Stand Up for Journalism as a Public Good

Europe’s information ecosystem is at a crossroads. Misinformation and filter bubbles, oligarchic media capture and attacks on public service media, indeed unprecedented attacks on journalists amid their subjection to precarious working conditions – all are leading to a brain drain from the industry.

This could have a devastating impact on the quality of journalism and media pluralism, already threatened by ‘click-bait’ profit-seeking and local news ‘deserts’ deemed unprofitable. And generative artificial intelligence cannot fill the gap: It has much potential but carries many risks.

Many international human rights bodies, including the Council of Europe, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE), are concerned that the erosion of protections for freedom of expression and media freedom is a key factor in the wider democratic backsliding that Europe has witnessed in recent years.

The recently published report “Press Freedom in Europe: Time to Turn the Tide”, the annual assessment of press freedom in Europe by the partner organizations of the Council of Europe Platform for the Safety of Journalists, focuses on issues which may determine the freedom and integrity of electoral processes.

Lack of independence and inadequate funding for public service media and media regulators, media capture by political or private interests, state surveillance and SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) all constrain the freedom of journalists to report on matters of public interest.

Spyware Surveillance

Journalists across Europe face threats, arrests, restrictive legislation, abusive lawsuits, and verbal attacks by politicians which may be used as an excuse for violence against journalists. The unprecedented use of surveillance mechanisms, including spyware, intimidates journalists – as is its intent – and can deter them from investigating sensitive stories.

The Pegasus scandal, exposed by a collaborative network of media outlets led by the international organization Forbidden Stories, revealed in 2021 that nearly 200 journalists around the world had been targeted with that branded spyware, including journalists in Azerbaijan, France, Greece, Hungary, Spain, Türkiye, and the United Kingdom.

This was the main reason why the European Commission included an important article on protection of journalists’ sources and restriction of the use of spyware in its proposal for a European Media Freedom Act. France fought to the very end for a ‘national security’ exemption in the act, showing the lack of clear commitment by politicians to media freedom.

Thanks to intense advocacy by journalists’, digital rights and other civil society groups, however, this was not included in the final text adopted both by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers a few weeks ago. But the possibility of spyware being deployed against journalists will still need to be strictly monitored through transparency and judicial control.

Precarious Conditions

Hand in hand with the rise of misinformation, the business model for independent journalism is withering and the status of professional journalists is at a low ebb. Precarious working conditions, especially for freelances, threaten the quality and independence of their work.

According to the latest Media Pluralism Monitor from the European University Institute’s Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF), only four European countries out of 32 analyzed offer good working conditions for journalists: Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Sweden. The results show a particularly worrying labor situation in Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro and Romania, where journalists who do not enjoy the status of employee often lack adequate social protection.

This precarious status is most apparent in local media. Although these outlets – especially local radio – are the most trusted and important when it comes to debunking disinformation and providing context to national and European news, a recent CMPF study highlights the increasing number of news deserts throughout the EU where such media are no longer available, as well as the related decline in local journalists and deterioration of their working conditions.

Trust in Journalism

All this has a potentially devastating impact on trust in journalism, a crucial currency for the future of the profession. It suggests that all who defend democracy stand with professional journalists and holistically support journalism as a public good. Indeed, there may have never been a time when accurate reporting was more important.

AI may be seen as a means to transform the information ecosystem. But generative AI in particular carries the risk of increased misinformation and, with it, falling public trust. The use of AI needs to be regulated accordingly to empower journalists to be quicker, more efficient and more innovative rather than substituting for their absence.

We need a broad alliance of civil society – readers and listeners, journalists’ organizations and trade unions, and academics—to sustain journalism and convince policy-makers and politicians that, just as environmental protection is urgent to counter the climate crisis, protection of journalists and journalism is essential to resolve the information crisis.

Without citizens enjoying the right to know, without accountability and transparency – without ethical journalism, in other words – there is no democracy.

The EU has done more than ever before to create a safer and more sustainable space for journalism, not least by pursuing the European Media Freedom Act. It has supported many projects linked to press freedom and journalistic self-regulation, media deserts, the safety of journalists, cross-border investigative journalism and freelances, as well as social dialogue, skills and training. Altogether, around 50 million euros per year have gone to media organizations from this title.

However, this is not enough. Independent professional journalism, the best antidote to misinformation, is expensive. Audience engagement, new journalistic formats, support for media literacy and the right use of AI are crucial to make journalism a tool for citizens to connect, debate, learn and engage in public discourse in today’s polarized societies. But that requires sustainable business models which guarantee decent working conditions and fair remuneration.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), representing 73 journalists’ trade unions and associations in 45 countries, is calling upon EU policy-makers and civil society to stand up for journalism and journalists in Europe. In the run-up to the European Parliament elections in June, the EFJ has set out an agenda to make journalism as a public good viable and safe and to regulate AI.

The European Parliament elections will set the direction for the EU in the next term. We need a parliament and a commission committed to a fair Europe, respecting trade union and human rights, the rule of law, media freedom and pluralism, and overseeing implementation of the crucial regulatory mechanisms accomplished in the last five years: the Copyright Directive, the Digital Services Act, the Artificial Intelligence Act, the anti-SLAPP Directive and the European Media Freedom Act.

For facts to thrive, we need to join forces to build a healthy information ecosystem.

Renate Schroeder
Director of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Renate Schroeder joined the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in 1993 and since 2003 she has been working for the EFJ.

Advocacy at EU and Council of Europe level; presentation of EFJ at international meetings, lectures and fact-finding media freedom missions; member of juries of journalistic prizes and supervision of EFJ project work cover her work load in the small dynamic Brussels office.

Renate studied International Relations and Political Science at Boston University (Bachelor’s Degree in 1988) and in Berlin at the Free University (Masters in 1992). She worked at the United Nations, New York, and the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation in Brussels before she joined the EFJ.

She is of German nationality and speaks English, French, Italian, German and Spanish (passive).