The European Commission has been asked in a Council of Europe (CoE) report to step up press freedom measures, including appointing a Commission vice president with a media portfolio after the June elections and taking a tougher stance on member states that fail to protect journalists.

The report, Press Freedom in Europe: Time to Turn the Tide, released on Tuesday (March), is an annual assessment by the partner organizations of the Safety of Journalists Platform and the CoE, an international body dedicated to safeguarding human rights, promoting democracy, and upholding the rule of law.

The 2023 report drew attention to the threat of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), the use of spyware, the role of the European Commission, and the lack of regulations or their implementation.

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It specifically suggests the establishment of a Commission vice-president with a clear press freedom mandate and the proper political commitment of resources, staffing and budget to oversee the area after the June 2024 European Parliament elections.

It also calls on the Commission to strengthen its annual Rule of Law reports and to call out those who fail in media freedom obligations while praising those that take measures to reinforce them. The reports should also include measurable recommendations as baselines for subsequent reports.

Spyware

The Commission was also called out for failing to take proper action over spyware scandals that have rocked member states in recent years.

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“The European Commission and the Council of the European Union lack powers, and often political will, to challenge the abusive use of spyware against journalists in EU member states,” the text reads.

The Commission has maintained that safeguarding citizens from spyware is a national competence, a stance criticized by MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, who led the now-completed Pegasus investigation in the European Parliament.

When it comes to national competence, however, the PEGA report, adopted in 2023 by the European Parliament on the use of Pegasus and equivalent spyware, “unequivocally demonstrated that national security has been used as a pretext for EU member states to justify unlawful and intrusive measures against journalists.”

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Moreover, investigations within certain EU member states into spyware use against journalists lacked transparency and legal clarity and failed to provide journalists with a remedy for the abuse.

The report also emphasized the criticism toward the European Commission and the Council for failing to enforce the 2021 Regulation on dual-use technology, which aims to regulate the export of spyware to countries where there is a risk of such technology being used to violate human rights, including the surveillance of journalists.

“Under the Dual-Use Regulation, member states competent authorities are solely responsible for taking decisions regarding export license applications,” a Commission spokesperson told Euractiv last June, stressing that enforcement is a national competence.

The European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), a draft law to promote media pluralism in the EU, on which EU institutions reached a political agreement on 15 December, also included measures to prevent surveillance of journalists, including freelancers, while they work and safeguards the confidentiality of their sources, potentially with the deployment spyware.

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Exceptions to these protections were limited to investigations of specified serious crimes, such as terrorism and murder, requiring prior authorization from a judge or independent authority. Journalists subjected to surveillance will be notified afterward and can challenge it in court.

The most controversial part of this topic was the national security exemption, which was removed in favor of wording affirming that the law respects the national responsibilities of EU countries as defined in treaties.

Online child sexual abuse material

The document reads that the proposed regulation on online child sexual abuse material (CSAM) continued to generate disagreement among member states, as, in its original form, it would empower judicial authorities to ask intercommunication services like WhatsApp or Gmail to scan people’s private messages to find suspected content.

“At the time of the report’s writing, it was unclear if the Regulation would advance further before elections, given such a polarised debate between the potential effectiveness, or even the legality, of the text”, the document reads. The future of the regulation is no less uncertain now, however, after being stuck in the Council for months, the Belgian Presidency recently proposed a new approach.

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There was no shortage of scandals around the file last year, with the Commission using microtargeting ads to promote the draft law or the EU Ombudsman launching an investigation into the potential conflict of interest of two former Europol officials who joined the child protection organisation Thorn, whose connections with the Commission were also questioned.

Digital Services Act

The EU initiated implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA), to be fully enforced by member states by 2024.

According to the 2023 report, “During the second half of the year, there were questions about the speed, transparency, and effectiveness of the social platforms’ response to journalists’ complaints, and the extent to which platforms’ risk assessments and mitigation measures handle media freedom concerns effectively”.

Euractiv reported that some MEPs were concerned that the Hungarian Digital Services Coordinator, a national coordinator that each member state had to appoint to enforce the regulation, may not be independent of the government.

Meanwhile, Meta and TikTok announced at the beginning of February that they are suing the Commission over an annual supervisory fee that companies listed under the DSA must pay.

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Moreover, most member states did not designate a coordinator until the last minute of the enforcement of the regulation on Feb. 17.

Reprinted from euractiv.com.

You can see the original report here.

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Comments ( 1)

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Joseph Swanson
This comment contains spoilers. Click here if you want to read.

So the solution is the fox guarding the hen house? Good luck!

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