatedly invoked by several international organisations, such as the Council of Europe or the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and by the European Parliament itself. However, a common EU framework is still to be adopted, and various Member States lack an adequate system in this regard.

(1) Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Journalism weakened by democracy’s erosion, 

(2) Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), European University Institute, “Monitoring Media Pluralism in Europe: Application of the Media Pluralism Monitor 2016 in the European Union, Montenegro and Turkey”, 

European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Violence, threats and pressures against journalists and other media actors in the EU, Contribution to the second Annual Colloquium on Fundamental Rights - November 2016, 

(4) Marilyn Clark and Anna Grech, Journalists under pressure - Unwarranted interference, fear and self-censorship in Europe, Council of Europe Publishing, 2017

Source : © European Union, 2018 - EP


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