This week the European Commission will launch the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) - a milestone in the EU’s efforts to support free and independent media, counter disinformation, and safeguard the integrity of elections.
The Action Plan’s true success will depend on its meaningful and long-lasting impact. The threats to our democracy, to media freedom and to journalist safety are real. And they are big.
A major challenge for the EDAP is to tackle disinformation. This time last year, we could have thought we had seen the worst of disinformation: fuelling extremism, online hate speech and influencing election results. But then came COVID-19. Platforms became online super-spreaders of untruths. People were afraid and vulnerable and sometimes believed “fake news” with tragic consequences. And now that we have news about a vaccine, disinformation about it is spreading almost unfettered online, doing its best to frighten and confuse those hoping for a healthier and happier 2021.
It just takes a click to spread disinformation, but it takes a massive effort to tackle the fallout. As Public Service Media we are part of the solution, offering reliable and trustworthy information to all. During the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences have rediscovered Public Service Media: the EBU’s 2020 News Report, “Fast forward: Public Service Journalism in the Viral Age”, shows that people turned to it in huge numbers for trusted news and information. We work on projects such as the Journalism Trust Initiative to counter online disinformation by making quality news more visible onlineand supporting ethical journalism, and the Trusted News Initiative, a broad media industry coalition to stop the spread of disinformation through actions such as a rapid alert system.
We now call on the EU to help shine a light on accurate and trustworthy information online. The EDAP must result in easier access to quality journalism by supporting prominence of general interest content on online platforms with a clear attribution to its source. We also expect the EDAP to stimulate initiatives to improve media literacy. People need to be better prepared to understand and recognise disinformation. Public Service Media are fully committed to helping support audiences in this regard.
The EDAP’s success in many of its focus areas will be influenced by the strength of the upcoming Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act (DMA).These acts need to include meaningful rules that hold global online platforms to account and that oblige them to shed light on their operations including algorithmic recommendation systems. Without ambitious EU acts, there is a risk to the success of the EDAP’s specific measures to support democracy and to tackle the disinformation challenge in fields such as access to data for independent research, sponsored links to harmful content, abuses by non-human or “troll” accounts and transparency on political advertising.
Separate but equally crucial focus points for the EDAP are media freedom and the urgent issue of the safety of journalists. EBU members are reporting an increasing amount of hostility and even violence levelled against them both physical and online. It is completely unacceptable that journalists going about their job are subject to this level of abuse and threats of violence. All attacks, threats and intimidation against journalists have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression and the watchdog role of the media. Worryingly, threats have increased during the COVID-19 period. To help journalists be safe, the EBU Academy runs training programmes on safety and security skills so that they are prepared physically and mentally to face potential dangers. We are pleased to hear that the EDAP will tackle this important issue and we are certainly ready to get engaged.
We will support the EU as it seeks to protect democratic freedoms. We can all agree that a strong and stable Public Service Media is critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy. On this issue the public demands decisive EU leadership delivered through targeted and effective policies which fix what’s broken and protect freedom of speech.
Further reading: the EBU's views on the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act