Sat, 25 May 2024

Press freedom and why it matters to democracy

Must read

by Otmar Lahodynsky, Hon. President, Vienna May 4, 2024

Political and economic pressure on quality media is growing. Austria falls behind in the international press freedom ranking.

The results for International Media Freedom Day on May 3 are bleak: more murders and physical attacks on journalists worldwide, and the rising number of  media professionals in prisone. Competition from digital platforms is making it difficult for quality media to survive economically. In addition, the spread of fake news is increasing and artificial intelligence (AI) is making it more perfidious and even more dangerous for democracies.

Independent journalism is also coming under increasing pressure in the EU. This is why the EU media freedom law passed in March stipulates minimum standards for Member States for the first time: From the protection of journalists and their sources to transparency in media ownership. Fortunately, the European Parliament has removed the original authorisation to monitor journalists in special cases from the law. Measures to protect free elections are also to be strengthened. In the upcoming European elections, anti-EU parties and foreign powers such as Russia and China are working with disinformation. And there are new problems: The new government in Slovakia is converting the public broadcaster into a propaganda tool. In Italy, attacks by the right-wing government on unpopular presenters are on the rise.

According to the 2024 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Austria has no reason to rejoice. In 32nd place, Austria has achieved its worst result to date.

There are many reasons for this: the allocation of advertisements worth millions of Euros by the black-blue government to tabloid newspapers is still pending in court. Despite improvements, the amended Media Transparency Act has not put a stop to this opaque advertising practice. The Freedom of Information Act will apply from 2025, but still allows official secrecy for municipalities with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants.In the new public broadcasting (ORF) Act, the party-political composition of the Board of Trustees and the Audience Council remains unchanged. Daniela Kraus from the Concordia Press Club has made demands for more media freedom in Austria: Safeguarding the independence of the ORF through a genuine reform of its committees, transparent funding and advertising allocation and the protection of journalists from threats on the internet and slapping lawsuits. These proceedings are intended to intimidate investigative reporters with high monetary claims. The new EU regulation only covers cross-border cases; a national regulation is overdue.

There is still no effective concept for the promotion of quality newspapers that is no longer linked to paid circulation, but to other criteria such as the number of jobs for journalists. The current practice of awarding government advertisements in a landlord-like manner must be ended quickly. There are new ideas such as a kind of media money for citizens to support subscriptions to quality media. Professor of journalism Fritz Hausjell, who is also the head of Reporters Without Borders Austria, is missing a comprehensive concept: ‘Those in power are lacking a visionary media policy that will make journalistic media economically viable again in the medium term and thus allow them to act with confidence.’

Media education in schools must also be expanded, as the preservation of independent quality media is essential for the continued existence of democracy.

Otmar Lahodynsky (*1954) is a freelance journalist and Honorary President of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ).

More articles

Latest article