The new proposal aims to protect the media from political and economic interference, but publishers fear it could hamper their business.
Brussels has proposed a new law to protect deteriorating media freedom and pluralism across Europe, but press publishers say it will have the opposite effect.
The proposal for a European law on media freedom aims to protect newsrooms from interference by political and media moguls and limit the creation of large media conglomerates. The new rules could give media organizations more say in mergers, and media outlets would have to disclose information about their direct and indirect owners.
The Commission's plan for EU legislation is a response to growing threats to media freedom across the bloc. Hungary and Poland have stepped up efforts to control the media amid broader attacks on the rule of law in both countries. The problem is much broader, as journalists in Greece, Slovenia and Malta work under difficult conditions and under pressure from their governments.
"For the first time in EU legislation, we present guarantees for the protection of the editorial independence of mass media," Vice-President of the Commission Vira Yurova said at a press conference on Friday.
The unprecedented move forced press publishers, who had already tried to kill the law during consultations, to take up arms.
"Media regulators can now interfere with a free press, while publishers are alienated from their own publications," said Ilias Conteas, executive director of the European Journal Media Association (of which POLITICO owner Axel Springer is a member) and the European Association of Newspaper Publishers.
"The press has always operated on the basis of the freedom of the publisher to establish its business and to work together with its journalists to bring news and information to the citizens of Europe and the world."
Unlike broadcasting companies, which are overseen by independent media regulators, the press in most EU countries has so far relied on self-regulation in the form of codes of ethics, press and media advice or ombudsmen.
Now the publishing lobby fears that the law could limit their editorial control over their publications. A recently proposed pan-European group of national media regulators is also at the center of their concern: this body, they say, could control their editorial activities.
The commission strongly refuted these arguments, and senior officials argued that, contrary to criticism from publishers, the rules would instead give journalists the best guarantees for making independent editorial decisions.
“For those who say that the EU should not regulate their media space in Europe, we have a message; we believe in the opposite: we need good rules," Yurova said.
Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton stressed during a press conference that there was "absolutely no attempt at a power grab" by the Commission.
The European Council will not enforce compliance with proprietary disclosure rules and potential conflicts of interest that may influence editorial decisions. It will also not control the new rules, according to which editors should have the right to make individual choices, said a representative of the Commission. Instead, if the law is passed as it is currently written, the rules could be used in legal disputes in the courts, but they would not be enforced by media regulators.
"What the council will do is [issuing] some non-binding findings when it comes to [media] concentration, where indeed some print media may be involved, but that's really quite different from saying we're subjecting the press to new regulatory bodies ", said the representative of the commission.
The independent group, which has been used by audiovisual regulators in the past to share standards, will primarily advise the Commission, issue opinions, coordinate possible sanctions against foreign-sponsored propaganda in the media and act as a forum for sharing best practices. This body will include 27 EU national bodies in the field of audiovisual mass media.
Press publishers may criticize the law, but journalists and press freedom associations, as well as broadcasting companies, have largely supported the proposal.
Nearly 20 journalism and press freedom associations, including Reporters Without Borders, the European Union for Civil Liberties and the European Federation of Journalists, said the EU bill should go further to protect the media from undue political and commercial interest.
Noel Curran, director general of the European Broadcasting Union, welcomed the Commission's plan to "address the threats facing the entire media sector, alongside its action to protect the rule of law".
The Commission's plan "is not aimed at getting rid of any good practice or undermining a situation that is already able to guarantee media pluralism and independence," said Maria Luisa Stazi, head of digital markets law at the non-profit organization ARTICLE 19. .
For the publishers and the Commission, this is only the beginning of a long battle, as the plan still has to undergo a thorough review by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, which represent the governments of the member states.