A European Commission document on media ownership shows it's reluctant to impose EU-wide rules against big companies dominating national markets
The European Commission is hesitant to interfere in national rules against the concentration of media in the hands of big companies or politicians, despite the International Federation of Journalists warning that EU media pluralism is at stake.
Brussels on Tuesday (16 January) released a working paper on "media pluralism in the member states of the European Union," following pressure from the European Parliament and NGOs to address the issue of large media conglomerates - sometimes linked to political forces - owning large shares of national press markets.
MEPs in an April 2004 resolution raised alarm over the situation in Italy - where the then prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi exercised control over virtually all TV channels.
The parliament said that although the Italian situation was unique, media ownership concentration in the hand of big firms and political links to the media was a broader EU trend, urging the commission to draft an EU directive safeguarding media pluralism across the bloc.
But Tuesday's paper reveals a strong reluctance by the commission to engage in the sensitive policy area, merely announcing that Brussels will order a new independent study defining "concrete and objective indicators for assessing media pluralism in the EU member states," with national media landscapes seen as strongly differing in terms of legislation and media culture.
A further commission paper in 2008 "could lead to an evaluation of the opportunity for applying the media pluralism indicators," a statement said, with one commission official saying "this is an open process...we may want to apply this...but it is not the intention of the commission to enter into any action which would not be necessary."
European newspaper publishers said they are "quite satisfied" with the cautious approach taken by Brussels, after concerns that the commission could follow MEPs' push for EU legislation in the area.
Valtteri Niiranen, director of the European Newspaper Publishers' Association (ENPA) said "All EU countries have different rules; most have special cross-media ownership legislation while some apply regular competition policy rules."
"Why should you have some European legislation? From a newspapers point of view, we don't see that there is a problem. Newspapers are still operating at national markets and in national languages."
Mr Niiranen is sceptical about the commission's plan to set up common indicators on media pluralism which, he notes, would run the risk of disregarding national peculiarities. "If there were some European indicators, it is difficult to see how they could take into account all these national differences. They would be quite general in nature," he stated.
But Aidan White, chairman of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), backs the idea of EU action against media concentration, describing the issue as a cross-border phenomenon.
Pointing to the example of Germany's WAZ group owning important shares of the Romanian media market - which has led to complaints in Romania that WAZ also sets the agenda in terms of media content - he asked: "is media ownership therefore just a national issue?
"The answer is no, because it involves transborder media ownership," he stated. "We are seeing increasing concentration of media at the national level, where international companies are involved."
Mr White said the IFJ "welcomes" the commission paper but added it had come only "after more then a decade" of pressure on Brussels to get engaged.
"If something can be done at EU level it would be to tackle this terrible hotchpotch of [media ownership] legislation. We need at least a basic common understanding about how media ownership can be regulated. If this study actually leads to that it would be a good thing".
The IFJ chief pleaded for a "comprehensive package" from the side of the EU which would also tackle the removal of political inluence from public broadcasting services - but he expressed scepticism on Brussels' eagerness to press ahead with the issue.
He said that "the commission remained absolutely silent" faced with the precarious situation of Italian media during the Berlusconi years, while adding that the EU executive currently "does not want to lose friends in the media."