Can a citizen’s initiative force the EU to formally protect media pluralism?

Two NGOs say Europe needs more news sources


Europe lacks media pluralism, say the organisers of the European Initiative for Media Pluralism.  And they’re trying doing something about it.

Their actions to diversify the European media landscape are among the first registered European Citizens' Initiatives. But the group, known as EIMP, faces an uphill climb, needing to overcome both political opposition and smaller than expected number of signatories.

Do the variety of newspapers and magazines on newsstand shelves, ranging from quality broadsheets to niche magazines about RC modelling, suggest that Europe has a problem with media pluralism?

The organisers of the EIMP say yes.

A grassroots effort within the EU machine?

Their success depends on their ability to gather a million signatures from the citizens of the European Union. So far only about 9,000 people have signed on; the formal deadline expires in November. Although the EIMP will seek an extension, the pace of signature collection needs to be hastened for the petition to be considered.

No one knows how the procedure will work once, or if, the signatures are collected. The Commission cannot be forced to propose a law. Even if does, the key support of the European Parliament is not unequivocal, although the people behind the initiative remain optimistic.

Getting political

The EIMP was launched two years ago by two NGOs: Alliance Internationale de Journalistes and European Alternatives. Its name is self-explanatory – the EIMP campaigns for legal protection of media plurality in the European Union. It opposes censorship and seeks to defend freedom of the press.

Lorenzo Marsili from the EuroAlter, and spokesman for the EIMP, explained last year during the launch event in the European Parliament that no state in the European Union can rest on its laurels.

“Even countries with established democracies, such as Great Britain, are not immune to crisis in media landscape,” he said.

Marsili believes that lack of pluralistic media may be one of the most serious threats to democracy.

EIMP says it aims to tackle problems including legal threats to media freedom (such as in Hungary), undue economic influence (United Kingdom) or overlap of political, economic and media interests (Italy, Romania or Bulgaria). Organisations involved also come from Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Portugal. Anna Lodeserto, EU Campaign Coordinator, adds that Austria and Italy have also joined, and cooperation is strong with Germany.

Focus of campaigning varies in different countries depending on local issues. One the strongest is the Hungarian branch, which grew out of the Facebook-based initiative “One million for Hungarian media freedom.”

Beyond the involved organisations, the EIMP received some backing from the politicians, notably Martin Schulz, the EP president and leader of the social-democrats fraction. The list of politicians in favour of the initiative extends beyond the states where it is based.

For now, however, citizens are more important as supporters than politicians. For the EIMP has chosen a novel means of advocacy: the newly-established European Citizens' Initiative.

Taking initiative

Increasingly more civil society groups are exploring this one-year-old procedure. The ECI was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty to improve the democracy in the EU. Citizens have the right to submit an initiative to the European Commission, which is registered if legally sound. Next, the organisers have to collect one million signatures from at least seven member states of the EU within a year, mostly online. Despite some technical issues, thus far it works in theory.

“It is a weak instrument,” says Austrian Green MEP Gerald Häfner, among the creators of the ECI.

“I see it as a first foot in the doors; now you need to push and push.”

The organisers remain confident of the Commission's approval. However, the European Parliament, which together with the Council of Ministers would vote on the proposed law, is divided on the issue. One of the main reasons, according to Giovanni Melogli, is the majority of the centre-right European People's Party in the Parliament. Both Hungarian Fidesz and Italian People of Freedom are members of the EPP. These parties, led respectively by Orban and Berlusconi, are accused by the EIMP of violating press freedom.

Melogli says left-wing, greens and liberal fractions - which in total have got slightly more MEPs than the conservatives - supported the launch of the campaign with some 40,000 euro. But they presently give no money. Melogli adds that the Parliament urged Commission to act in the past and that even within the EPP the opposition to the initiative is not solid.

Hoping and risking

For the political considerations to start, the EIMP needs to collect an additional 990,000 signatures. Melogli remains hopeful that the threshold will be achieved in November, but also adds that the EIMP has applied for an extension due to technical problems of the Commission's website last year.

“A few other ECIs have also lost time and we are cooperating closely with them. Our goals and teams are not in conflict, we are not competing,” stresses Lodeserto.

Even in the case the inititative gets approved by all EU bodies, it is far from certain what its results will be. The organisers are not proposing an actual law. Rather, the formulation of the EIMP's goals is vague. “We demand amendments to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive aiming at protection of media pluralism”, we read. Practice shows that the result might differ wildly from the proposal.

The outcome of the EIMP is uncertain.

But that matters little, argues Ioana Avadani, from the Romanian Centre for Independent Journalism.

“When you start advocacy, you do not expect to win. You hope and you accept the risk," she said in the EP.

“This ECI, if nothing else, will have one million citizens thinking of their media, and that is a lot.”

Tags: print media, politics, media pluralism, media marketplace, grassroots, european union, european parliament, european commission, eu, ep,