Elsa Costa e Silva, Joaquim Fidalgo, Mariana Lameiras, Luís António Santos
The Portuguese media market may be characterised as a small market, thus facing particular perils and risks to the pursuit of the public interest, which presents additional challenges to media regulation. Small media markets typically suffer from shortage of resources, working with small audiences and small advertising markets, which makes them lesser capable of responding to adverse contexts (Puppis, 2009). In fact, the financial, economic and social crisis affecting media markets has been particularly difficult for Portuguese media groups, that have been facing diminishing revenues and losses (Silva, 2019).
Portugal is served by public service media – which have, however, lost their leading position when commercial televisions started operating in the early 1990s – and has a radio group owned by the Catholic Church, whose programs (two music-based and another with a broader informative appeal) are at the top of audiences. But the media system in Portugal is still dominated by audio-visual media, mainly television, and characterised by low levels of newspaper readership. This means that, when considering the most influential media in shaping public opinion at the national level, free-to-air commercial TVs – SIC and TVI – occupy a prominent place. Public television plays an important role in the public sphere, but has lower levels of audience. Each of the free-to-air commercial operators also have a cable channel only devoted to news and information, with a “24/7 service”, and the same happens with the public service (PBS). These three channels – SIC Notícias, franchised CNN and RTP 3 – have comparatively low audience rates, but have some influence particularly regarding the political debate.
The television market in Portugal is so relevant that the two most important media groups are linked each to one of the commercial channels. SIC is owned by Impresa, which also has the most ancient and influential weekly newspaper in Portugal (Expresso), and TVI is owned by Media Capital. In cable TV, the commercial channel CMTV, a sensationalist news medium, also has a significant relevance, leading audience shares particularly in the most popular segments. This channel is the propriety of a third media group, Cofina, which also owns the popular daily newspaper (Correio da Manhã) and specialised daily newspapers (the financial Jornal de Negócios and the sports Record). Besides these three media groups, there is a fourth private player of relevance: Global Notícias, which owns a popular title (Jornal de Notícias, along with another news title Diário de Notícias), and an information-based radio station (TSF), with some importance among the opinion-makers and in the political arena.
We have included in our analysis two more newspapers, one legacy and another native digital, which are influential, mostly in political circles. The first one is the quality newspaper Público, owned by an industrial group that does not have any other media outlets but owns an important operator of cable television and internet distribution. Observador, and its associate radio service, is a native digital title, owned by a small company with no other relevant interests in the media sector.
Apart from the State and the Church, whose relevance has been declining over the last decades, the most influential media belong to private companies. The oldest media group (Impresa) is the only one which is a purely media group, owned by what we could call a media tycoon (Pinto Balsemão), who was prime-minister of Portugal in the 1980s.
There are also two longstanding players from the industrial sector (since the late 1980s and the 1990s), but the two have different approaches to the media sector: Sonae (a major conglomerate in Portugal operating in the food and retail distribution business) only owns a newspaper (the daily Público), and Cofina (belonging to a group with interests in timber and paper industry) is a holding operating in the newspapers and cable TV sectors.
It is worth to mention the newcomers in the media business: in 2020, two of the major Portuguese media groups, Media Capital and Global Notícias, changed hands. In both cases, companies and businessmen unfamiliar with journalism and media markets took control over very relevant outlets. In association with a number of national business groups and showbiz personalities, a known businessman from the tourism industry bought Media Capital (which owns one of the free-to-air TV channels). A major position in Global Notícias was acquired by a business group (with interests in several industries and in vending machines), conjointly with a shareholder completely unknown to the general public (José Pedro Soeiro, still a very discrete figure) and with two businessmen from Macao (China).
These changes in 2020 have had a significant consequence in ownership: the majority of media companies or of the shareholders of media companies are now Portuguese (1). The last relevant foreign capital fled the country when the Spanish Prisa sold Media Capital. We now have a different situation than in the first decades of the new millennium, when concerns were raised in Portugal over the flow of foreign capital that had been invested in media companies, mainly from non-democratic countries. Media groups were targeted by Angolan and Chinese investors and the possible outcomes of these operations were considered critical (Figueiras & Ribeiro, 2013; Silva, 2014).
While some of these funds have recently been withdrawn (at least, apparently) from the Portuguese media groups (namely those originated in Angola), this has happened because of personal interests of the shareholders, and not because of any specific action taken by the State. And there is still a significant share of Macao (China) capital in Global Notícias group. This highlights the vulnerability of Portuguese media groups to foreign capital that can have hidden interests. Recently (after the period set up for this analysis), there have been some public accusations that the Grupo BEL (involved in the ownership chain of the Global Notícias Media Group) had connections to Russian funds, through the father-in-law of one of the beneficial owners. Although the information was denied by the beneficial owner targeted by the information (Marco Galinhas), an introduction in the chain of ownership was made shortly after that (still not considered in our database), removing the company Leirivending, one of the shareholders of Bel Distribuição, but whose beneficial owner had not been revealed in the Transparency Portal, run by the media regulatory agency.
The Portuguese media ownership is also characterised by a complex tangle of companies and financial holdings, making it sometimes difficult to follow the information that, even though disclosed, may be behind intricate networks and several layers of information. On the other hand, and because media companies are owned, in some cases, by holdings looking for better tax environments, some owners are based in countries such as the Netherlands, although the original capital is Portuguese. For the Impresa case, a significant part of the shareholders is not known as the shares are dispersed in the stock market.
In contrary to what the inclusion of Portugal in the Mediterranean or Polarised Pluralist Model of Hallin and Mancini (2004) could lead us to expect, direct political involvement or political support from media outlets is not common in Portugal. The Mediterranean model assumed that there would be high political parallelism in the media system. Nevertheless, as the revisitation of this model demonstrates (Bruggemann, 2014), as far as the Portuguese press and other media are concerned, some independence from political parties is the regular practice.
Editorial responsibility and the names of who is responsible for the company management are known for each outlet. Following a rather advanced media transparency law, we have found in each media information about the company owning the outlet, but to find most beneficial owners a consultation to the Transparency Portal run by the media regulatory agency (ERC) is needed. This does not mean total transparency in regard to financial flows though, and for the Journalists’ Union, this is a source of concern, as there is no public disclosure of the amount of money invested in media.
Also, other important information concerning the relevance of media outlets is not public. The name of the staff employed in journalistic functions is traditionally revealed in newspapers’ editorial pages, thus allowing to count its number, but is mostly unavailable for other media, such as radio or television. The paid circulation of most journals is audited by an external entity that publishes the figures each trimester, but no public display of printed copies is available.
Information concerning the chain of ownership is publicly available at the transparency portal run by ERC. However, information on the revenues and staff employed is unknown for most of the companies involved in the chain of ownership as the disclosure of such information is only mandatory for listed companies. Information on revenues and staff can be retrieved from paid databases, but is not available freely to the general public.
The level of State intervention in media funding is an area in need of attention. There are no direct subsidies to national media in Portugal, only some support at the distribution level for local press. And although there is a law making it mandatory for public entities to communicate their expenses in media advertising to the regulatory agency, there are reasonable doubts about the real dimension of the publicly notified values. For instance, in 2020, the annual report of the media regulatory agency only stated a total of 2 million(2) euros, which is seemingly a low value. The media owners’ association (Associação Portuguesa de Imprensa) has publicly acknowledged their perception that the real amount of public funding to media through advertising is not known. Also, aggregated information is presented by the media regulatory agency according to media sector, but not by outlets. Therefore, it is not actually possible to know how much each medium or media group receives.
Editorial independence is a source of concern, given the public notice of some breaches in the last year, in particular in what concerns the Global Notícias group and the public service television. Newsroom councils of the outlets of Global Notícias have contested the board of administration for having hired a journalist directly (when this should be a decision of the editor-in-chief) and the Workers’ Union of the public service has accused the board of administration of putting pressure on the investigative team of a news program. For the Journalists’ Union, these attempts to interfere with editorial decisions are a problem and, although there has not been news on directors complying with these interferences, they reveal a worrying mindset in media owners.
The right of journalists to participate in the editorial orientation of the medium they work for, as well as the right to be consulted when a new editor-in-chief is appointed, are included in the country’s media laws, and at the highest level: in the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic itself. All news media with at least five journalists are supposed to elect a newsroom council through which this participation is brought to practice. With the exceptions of Radio Renascença (a radio station belonging to the Catholic Church) and the popular daily Correio da Manhã, all the relevant news media actually have these councils, but the degree of involvement in the editorial decisions varies: some of them meet regularly, while others have no more than a formal existence, with no activity at all. Some years ago, the role of the newsroom councils was much more valued, and no editor-in-chief could be appointed without their vote in favour. However, revisions of the law eventually weakened the role of this representative body of journalists.
Although the political exposure of owners or members of the management team is not a public issue in Portugal, we have found some evidence that this can grow to be a problem for the credibility of media. We have a longstanding media owner who can be considered to be a politically exposed person (PEP) given the fact that he was prime-minister of Portugal in the 1980s and has an open affiliation to a political party. This is a known and acknowledged situation. Also, in the group of owners of the native digital newspaper Observador, we can identify people that have close connection to a political party. However, other situations are less obvious. For instance, there has been a news report on the new owner of Global Notícias (Marco Galinhas), indicating that he may have some ties to the socialist party, something that he has denied. However, it should be noticed that the beneficial owner of the Global Notícias Media Group is also a major shareholder in a polling company (which administers regular public opinion surveys, namely political ones and in election times) and the manager of that company is a former close associate of the socialist former prime-minister José Sócrates, who is indicted for corruption and money laundering. Also, one of the shareholders of the Global Notícias Media Group, Kevin Ho, is reportedly a businessman close to the official political party of China (3).
Distribution is not in the spotlight of public attention in Portugal, but there are some reasons for concern. While there is some diversity in terms of television distribution, digital radio is not implemented in Portugal and print distribution is made in a situation of monopoly. There are no public news of discrimination against any outlet, but the company has made mandatory to selling points to pay for a tax and some less profitable selling points have been closed. With no alternative to intermediate the sale of their print editions, which are still of utmost importance in more rural and inland areas, journalistic companies may face harmful practices.
While television continues to be the main source of information for the majority of people in Portugal, social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp have increasing relevance. Facebook and Google have some partnerships with main companies in Portugal, but there is not any systematic registry or follow-up of these initiatives. Amounts involved, criteria to choose partners and the impact of these funding on editorial practices are usually not disclosed.
The legal framework addressing concentration in Portugal is not very comprehensive in what concerns the media market. Operations of concentration are assessed by the competition authority, but the media regulatory agency has a final say if “pluralism and diversity” are at stake and is also consulted to establish what is the relevant market for the operation. However, the laws only have provisions concerning horizontal concentration, with quantitative caps for radio and television. Therefore, cross-media or vertical ownership operations are not controlled by the law, thus raising obstacles to an effective control by the regulatory agencies. Vertical integration (production + distribution) is only relevant in the case of newspapers: Global Notícias and Cofina have control over the major distribution of the country. Sonae owns a TV and internet operator, but does not have a position in TV production, only in a daily newspaper.
Portuguese law and regulatory agencies have not, for the moment, properly addressed digital distribution. No specific measure or law consider the role of digital intermediaries in media system and content curation is considered in the Portuguese legal framework.
Portugal can be presented as an example of the idea that, although necessary, ownership transparency is not sufficient. The legal framework is, since 2015, one of the most advanced of Europe and the regulatory entity has provided a Transparency Portal where information can be found and visualised. But, although media owners have their name revealed, this does not say much about the ultimate goals of these businessmen. For instance, when considering the buyout of the Global Notícias Media Group (a group with consecutive losses) in 2020 by a group of businessmen, one could wonder what kind of investment it represented: financial or strategic? There is in the shareholders (with 34,5% of voting rights) the name of a person that remains an unknown figure in the public sphere. In July 2022, the beneficial owner of the Media Capital group was targeted by judicial authorities in a case related to tax fraud. The whole situation raises a concern: with no ‘suitability clause’ for media owners, as questioned by the Journalists’ Union, anyone with access to funds can buy media groups. In a time of financial and economic fragility, the door is thus open to any kind of capital. Therefore, ownership may be transparent in terms of names and beneficial owners, but not in terms of the kind of interests these operations may conceal.
Brüggemann, M., Engesser, S., Büchel, F., Humprecht, E. and Castro, L. (2014), Hallin and Mancini Revisited: Four Empirical Types of Western Media Systems. J Commun, 64: 1037-1065. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12127
Figueiras R, Ribeiro N. New Global Flows of Capital in Media Industries after the 2008 Financial Crisis: The Angola–Portugal Relationship. The International Journal of Press/Politics. 2013;18(4):508-524. doi:10.1177/1940161213496583
Hallin, D. C., & Mancini, P. (2004). Comparing media systems: Three models of media and politics. Cambridge: Cambridge university press.
Puppis, M. (2009). Media regulation in small states. International communication gazette, 71(1-2), 7-17.
Silva, E. C. (2014). Crisis, financialization and regulation: The case of media industries in Portugal. Political Economy of Communication, 2 (2).
Silva, E.C. (2019). O futuro da imprensa portuguesa: há lugar para o Estado? Observatório, 13(3), 95-112