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Public service broadcasting under threat in Europe

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 02/05/2017
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Public service broadcasting under threat in Europe

Well-funded and strong public service media are a good indicator that a democracy is healthy – this is the result of a study published last year by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The report notably found that countries that have popular, well-funded public service broadcasters encounter less rightwing extremism and corruption and have more press freedom.

However, the situation on the ground gives rise to concerns: an analysis of the alerts submitted to the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists, since its launch in 2015, shows an emerging trend of threats to the independence of public broadcasters or of their regulatory bodies. A growing number of alerts concern political interference in the editorial line of public broadcasters, insufficient safeguards in the legislation against political bias, or the lack of appropriate funding to guarantee the independence of the public broadcasters.

Independence is key

One problem that I have encountered in a number of my country visits relates to government efforts to influence the independence and pluralism of public service broadcasting. In Croatia last year, I expressed worries about abrupt and numerous staff changes in public service media, as well as allegations of censorship. The request of the government at the time for the termination of the broadcast regulator’s mandate and for the dismissal of its members also raised concerns of political pressure on this body.

In Poland, a reform of public service media took place in 2016, putting public television and radio under the direct control of the government and restricting the constitutional role of the existing media regulator. I had warned the Polish authorities about the lack of safeguards to guarantee the independence of public service media from political influence, in particular with regard to the composition and the selection mechanism of the members of the newly established, parallel regulatory institution, the National Media Council. This reform has already had adverse effects on media freedom, notably on journalists themselves. A list compiled by the Society of Journalists, an independent association, shows that since the beginning of last year, a total of 228 public media journalists have been dismissed, demoted or reassigned, or resigned in protest.

Several alerts registered by the Council of Europe Platform also highlight a number of issues concerning the legislation and practices with regard to the appointment, composition and dismissal of the regulatory bodies or of the management of the public broadcasters, from political appointments in the leadership of public TV channels in Spain to pressure by a political party to replace a member of the Public Broadcaster’s Supervisory Board in Ukraine.

Securing stable and adequate funding  

The system of financing public broadcasters is also of utmost importance since it has the potential of keeping them politically dependent. In my 2015 report on Bulgaria, where the main source of funding is the state budget subsidy, I deplored that the budget of the Bulgarian National Television was significantly reduced, a cut that was seen as a reaction to the public broadcaster’s coverage of the anti-government protests in the summer of 2013.

Financing was an issue in Romania as well, where the Parliament adopted in October 2016 a law eliminating over 100 non-fiscal taxes, including the TV and radio licence fee, which was the main source of funding for public broadcasters. This move was severely criticised by journalists’ organisations, as it would make public service media heavily dependent on the state budget, while the licence fee system was seen as the best way to guarantee the editorial independence of public service media.

The most extreme case was found in Greece, with the government’s decision in June 2013 to shut down the public broadcaster ERT, as part of a cost-cutting effort. While ERT kept broadcasting online, it finally reopened in 2015. By eliminating, even temporarily, public service media the Greek authorities dealt a heavy blow to media pluralism in the country. The Radio and Television of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BHRT) is now facing a similar threat and might be shut down in the absence of an agreed plan for sustainable funding of public service media.

New environment, new challenges

The examples above demonstrate that governments’ attempts to turn public broadcasting into government broadcasting remain widespread. As stressed by the Recommendation (2012)1 of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, in some circumstances a shift is still needed from being the State broadcaster – with strong links to the government, and weaker accountability to the wider audience or civil society – to becoming genuine public service media, with editorial and operational independence from the State.

But this is not the only challenge; adaptation to and evolution in digital environments is another one. Increasingly, public service broadcasting - defined as a service funded by the state or the public with boards appointed by public bodies and which produce and broadcast public interest content - tends to be replaced by the notion of public service media, which includes new forms of communication and platforms, such as the Internet, and not just television and radio.

Public service media organisations face serious challenges in reaching their audiences in a changing media environment, marked by a rapid evolution of new digital technologies, which increasingly dominate the information distribution chain. While some public service media organisations are changing their governance model, investing in new technology offerings and deploying social media strategies, others struggle to reach out to people online despite their high profile in offline environments.

Information v. disinformation

In a context characterised by highly polarised societies, where there is a lack of trust in institutions and “the establishment” and where proliferation of one-sided information or outright disinformation is amplified by social media, the existence of a strong and genuinely independent public service broadcasting is all the more important.

The problem of disinformation will not be solved by restricting content or by arbitrary blocking, but by ensuring that the public has access to impartial and accurate information through public broadcasters which enjoy their trust. The real answer to deliberate misinformation is more media freedom and pluralism, notably by developing good quality public service broadcasting, with high professional standards and by building the trust of audiences through truthful, responsible and ethical reporting.

In a Joint Declaration on freedom of expression and “fake news”, disinformation and propaganda adopted last March, four Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression have restated the importance of having “strong, independent and adequately resourced public service media, which operate under a clear mandate to serve the overall public interest and to set and maintain high standards of journalism”.

A roadmap for public service broadcasting

On all these issues, the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights gives general guidance. While there is no obligation under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, guaranteeing freedom of expression, to put in place public service broadcasting, the Court has indicated that such a service is best capable of contributing to the quality and balance of programmes. Moreover, where a State does decide to create a public broadcasting system, “domestic law and practice must guarantee that the system provides a pluralistic service, (…) transmits impartial, independent and balanced news, information and comment and in addition provides a forum for public discussion in which as broad a spectrum as possible of views and opinions can be expressed” (Manole and Others v. Moldova).

Member states should draw on existing Council of Europe instruments and implement all of the principles and standards contained in the various recommendations to reinforce public service broadcasting organisations. In particular, they should ensure that:

  • legal measures are in place to guarantee their editorial independence and institutional autonomy, and avoid their politicisation;
  • they are provided with sustainable funding;
  • members of management and supervisory bodies are appointed through a transparent process, taking into account their qualifications and professional skills and their duties related to working for the public service;
  • they are provided with the necessary resources to produce quality programmes which reflect cultural and linguistic diversity, paying attention to minority languages.

Public service broadcasting is not only about providing information, education, culture and entertainment, it is also an essential factor of pluralistic communication, one of the main characteristics of a democratic society.

Nils Muižnieks

List of resources

Council of Europe Publications: