In this pilot exercise, the Euromedia Ownership Monitor (EurOMo) collected information on media ownership and control in 15 EU countries and organised it in a unified database accessible to the public. Based on this database, the EurOMo research team assessed the overall level of transparency as well as the risks for upholding and improving transparency in these power relations.
Among the countries analysed, the EurOMo considers that Sweden and Portugal have the most transparent media with regard to ownership and control, followed by Austria, Denmark, Germany and Slovenia which also enjoy relatively high transparency. Most of these countries also present fewer risks to keep high levels of transparency, with the notable exception of Portugal and Slovenia, which have unfavourable conditions to sustain this performance.
The least transparent countries are Hungary and Greece. In Hungary, current conditions in news production, distribution and public policy are especially poor for achieving media ownership transparency at any time. Czechia also faces a very high risk that might undermine future transparency.
Considering all countries, the area with the most significant lack of transparency is the economic control of the media, especially regarding public advertising. Information about voting rights in media organisations should also be much clearer. These transparency failures are seconded by high risks, especially in public policy. The highest risks come from the managerial dimension of ownership and control: the failure to protect newsrooms against the influence of owners/managers/advertisers, the lack of provisions to ensure the independence of public service media, and breaches in editorial independence. If not addressed, these risks can severely harm public perception on who controls the news. Furthermore, there are considerable risks in the algorithmic distribution of news. While they should be mitigated with the Digital Services Act (DSA), by the time of data collection (first semester of 2022), the member states could not rely on this regulation and were dependent on their national legal frameworks to come to terms with the influence of search engines and social media in news provision. Our analysis shows that they utterly failed to do so. This failure is not more dramatic because in most countries direct online access or use of traditional media are still more important for news than algorithmic sources.
This report discusses the most important findings of the pilot exercise by the Euromedia Ownership Monitor (EurOMo), held between October 2021 and September 2022, which covered 15 EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden. The goal was to assess the most important developments on transparency in news media ownership and control, as well as the risks for achieving or keeping high levels of transparency.
Media ownership and control are assessed along four dimensions: legal ownership, economic control, management and relations. The risks come from these very dimensions of news production, but also from additional areas such as news distribution (the pilot monitoring focused especially on the role of digital intermediaries such as search services and social media) and public policy. Data regarding these areas allowed to produce country-focused reports and ownership graphs (see country reports), but also indices (of transparency and risk) which allow for comparability. This comparative report, therefore, is mostly based on the results of the indices. In the moment, data from the Finnish media sample are still being processed in the format of the index and are not considered for this analysis. These data might be added in the future.
Considering all four dimensions of ownership and control analysed in the EurOMo 2022, the most transparent media samples are in Sweden and Portugal, with an EurOMo Transparency Index of respectively 2.72 and 2.53 (out of 3). They are followed by Austria (2.28), Denmark (2.28), Germany (2.24) and Slovenia (2.21). Most of the relevant data for the comprehension of decision-making power in the news media of these countries is open to citizens’ scrutiny, either disclosed by the publications themselves or via other publicly available sources. On the bottom of the list, Hungary figures in a distant last place (1.18), followed by Greece (1.55), with the least transparent media concerning their ownership and control. Hungary is a special case because of the lack of transparency with regard to ties of news publications with the Fidesz party.
The analysis of the specific dimensions allows for a fine-grained understanding of the most and least transparent areas, explaining the performance of each country.
The dimension of economic control presents the worse overall transparency in the EU. At average, the 15 countries score only 1.53 point (low transparency). The main reason is the low level of information about advertising of public institutions in the media in almost all countries, with the notable exceptions of Austria and Sweden. In many cases, such as the Netherlands, data is widely available for public service media, but expenditures in private media are not clear. Besides that, revenue figures of companies involved in media ownership also do not meet the normative standards (e.g., only in Denmark and Sweden they are available for more than 90% of the legal persons involved in media ownership). In countries such as the Netherlands and Greece, there are figures only for less than 35% of these companies. If media ownership and control must be more transparent, there are areas which require immediate attention.
Transparency in legal ownership also does not meet the highest standards which could be expected in the EU, with an overall score of 1.96 (moderate transparency). Although the legal ownership shareholdings of media companies can be known, in most countries there is no clear information about their respective voting rights, what significantly brings the assessment downwards. Some countries, however, such as Spain and Hungary, perform very poorly even in the availability of the legal shareholdings themselves. In this sense, their relative power in decision-making cannot be assessed because of lack of information. These two countries have the worst overall score (1.15 and 1.23 respectively). On the other hand, Portugal (2.53), Lithuania (2.50), and Sweden (2.43) have especially good performance.
Information on the following two dimensions is easier to find. The managerial dimension enjoys high transparency (at average, 2.25). The media in most countries perform well in informing the public about who bears both economic and editorial responsibility for their publications. However, some countries still fail in systematically providing these names, such as Spain and Greece with less than 80% of the outlets making public who is their editor-in-chief.
The relational dimension of media ownership and control had the highest transparency in the countries covered (at average, 2.46). 8 of 14 countries score the nearly the maximum points of transparency (>2.94). Czechia and Italy score respectively 1.48 and 1.27 (moderate to low transparency), while Hungary presents a significantly worse performance, scoring only 0.03 point (very low transparency). This is due to the fact that many Hungarian media and their owners have notable ties with external institutions, especially with the Fidesz/Christian Democrats party alliance, but do not openly disclose it.
The EurOMo also assessed the conditions to improve or maintain high levels of transparency in media ownership and control. Bad performance in these conditions should indicate a risk for transparency. In the EurOMo pilot sample, the best performance was found in Austria (2.31 out of 3), and Sweden (2.28), followed by Denmark (2.19) and Germany (2.09), though for different reasons. According to the indicators, Austria has a strong legal framework, as the “media law” and the “media transparency law” establish above average requirements for information on ownership and control. Germany also performed well in the public policy area. Denmark and Sweden, on the other hand, strongly minimise risks in the conditions of the news production itself, as their newsrooms enjoy strong separation from ownership and economic management, and their media companies rarely operate businesses in other economic areas.
Looking down at the table, the countries with the highest risks are Hungary (1.18) and Czechia (1.45), with an awful performance in risk indicators of news production and public policy. In Hungary, much of the actual legal ownership of the news media is contested, mainly due to the ties with political parties mentioned above, and some relevant news media in Czechia have a complex ownership structure that to a certain extent obfuscate the real ownership.
It is worth noting that some countries with good transparency are facing high risks. It is the case of Portugal (1.61), where high use of news via digital intermediaries threatens to increase opacity in news control. The services operating in this country lack transparency both in curation criteria and commercial agreements with news media, and there is virtually no national regulation to set the terms. Slovenia (1.68) is another case, where lack of economic data and widespread affiliation of important news media to political parties put comparatively high transparency standards under pressure.
Cut-crossing all three risk areas (news production, news distribution and public policy), our assessment reveals that the most relevant risks are actually related to the managerial dimension of ownership and control: (1) the failure to legally protect newsrooms against the influence of owners/managers/advertisers, (2) the lack of provisions to ensure the independence of public service media, and (3) breaches in editorial independence. This is an important finding, because contemporary discussions about transparency in ownership and control tend to be dragged into technical issues, but the major risk comes from the failure to enforce well-established normative standards of the news industry.
In fact, the overall performance of public policy in the analysed countries is poor (at average, 1.54). Clearly there is a general problem with provisions for non-linear distribution of news, i.e. regulation to ensure that the public knows how search engines, social media and news aggregators influences the news provision. At the national level, these provisions are nearly absent. The risk is of course bigger in countries where people already use news mostly via these intermediaries, and not through direct access to the websites of the news media or traditional media. This is the case in Greece, Hungary, and Czechia, but also countries with higher levels of transparency as pointed out in the case of Portugal. We expect the Digital Services Act (DSA), published in October 2022, to significantly improve these conditions at the EU level, in spite of some uncertainty about its enforcement.
This is not, though, the only problem with the existing legal frameworks. As indicated above, most of them fail in providing clear legal protections for their newsrooms against owners and economic managers (at average, 0.85 point, very high risk). Interventions from these owners, managers and advertisers in the editorial content potentially blur the perception of the public on who makes the news. The lack of legal mechanisms to avoid this represents, therefore, a risk for transparency in media ownership and control.
The next two relevant risks in the area of regulation refer to the legal provisions for public service media (PSM) (1.08) and the level of accessibility of information disclosure requests (1.31).
In general, the Netherlands (1.0) present the highest risks in public policy for media ownership transparency, as their legal frameworks tend to cover only a few media sectors, do not require a high level of details on ownership and control, and have weak defences against concentration and cross-ownership.
The conditions of news production also raise concern, with high to moderate risks for transparency (1.76). This is mainly due to bad performance in economic indicators, as the lack of economic transparency in itself (see the topic “Current levels of transparency” above) represents a high risk. Nearly all countries present an additional striking risk by having several media owners mainly operating in other businesses (0.38). Only Denmark and Sweden do not score 0, as the Danish media are mainly publicly funded and only one Swedish outlet has relevant shareholdings by non-media owners, as already indicated above. Cases of editorial breach, in which owners, managers or advertisers interfere with the editorial content, also represent an important risk (1.08), followed by the lack of information in many countries about politically exposed persons in the board of news media (1.38). Overall, Hungary (1.06) has the highest risk in news production, followed by Czechia (1.25), Slovenia (1.31) and Italy (1.39), with worrisome economic and relational developments.
Finally, news distribution presents only moderate risks (average: 2.22), despite the rise of digital intermediaries and the algorithmic curation of news content. These developments present indeed challenges. Lack of transparency in commercial agreements between digital intermediaries and news media is the major single risk in the whole distribution assessment (1.15). Criteria for content curation are also very intransparent (1.46), although improvements in the last few years by these digital services have avoided an even worse score. The point, however, is that in 11 of the 14 countries, digital intermediaries still do not play the major role as avenues for news use. Online is definitely how people access news in most countries, but this happens mostly via direct access of news websites according to reliable surveys such as the Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Therefore, this risk must be put in context and, for most EU countries, relativised.
An important risk that has been overlooked in much of the debate on media distribution infrastructures is the cross-ownership between news media and distribution companies (1.38). In several countries of our sample, for example in Czechia, Greece, Hungary, and Portugal, there are at least three relevant news media with owners also operating as media distributors, harming transparency in news delivery. Facing high reliance on social media for news, these four countries run indeed the highest overall risk in this dimension: Portugal (1.17), Hungary (1.23), Greece (1.62), and Czechia (1.80).