Press freedom in the digital era


On the eve of the World Press Freedom Day, the European magazine and newspaper publishers, FAEP and ENPA, organised a Media Lounge Event in the European Parliament to tackle the issue of press freedom in the digital era.
EU legislative framework on audio-visual media was the most discussed topic. Current European legislative proposals in this field, such as the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the E-commerce Directive, the Council Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism and the Data Protection Directive, have the potential to restrict the freedom of expression, in particular online. On 16 March 2007 ENPA communicated the need to the European Institutions to respect press freedom.

Press representatives exchanged their ideas and articulated concerns about regulations that apply to the complex reality of media today. Even if MEP Hieronymi assured that “press regulation is not in the competence of the EU”, the borderline between “press” and the “audiovisual media services”  to be regulated by the AVMS Directive is extremely thin. It will be nearly invisible once “convergence” of publishing operations will be in full swing.

Christoph Keese, editor in chief of the German Sunday paper “Welt am Sonntag” and the online news service “Welt online”, showed how the media landscape is converging. “The artificial distinction between printed and online is disappearing and there is a strong tendency to merge the two fields”. Lately, Axel Springer Publishing has integrated 4 previously independent publications into one integrated newsroom, where more than 400 journalists work both online and for their respective printed editions.

Keese argued that there is no need for a dedicated internet content regulation, since publishing houses will want to extend the self-regulation regimes of their print operations also to their online offerings. User-generated content is moderated by a team of people that prevent border lining.

“Internet is a social space”, reckoned Karol Jakubowicz from the Council of Europe. It requires the same level of protection of human rights, freedom of speech above all, and the same rules which are applied offline. Considering the reach of digital media, he said that there is a strong impact on public opinion and that people should be protected from the risk of being “stygmatized”  online. The most democratic method to assure this protection is to draw upon international convention and practices.

Joao Palmeiro, President of the Portuguese publishing association APImprensa, showed how media regulation in Portugal has changed over a century. Starting as a pamphleth of some pages, regulation rules are now a lenghty book, and the future seems to hold many more pages. He pointed out that the part dedicated to the rights of press freedom has ironically stayed the same, while a number of laws try to “ regulate what they cannot control”. Any attempt of “ruling the digital world with an analogue head is bound to fail”.

The European Parliament’s President, Hans-Gert Poettering, concluded the media lounge expressing his support for a free press in Europe and the rest of the world. He said that democracy and freedom of speech belong together and that the EU is committed to create a legal framework to be fulfilled by responsible people.

If legislation wants to catch up with the increasing complexity of the media, the experience and the opinion of European publishers need to be considered in the political process. Discussions among all actors involved in the audio-visual media regulation process should aim for a deregulation of the media landscape, instead of adding artificial restrictions to freedom of expression.