January 21, 2013 8:16 pm

Brussels tables tighter EU media laws

Media outlets across Europe face being tightly regulated by independent agencies with sweeping powers to investigate complaints and enforce fines if the recommendations of a Brussels-appointed panel become law.

The high-level group set up more than a year ago by Neelie Kroes, a European Commission vice-president, concluded that it was essential to introduce new rules to ensure journalists and media organisations act responsibly and do not abuse their power.

“All EU countries should have independent media councils with a politically and culturally balanced and socially diverse membership,” says a report by the group, chaired by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia’s former president.

“Such bodies would have competences to investigate complaints [and] should have real enforcement powers, such as the imposition of fines, orders for printed or broadcast apologies, or removal of journalistic status,” it states. “The national media councils should follow a set of European-wide standards and be monitored by the commission to ensure that they comply with European values.”

The group – which also included Herta Däubler-Gmelin, former German justice minister, Luís Miguel Poiares Pessoa Maduro, former advocate-general at the European Court of Justice, and Ben Hammersley, a technology expert – said that although its primary goal was to propose ways to protect media freedom, it would advise the commission to harmonise media laws across the 27 member states.

“It would be particularly important to adopt minimum harmonisation rules covering cross-border media activities on areas such as libel laws or data protection,” the group says.

The recommendations, if adopted, could supersede moves by UK magazines and newspapers to introduce a new press regulator in the UK by the summer. A report published last November by Lord Justice Leveson into the culture, practices and ethics of the UK press recommended a new press regulator with wider powers.

The UK newspaper industry is working on creating a new regulator following many of the recommendations outlined in the Leveson report. But the industry is resisting moves to have the new body underpinned by law, fearing this could mark the beginnings of a slippery slope away from a free press.

The report by the Brussels-appointed commission also recommends that proposed national media councils in EU member countries be monitored by the commission – a recommendation that would likely attract opposition from many media publishers fearing political meddling.

Ms Kroes said she welcomed the “out-of-the-box” recommendations, but said the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, would take some time to digest the suggestions before proposing any new law to monitor the press.

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