Journalists warn German yellow press trying to shape EU’s media law

German yellow press is trying to shape the future European Media Freedom Act, and the European Parliament rapporteur is helping them, the president of the European Federation of Journalists, Renate Schroeder, told a conference in Brussels on Thursday (27 April).

‘Yellow press’ is a predominantly American term used to describe media that often resort to clickbait titles, sensationalism, and scaremongering, similar to the term ‘tabloid’ used in the UK.

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“We feel a strong dominance of German publishers”, Schroeder said, referring to the consultations held by the rapporteur in the European Parliament, Sabine Verheyen (Germany EPP).

She was a panelist at the conference “State of the media in the EU – the outstanding issues”, organised by Bulgarian MEP Elena Yoncheva (S&D) and EURACTIV Bulgaria.

Indeed, a list of entities from which the rapporteur has received input suggests German dominance.

“I am German. I know the level of Bild. They are part of the current regulatory framework in Germany, and It’s definitely yellow press. We have heard very specifically from our colleagues in Poland that (Axel) Springer is putting a lot of pressure on publishers to be in line with what they say”, commented Schroeder.

She complained that Verheyen has refused to meet with representatives of the largest journalistic organisations.

“The main rapporteur from the parliamentary committee on culture did not have time to meet with us. Yes, there was no time, I called her several times,” Schroeder said, adding that even during the parliamentary discussion on the media act, the invited participants were mainly publishers and retired lawyers, and not journalists.

Schroeder said the European Federation of Journalists, which brings together 73 journalist organisations, sees a problem with such behaviour. She complained that the debate on protecting journalists so far had been heavily dominated by German publishers.

“They are afraid that the EU board could control the German national regulatory body, which could affect the media content and how they deal with Russian propaganda, as well as issues with media concentration in Germany, Schroeder added.

In contrast, she praised the European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, who oversees the European Media Freedom Act, for her effort to create legislation that favours journalists rather than publishers.

Tackling Russian propaganda

Jourová, the keynote speaker at the conference, argued that the EU would be much better equipped to deal with Russian propaganda if it had the European Media Freedom Act in place.

She said the Media Freedom Act would create better cooperation between national regulators and the future European Media Board, which will replace ERGA, the existing European regulator, creating new mechanisms for solidarity and dealing with threats.

“We see Russian wartime propaganda created quite a few challenges. I would very much like to have such a board before the decision was made to sanction Russia Today and Sputnik. But we didn’t have anything like that,“  Jourová said.

But she said she was aware of the challenges.

“Let’s not be fooled. Passing this legislation will not be a walk in the park. There are many opponents. Some want to be able to influence the media. Some publishers are benefiting from the current situation. One thing must be clear – the status quo is not an option“, Jourová said.

According to her, the trialogue talks between EU countries, Commission, and Parliament on the media act should start in November and end in April 2024, which probably means the EU media freedom act will not be adopted before the end of next year.

The journalist who inspired the legislation

The Commission vice president said it had been MEP Elena Yoncheva, the co-host of the conference, who inspired her to start work on the European Media Freedom Act. Before entering politics, Yoncheva was one of Bulgaria’s best-known investigative journalists and war correspondents.

In her statement, Yoncheva focused on the need to ensure transparency of ownership of the media and media financing from various sources.

“EU media freedom act shows ambition to protect journalists because we can’t maintain our freedom without independent media and journalistic investigation. In recent years, media freedom in the EU has deteriorated significantly,” Yoncheva said.

According to her, in some European countries, the national legislation is very ineffective and cannot guarantee the protection of journalists.

Bulgarian audience shocked

Bulgarian journalists present at the conference were shocked by the statements of the chairwoman of the Bulgarian media regulator (Electronic Media Council), Sonia Momchilova, who said Bulgarian media were among the EU’s best, apparently disregarding widespread Western views.

“Our media are doing excellently. They meet the highest standards,” Momchilova stated.

The moderator challenged her with an example of a mainstream Bulgarian TV repeating Russian propaganda. In response, she explained that the regulator’s task was to allow the media “not to be completely politically correct” and argued that “there is propaganda on both sides”.

Bulgaria ranks an unenviable 91st in media freedom in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom ranking, which puts it second to last in the EU, ahead only of Greece (108).

The publisher of the independent online publication “E-vestnik”, Ivan Bakalov, voiced a completely different opinion about the Bulgarian media.

“In Bulgaria, the media is controlled and serves political and economic interests,” he said. “Even televisions owned by foreign companies are controlled on the principle: “Why should I buy a television when I can buy several of its bosses?”.

[Edited by Alice Taylor/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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