Conference "Media pluralism - how can we deliver?"

19-20 March 2019, Strasbourg

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I am very happy for the Council of Europe to be able to host and organise, together with Reporters Without Borders, a conference on an important and thought-provoking topic of how to deliver on the promise of media pluralism.

Democratic societies are blends of groups, identities, ideas and interests. At times, ideas and interests coincide, at other times they collide, but it is vital that the diversity of societal viewpoints is reflected in a range of independent and autonomous media channels and outlets.

It has long been recognised that a such a multiplicity of media channels – at national, regional and local levels – along with diversity of perspectives helps create an informed, active, and pluralist citizenry.

The users and citizens will only be able to form and express their opinions and make informed choices about their government, if they are exposed to a variety of relevant and credible viewpoints. Furthermore, such variety helps people to understand the complexity of their environment and to empathise with others’ perspectives and opinions. 

Given media’s potential for reaching the broadest audiences and shaping the political agenda, it is not surprising that they are often described as the fourth branch of government. At best, they can inspire mutual understanding and foster social cohesion, at worse, foster hatred and incite conflicts.  

These are preconditions for the flourishing of human rights, the rule of law and democracy, the very values on which the Council of Europe is built and which it is committed to uphold.

It is not surprising that the promotion of media pluralism has for decades featured high on the Organisation’s agenda. Media freedom and pluralism are essential to freedom of expression protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

From this arises a very important implication for the member states, namely a positive obligation to adopt such legislative and regulatory frameworks that guarantee effective pluralism. The Council of Europe, for its part, is continuously working on updating and refining the standards that enable and support pluralist media, states and societies.

Last year the Council’s Committee of Ministers adopted an updated instrument on media pluralism, with a specific focus on transparency of media ownership. Some of you present  here today contributed your knowledge and ideas to the expert committee that prepared the text of what is now Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)1 on media pluralism and transparency of media ownership.

The recommendation is based on the fact that the world has gone digital, and media pluralism needs to follow. Whichever platform is offering information should do so with due regard for pluralism. 

Indeed, the internet has acquired a crucial role in the media landscape. First of all, the sheer scale of online sources – which has turned us all into curators – presents new challenges regarding the findability, but also credibility and quality of information. Secondly, internet intermediaries, especially social media and search engines, are emerging as new gatekeepers of the media.

In fact, the younger generations use social media as their main source of news, followed closely by online news sites.

Diversity is becoming less and less a human editorial choice, and more and more contingent on the design of algorithms, the architecture of digital information environments and the way that content is shared and amplified amongst the users. This may, among other, affect the variety of media sources that individuals are exposed to, and prioritise sources that confirm their existing views.  

That said, not all risks, challenges and conditions for media pluralism have been transformed with the digital transformation. Old challenges remain. It is just as important today as ever to strive for the independence of the media and regulatory authorities; to support strong public service media with the ability to cater to all societal groups; to regulate media ownership and control the unprecedented consolidation that has swept the sector; or indeed to put in place ownership and finance transparency rules to prevent media capture by political and economic interests.

However, these “traditional” requirements have to be complemented with new ones to address, for example, increasing media capture by the online platforms, the spread of online disinformation and hate speech, misuse of personal data for targeted advertising, propaganda and manipulation, or non-transparent content moderation, to  only name a few. The recent events in Christchurch, New Zealand, are a dramatic reminder of terrorists’ abuse of social media.

The entirety of factors that influence media pluralism need to be closely monitored and their individual and aggregate impact researched and carefully considered, if we are to elaborate effective responses to this multitude of challenges that go beyond the media pluralism debate and touch upon the core issues of democracy.

In this connection, the role of media regulatory institutions needs to be adapted to the digital age. They must have appropriate competences and powers, as well as adequate resources to continue safeguarding freedom of expression, the fair distribution of opinion power and public opinion forming.

The Recommendation on media pluralism offers the states and media stakeholders guidelines on the goals and means for achieving diversity of sources and information, assuring their visibility across different platforms and exposing them to the widest possible audience.

 

The recommendation recognises lifelong media education as a helping resource for the public in the complex and entangled world of media. Educational content should enable people of all ages the skills to access and manage all media, including and especially online media.

I am convinced that more concerted efforts are necessary in this area, and look forward to the conclusions of yesterday's events and today’s conference to show us which approaches work, what is the impact of individual programmes and how we can learn to better navigate the digital media environment.

In this context, allow me to add a few words on the latest developments. We have recently organised, together with the Finnish Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, a conference on the impacts of artificial intelligence development on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, where one of the main messages was that AI should be developed in a human-centric manner to produce benefits for individuals and societies.

To this end, a number of measures need to be introduced, most importantly, on the one side, effective supervision and oversight over the AI systems in all stages of their design and implementation, and on the other side, development of new skills and competences that will allow the public to identify and manage AI-related risks.

Policy responses to AI rightly are at the top of the governments’ and Council of Europe’s political agendas - and will certainly have major implications for media pluralism, among many other areas.

Let me conclude with a fundamental consideration that has enormous consequences for media pluralism.

For years, at the Council of Europe we have been working to promote and enable a safe environment for journalists and media workers - alas not with sufficient success, as recent years have seen a steady decline in their protection and Europe has continued to witness assassinations, violence and intimidation.

If we will not be able to protect the primary creators of journalistic content, and if media will be suppressed for producing undesirable political content, there will ultimately be no free media to speak of.

With a sincere hope and trust that we will honour the values of media pluralism for the future, I wish you a most successful and productive conference to ensure that we will have free and pluralist media in future.