Press release June 21, 2023
NEW REPORT: Independent Media Organizations Across the European Union Forge New Strategies to Defend Their Vital Democratic Role
As the European media industry is buffeted by financial insecurity, technological change, eroding public trust, and threats from powerful political and business interests, outlets are innovating to defend their independence and provide quality journalism.
WASHINGTON—Amid the twin forces of democratic backsliding and digital disruption, media outlets are finding new ways to sustain independent reporting and defend themselves from the threats that undermine and stifle their work, according to a report released today by Freedom House.
Reviving News Media in an Embattled Europe examines the pressures journalists in six European Union (EU) member states—Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland—face, and how they are responding to defend not only their profession, but democracy at large. News outlets are grappling with major structural challenges that weaken their ability to operate on a solid financial footing and defend journalistic integrity. Economic pressures are hampering investments in diverse content and quality journalism, audiences are defecting to social media platforms, and outlets are losing credibility amid growing polarization and distrust.
Outlets in Hungary and Poland are under acute pressure, as their governments redirect resources to reward favorable coverage and changes in ownership serve to amplify progovernment narratives. This contributes to the greater dismantling of democratic checks and balances, all of it happening on the EU’s watch. The analysis comes as member states debate the proposed European Media Freedom Act (EMFA), which includes important regulatory measures to protect media independence and diversity.
“Free and independent media is a cornerstone of democracy,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Attacks on media in Europe and around the world are a key component of a 17-year decline in global freedom. Amid war and rising authoritarianism, leaders in Europe and beyond must work to ensure that news outlets play a continued, constructive role for democracy, and that media freedoms are defended and bolstered.”
In the face of significant pressure, the report finds several key areas of promise:
- News outlets are developing alternative business models and increasingly turning to their audiences to sustain independent reporting. In the face of growing state capture and control over advertising revenues, independent outlets in Hungary have relied on crowdfunding, microdonations, and membership schemes, or have formed nonprofit foundations to collect donations to improve their bottom line. Some French outlets, meanwhile, have successfully cultivated subscription revenues and have even included their readers as shareholders to diversify their capital.
- Newsrooms are experimenting with new formats and channels to reach and engage diverse audiences. Estonia’s public broadcaster invested in a dedicated Russian-language channel to counter Moscow’s propaganda and deliver independent news to the country’s Russian-speaking population. In Germany, public broadcasters founded an online-only network that engages younger audiences, while reputable outlets have cultivated large followings on TikTok.
- Media outlets are rebuilding trust by renewing their commitment to strong professional and editorial standards. Emerging digital outlets in France and Italy are working to earn credibility by adhering to ethical standards and engaging with their audiences and supporters in more transparent ways.
- Media outlets have found strength in numbers, joining networks to defend themselves in solidarity rather than in isolation. Investigative projects in Hungary, Italy, and Poland employ legal aid, cross-border collaboration, and international advocacy as a safety net against the deluge of frivolous lawsuits designed to intimidate targets and sap their resources.
“The ongoing challenges journalists and media outlets face will require collaborative, cross-sector solutions,” said Jessica White, the report’s author and senior research analyst for Media and Democracy at Freedom House. “This is a critical moment for the European Commission to address media freedom and hold EU member states accountable for systematic attacks on independent media and media pluralism.”
The report provides recommendations that governments, regulators, public institutions, and outlets themselves can take to ensure that the independent media flourishes as a core component of a democracy.
- Address government attacks on free and independent media as a rule-of-law issue in the EU: The European Commission should use all tools available—including monitoring and enforcement mechanisms—to defend media freedom and pluralism as part of its efforts to bolster the rule of law among member states. European legislators should work with civil society to strengthen the EMFA.
- Protect the media’s watchdog role: Public institutions should provide access to information for journalists and ensure that requests are managed efficiently and fairly. Governments should strengthen safeguards for those targeted by strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which stifle investigative journalism.
- Support sustainable independent media: Governments and funders should enable innovative financing models and ease obstacles that complicate outlets’ efforts to achieve nonprofit status. Support should be provided at an arm’s length and should not distort the market to the detriment of public-interest journalism.
- Build trust and credibility: Elected politicians and officials should publicly stand up for the value of a free media in a democracy. Media organizations should demonstrate their trustworthiness through renewed commitments to ethical standards and transparency. Independent regulators and media outlets should provide clear, publicly accessible information about media ownership.
To produce this report, Freedom House conducted nearly 40 online and in-person interviews with a range of media experts and professionals between December 2022 and February 2023. They included academics, representatives of civil society organizations, and media associations. Interviewees within the media industry included outlet founders; editors in chief; news editors; and journalists at broadcast, digital, and print outlets, as well as freelancers.
Click here to read the full report and policy recommendations.
To schedule an interview with Freedom House experts, please contact Maryam Iftikhar at [email protected] or (202) 747-7064.
Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.
Joint Statement on Egypt Civic Space ahead of COP27
July 14, 2022
Hungary’s Inflection Election
March 30, 2022
NEW REPORT: Attacks on Democracy Intensify as Autocracy Spreads in Europe and Eurasia
April 28, 2021