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Europe Asks Who Controls the Media

“The lack of transparency regarding ownership of the media reflects the resistance of those in control to account for their interests and influences, which impact the information that they provide to society. If information is an indispensable resource for democratic debate, societies have the right to know who is behind the ownership and control of the media.”

Fernando Bermejo */ Europe, March 2015

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  The organization Access Info has begun a campaign  to gather support from civil society in favor of greater transparency regarding ownership of the media. The campaign, which was launched in early March and runs through April 15, takes as a point of departure a broad investigation conducted by Access Info and the Program for Independent Journalism of the Open Society Foundations in 20 countries (the majority of them European). The initiative also seeks to generate support for the “Ten Recommendations for Transparency of the Media,” which were developed in light of the investigation.

Any discussion of control, ownership, pluralism, and concentration in this field should take as a point of departure the question of who really owns the media. However, that question often goes unanswered. In a world in which the media have an increasing amount of information about their audiences, data does not flow equally in both directions. Citizens and civil society are all too often unaware who the true owners of the media are. In order to ascertain the scope of this problem, examine the situation in a significant number of countries, and root out its causes and possible solutions, Access Info conducted the investigation that serves as the basis for the current campaign.

That effort, which was implemented in 2012, gathered data about legislation on the control and ownership of the media and the application and effectiveness of that legislation. The results reveal that the legislation is insufficient to guarantee transparency of data. The countries included in the study were Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cypress, Georgia, Germany, Holland, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Luxemburg, Macedonia, Morocco, Norway, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

For each one of those countries, questions were asked regarding transparency of media ownership in constitutional frameworks and the data given to regulatory agencies and the people –including who is required to provide information on ownership, to whom it is provided, and when-; how effective that process is in each case; and regulations that specifically address the media and those that apply to companies in general and thus the media as well. National experts from each country developed a report in response to those questions.

The results are not very encouraging. Only nine of the 20 countries studied allow citizens to obtain information regarding who controls the media through regulators or records. In most countries, it is not necessary to report on ownership of a media channel to a regulatory agency. The investigation also revealed variations between the different types of media. In the case of print media, the regulatory entity cannot ascertain who controls the media in half of the countries. This number drops further for digital media outlets (only six of the 20 countries allow regulators to obtain information about the ownership structure of online media). Nor is there a standard procedure for requesting, obtaining, and publishing the information. Generic regulations, i.e. those that cover all companies and are not specific to the media, are clearly insufficient.

In light of the deficiencies identified and the results of these reports, a set of recommendations were developed that were submitted to a public consultation process in which some 100 experts participated. The recommendations have been presented to and discussed at events organized by the European Union and before the European Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The recommendations seek to generate a regulatory framework and application of standards that allow for easy access and comparable basic and essential data on ownership of the media as well as the influences to which they may be subjected. The information is to be updated frequently and is to be easy and free to access. It is meant to be published in an open and reusable format and is designed to facilitate international comparisons. All of this is to take place under the supervision of an independent oversight agency.

The reports from the countries studied and the research data can be downloaded  through the Access Info Website. In order to facilitate the use of the abundant information associated with the campaign, a kit has been generated that includes a summary of the results of the investigation and its conclusions, the ten recommendations that are being promoted, interviews with experts on freedom of expression as well as academics and journalists, and in-depth reports on the state of transparency on ownership of the media in five countries (Austria, Croatia, Georgia, Norway, and the United Kingdom).

The final goal of the campaign is to improve access to information about the individuals, companies, and organizations that truly control the media. Access Info is requesting the support of civil society, organizations that work for freedom of the press, regulatory agencies, and journalists. The form to support the campaign has been posted here.

Despite broad and nearly universal recognition of the importance of transparency of ownership of the media, which is made explicit in the Latin American context in the document Standards for Freedom of Expression for Free and Inclusive Broadcasting from the Office of the Special Rapporteur of the IACHR, the situation revealed through this investigation is far from ideal. Opacity seems to be the norm rather than transparency. In order to obtain exhaustive data on ownership of the media and open the door to a well-informed examination of such essential matters as control of the media and concentration of ownership, legal frameworks must be modified and properly implemented.

  * Fernando Bermejo is part of the OBSERVACOM Editorial Committee.

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