The EU steps up fight against disinformation and attacks on journalists

Otmar Lahodynsky on the new “Democracy Action Plan” of EU Commission. On Dec. 3rd Vice-President Vera Jourova announced to fight disinformation and attacks on journalists, presented new rules for online-platforms, vowed to support the ailing media sector and do more to defend media pluralism. AEJ was part of the preparatory work with stakeholders.

By Otmar Lahodynsky, President of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ)

“We don’t want to start up a ministry of truth,“ declared Vera Jourova, the European Commission’s Vice President and its Commissioner for European Values and Transparency, the presentation of the EU’s new Democratic Action Plan.

Europeans should be better protected against disinformation, hate speech and attacks by foreign powers who try to interfere in the elections and democratic life of Europe. That was the basic sentiment of Jourova, a Czech-born politician who grew up in the Communist Eastern Bloc.

It’s high time that Europe begins to act to guarantee the basic rights of its citizens. The so-called micro-targeting of specific groups to influence voters by platforms, as Cambridge Analytica did in the US and before the Brexit referendum in 2016, will be monitored more closely under the new rules. As a result, the existing code of conduct will be supplemented by a new co-regulatory framework. This will require platforms like Google, Facebook or Twitter to follow a set of criteria which will be presented next year. Till now, the platforms were accountable only through self-regulation. From next year on, the compliance will be controlled by authorities that will be set up by each EU member state.

For the first time, the EU will fight back and be more determined to thwart foreign interference in its democratic activities. Despite efforts to put an end to their penetration of European society, troll factories in Russia and China have continued to spread false information to many countries across the EU.  In March, after the outbreak of COVID-19, a report from Brussels warned that a Russian disinformation campaign was being carried out and aimed at aggravating the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems of countries in the Western alliance.

One EU agency, with a dozen specialists, was established five years ago at the European Union External Action Service with the aim to detect and list fake stories by Russian media. This was, however, apparently not sufficient to curb this influence.

For her part, Jourova has now spoken of “malign actors from abroad“, none of which the EU can remain passive towards due to the fact that the trust of citizens in the democratic structures and centuries-old traditions of the Western world can be seriously harmed by this interference from abroad.

Jourova specifically mentioned that Russia and China are the main culprits in the assault of the democratic process. But recent studies – i.e.  experts on extremism at the London Institute for Strategic Dialogue, revealed that such troll factories also exist in Moldova and North Macedonia. In the latter, many platforms working in favor of Donald Trump have been detected and found to be a booming service industry for the impoverished Balkan nation.

The new European Democracy Action Plan will concentrate on three pillars:

  • Promote free and fair elections: Here, the Commission will present new legislation on political advertising. Rules for the financing of parties will be revised soon and the cyber-security of elections improved.
  • Strengthen media freedom and pluralism: As physical and online threats and attacks on journalists are on the rise in several Member States, the Commission will propose in 2021 a recommendation on the safety of journalists. Likewise, the abusive use of lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) shall be curbed. Jourova mentioned that during her mission to Malta, she learnt of more than 40 lawsuits opened against the investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galicia, who was murdered in 2017 by a car-bomb. So far this year, 140 attacks on journalists reporting about protests were registered in 11 EU-countries. Further measures to guarantee media pluralism and strengthen the transparency of media-ownership and state advertising are being planned by the Commission. Jourova announced that parts of the COVID-19 recovery fund should be given to the media sector, which is suffering from a sharp decline of ads and circulation as a result of the pandemic.
  • Counter disinformation: Online platforms will have to follow a framework of obligations and accountability in line with the digital service activities that will be presented on December 10. The existing EU toolbox for countering foreign interference will include new instruments that allow imposing costs on perpetrators. Till now, it was relatively easy and cheap for Europe’s adversaries to act in EU countries. When asked about the scope of sanctions against foreign countries that violate EU rules on democracy and human rights, Jourova said that the issue will be discussed next year.

The European Democracy action plan will be put together with the new EU rule of law mechanism. The latter foresees an annual dialogue between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament, together with Member States, as well as national parliaments, civil society and other stakeholders on the rule of law. European democracy should be adapted to the challenges of the digital age.

As the new conflict with Hungary and Poland about the rule of law-link to EU-funds has shown the European Union has to stay firm in defending its fundamental values. Jourova has made it clear – media pluralism remains an important pillar of democracy.

The European Commission seems ready to act against any actor, both foreign and within Europe, that tries to impose their will on citizens with the help of disinformation, fake news or reducing the role of the independent media.

On December 3, the fight only started, but it takes more steps to safeguard democracy and the rule of law among all of the EU-member states.

The article was published on December 4, 2020 in New Europe.

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