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 risks for upholding and improving transparency in these power relations in each country.
Among the countries analysed, the EurOMo considers that Austria and Sweden present the most favourable conditions for transparency in media ownership and control, followed by Denmark and Germany. On the end of the scale, current conditions for achieving media ownership transparency are especially poor in Hungary, followed by Czechia.
Considering all countries, 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 risks for transparency in media ownership and control, according to data collected in the pilot exercise of 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 risks come from three areas: news production (assessed along four dimensions: legal ownership, economic control, management and relations), 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 the Risk Index which allows for comparability. This comparative report, therefore, is mostly based on the results of the Risk Index. At 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.
In the EurOMo pilot sample, the best conditions for improving or maintaining high levels of transparency were found in Austria (with a score of 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. The Netherlands (1.97) and Belgium (1.91) follow that strongest group. They have the highest standards for independent news distribution in the analysed countries, but have some of the worst scores in public policy, indicating that legal conditions for upholding transparency are fragile and represent an important risk, as explained in detail below.
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 ties with political parties, and some relevant news media in Czechia have a very 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, whereas the major risk comes actually 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 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 indeed present 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 non-transparent (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).