Last week, the European Parliament adopted a proposal for establishing a common framework for media services in the EU market, the European Media Freedom Act (the “EMFA”).

The first of its kind, introduced following concerns about media freedom in some member states including Hungary and Poland, the EMFA aims to protect EU journalists and media outlets from political and economic interference. EU member states will be obliged to protect media pluralism and all forms of state influence on editorial decisions will be banned. Its key objectives can be summarised as follows:

  • Protection of journalists. States will be prevented from forcing journalists to disclose their sources under threat of detention, surveillance, and office raids. The use of spyware will be restricted to the most serious crimes (e.g. those relating to national security) and must be approved by a judicial authority.
  • Editorial independence. Heads and board members of media outlets must be selected objectively and transparently to prevent political interference, and cannot be dismissed before their term in office ends unless they can no longer fulfil their role.
  • Ownership transparency. Media outlets regardless of their size must publish information about their owners in a national database, including whether they are directly or indirectly controlled by a state, to enable the public to know who controls and therefore may influence them.
  • State advertising. Media outlets must disclose funds received from state advertising or state financial support including from non-EU states. Public funds allocated to online platforms must be allocated according to fair and transparent criteria.
  • Media plurality/competition. Dominant online platforms will be prevented from arbitrarily restricting or deleting independent media content. Platforms must distinguish independent sources from non-independent sources. Media outlets will have 24 hours to reply before their content is censored.

The Council of the EU is expected to formally adopt the EMFA without further amendments in the spring, after which it will be published in the Official Journal and come into force 20 days later. It will apply for the most part 15 months after it enters into force (circa the end of 2025), with some provisions applying earlier and later.

In the UK, media laws on state influence predominantly relate to foreign states. For example, the Online Safety Act which recently came into force requires online platforms to take action to minimise exposure to foreign state-backed disinformation. The government also recently announced plans to introduce legislation to prevent foreign states from purchasing UK newspapers. Naturally, there is little impetus for a sitting UK government to introduce legislation aimed at limiting its own influence on media outlets, so we shouldn’t expect any similar laws on media freedom anytime soon.

The EMFA sets the new global benchmark against arbitrary moderation and content deletion by dominant online platforms, an increasingly contentious issue as more and more people consume their news on social media. Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, published its last statement on media plurality in the UK in 2021. It’s due to publish its next review sometime this year, and it will be interesting to see whether it recommends adopting any of the EMFA’s proposals, including on the arbitrary restriction and deletion of independent media content by online platforms.