Having tabled the motion for a resolution on increasing
transparency of media ownership (Doc. 13121
), I was appointed rapporteur by the Committee on Culture,
Science, Education and Media on 25 April 2013. As a former journalist
and writer, I am particularly attentive to media freedom, pluralism
and transparency, which are cornerstones of a media environment
which is necessary in, and conducive to, a democratic society.
2. Twenty years ago, the Committee of Ministers adopted its Recommendation
(94) 13 on measures to promote media transparency. Important further
work has followed, within the Council of Europe and the European
Union as well as by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Nevertheless,
the situation in Europe today is still marked by national differences
in transparency standards, and some countries even offer loopholes
for disguised ownership structures. As media outlets are under increasing
economic pressure due to the rapid increase of digital media, they
may be susceptible to financial and political pressures on their editorial
decisions. This requires the attention of and reaction by national
parliaments in Europe.
3. In the framework of the preparation of its report
on the state of media freedom in Europe, the Committee on Culture,
Science, Education and Media organised in Paris on 18 December 2012
an exchange of views with Ms Fiona Harrison from Access Info Europe
(Madrid) on her study on transparency of media ownership. This study
was also presented to the intergovernmental Steering Committee on
Media and Information Society (CDMSI) of the Council of Europe on
25 April 2013.
Together with Access Info Europe, the Open Society Media Program
and the Assembly’s Parliamentary Projects Support Division, the
Sub-Committee on Media and Information Society of the Committee
on Culture, Science, Education and Media organised a conference
on transparency of media ownership in Brussels on 24 September 2013.
I am particularly grateful to all participants for their contributions.
5. At its meeting in Istanbul on 13 May 2014, the Sub-Committee
on Media and Information Society held an exchange of views with
Professor Peggy Valcke, University of Leuven, Mr Martin Zachariev,
Member of the Committee on Culture and Media of the Parliament of
Bulgaria, and Ms Corina Fusu, Vice-Chairperson of the Committee
on Culture, Education, Research, Youth, Sport and Media of the Parliament
of the Republic of Moldova.
Professor Peggy Valcke was subsequently commissioned to prepare
a background report on this subject, which she presented to the
committee in Strasbourg on 30 September 2014 (document AS/Cult/Inf (2014)
This explanatory memorandum is based
largely on this substantial report and I am particularly grateful
to Professor Valcke.
I have also found very useful the 2009 Study on Indicators
for Media Pluralism in the [European Union] Member States – Towards
a Risk-Based Approach, which was led by Professor Valcke.
Finally, I have appreciated the up-dated report on the transparency
of media ownership in the European Union and neighbouring States,
prepared by Rachael Craufurd Smith and Yolande Stolte of the University
of Edinburgh on a project by Access Info Europe and the Open Society
Program on Independent Journalism.
3. Transparency of
9. Media ownership transparency is an essential prerequisite
for the proper functioning of democracies. Even though transparency
is not mentioned explicitly in international human rights charters,
it is clear that a meaningful exercise of the freedom of expression
and the right to receive and impart information are essential, as
recognised in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human
Rights (ETS No. 5) and Article 11 of the European Union Charter
of Fundamental Rights.
10. Genuine freedom of expression also presupposes the existence
of a variety of media sources and a diversity of media ownership,
as a necessary but not sufficient condition for media pluralism.
For many years now, States have adopted measures to preserve the
pluralistic character of their media landscape. Such measures prevent,
amongst others, that one person or a small group of individuals
or companies gain excessive control over those media that influence
public opinion and political debate. The European Court of Human
Rights expressly confirmed in its judgment Centro
Europa 7 S.r.l. and Di Stefano v. Italy that, at least in
the sensitive audiovisual context, States are under a positive obligation
by virtue of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights
to “put in place an appropriate legislative and administrative framework
to guarantee effective pluralism”. In order to monitor, track, and
– where necessary and appropriate – take action against concentrations
of media power, it is imperative that relevant actors have adequate
information about media ownership structures.
3.1. International recognition
of the issue
11. The need for increased media ownership transparency
has in recent years been recognised by a growing number of political
bodies, civil society organisations, NGOs, journalists’ associations,
regulators and academics. It was the Council of Europe’s Committee
of Ministers who led the way in drawing attention to the importance
of media ownership transparency and urging member States to ensure
that “[m]embers of the public … have access on an equitable and
impartial basis to certain basic information on the media so as
to enable them to form an opinion on the value to be given to information,
ideas and opinions disseminated by the media” (1994) and to “adopt
any regulatory and financial measures called for in order to guarantee
media transparency” (2007).
The Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1636 (2008)
on Indicators for Media in Democracy similarly states
that “media ownership and economic influence over media must be
made transparent”. Discussing media pluralism in a changing media
landscape, Thomas Hammarberg, the former Council of Europe Commissioner
for Human Rights, concluded in 2011 that “[t]here must be transparency
of media ownership”. And last year, the Assembly adopted Resolution 1920 (2013)
on the state of media freedom in Europe, in which it
“The Assembly regrets
that media ownership is not made transparent in all member States
and asks them to adopt the necessary provisions to this end. Lack
of transparency is typically used to hide political or commercial
interests in controlling major media companies. The Assembly calls
on member States to take proper action for ensuring media transparency
and pluralism and promoting journalistic standards.”
13. At the level of the European Union, the European Parliament
has frequently expressed its concern at the lack of transparency
in media ownership in Europe, and called on the European Commission
and the member States to take initiatives in this field. The importance
of transparency of media ownership and of funding sources as being
a key element in guaranteeing media freedom and pluralism, has been
recognised in the EU Council conclusions on media freedom and pluralism
in the digital environment of November 2013. In May 2014, the EU
Council stated that the European Union would “support actions by
third countries to improve transparency of media ownership”.
14. The Independent Study on Indicators for Media Pluralism in
the member States, carried out at the request of the European Commission
in 2008-2009 included “regulatory safeguards for transparency of ownership
and/or control” towards the public, on the one hand, and towards
the relevant authority, on the other hand, as key indicators to
assess risks for media pluralism. The European Commission’s High-level
Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism identified the lack of media
ownership transparency and opacity of funding sources as a challenge
for media freedom and pluralism in Europe. And an important aspect
in the campaign of the European Citizens’ Initiative for Media Pluralism
dealt notably with media ownership and transparency, and the prevention
of conflicts of interest with political office.
15. The Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization
for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has also urged member
States on several occasions to respect transparency of media ownership.
A growing body of academic publications and studies, as well as
surveys by NGOs, draw specific attention to the issue – such as
the recent study by Access Info Europe and the Open Society Program
on Independent Journalism (OSPIJ), formerly the Media Program, which
examined the availability of ownership information in 19 European
countries (plus Morocco) in 2012. The study culminated in “Ten Recommendations for
Transparency of Media Ownership”, which were presented at the Council
of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Media and Information
Society in Belgrade (Serbia) in November 2013, and which will be discussed
in more detail in the last section of this report.
16. In other words, there seems to be a fairly broad consensus
amongst European organisations that transparency of media ownership
is essential for media freedom, pluralism and democracy.
3.2. International standards
17. A number of standards for media ownership transparency
have been developed at various levels in recent years. Although
these are indisputably laudable initiatives, the instruments in
which they are enshrined are usually non-binding or have limited
utility. At the level of the Council of Europe, three instruments
are of particular interest: the European Convention on Transfrontier
Television (ETS No. 132) and Committee of Ministers Recommendation
No. R (94)13 on measures to promote media transparency and Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)2
on media pluralism and the diversity of media content.
In the framework of the European Union, a legal information
obligation for audiovisual media service providers has been introduced
at the moment of the revision of the Television without Frontiers
Directive in 2007. The current Audiovisual Media Services Directive
stresses in recital 45 that “because of the specific nature of audiovisual
media services, especially the impact of these services on the way
people form their opinions, it is essential for users to know exactly
who is responsible for the content of these services” and considers
it “therefore important for Member States to ensure that users have
easy and direct access at any time to information about the media
service provider”. Despite this seemingly strong commitment to transparency,
the actual wording of the relevant provision is much weaker: Article
5 only prescribes that audiovisual media service providers shall
make easily, directly and permanently accessible to the recipients
of a service at least the following information:
- the name of the media service
- the geographical address at which the media service provider
- the details of the media service provider, including its
electronic mail address or website, which allow it to be contacted
rapidly in a direct and effective manner;
- where applicable, the competent regulatory or supervisory
19. A similar provision can be found in the E-Commerce Directive
of 2000 for providers of information society services, which in
its turn resembles earlier and current information obligations imposed
in the context of consumer protection laws. Such obligations to
provide certain information – especially the identity and contact details
of the provider – prior to delivering the service or goods have
as their goal to enable the consumer to contact the provider quickly
and communicate with him efficiently in case of typical consumer
conflicts (late or no delivery, discrepancies between the service/goods
delivered and the service/goods ordered, incorrect price, etc.).
But they merely allow the customer to find out the company’s name,
address and contact details, and not “to know exactly who is responsible
for the content of these services”. This contrasts with the acclaimed importance
of this information in the light of the impact of audiovisual services
on the way people form their opinions, as the Audiovisual Media
Services Directive itself states.
20. Admittedly, the competence of the European Union to legislate
for media pluralism and media ownership transparency is considered
controversial, which probably explains why the European legislator
did not introduce more stringent obligations in the Audiovisual
Media Services Directive (AVMSD) in 2007. In its Resolution of 21
May 2013, the European Parliament called on the Commission to include
in the evaluation and revision of the AVMSD also provisions on transparency
on media ownership, concentration, and conflict of interest rules
to prevent undue influence on the media by political and economic
forces, but it remains to be seen what further steps will follow.
Whereas the Council of the European Union recognised the importance
of media ownership transparency at its meeting of 26 November 2013,
it considers it the task of the member States to take appropriate
measures to achieve genuine transparency of media ownership, and
only invites the Commission to “strengthen, through non-legislative
actions, co-operation between Member States’ audiovisual regulatory
authorities and promote best practice as regards the transparency
of media ownership”.
3.3. Requirements for
21. In general, we can distinguish between two types
of disclosure requirements: on the one hand, rules that aim to ensure
transparency towards regulatory authorities (indirect disclosure),
and on the other hand, rules that aim to ensure transparency towards
the public (direct disclosure). The first category can be further subdivided
into media-specific disclosure requirements, which can be found
in media laws, and non-media specific transparency requirements,
which are usually laid down in general company laws and/or conflicts
of interest legislation targeted at politicians and/or public officials
3.3.1. Which media outlets
are subject to disclosure obligations?
22. In order to have complete insight into who controls
or influences the provision of news and information, the starting
point should be that all relevant media sectors – print, broadcasting,
online – are covered without any important exceptions.
23. However, to avoid any undue burden on small independent media
outlets, minimise the risk of chilling effects on freedom of expression
and keep the workload for regulatory authorities reasonable, a de minimis regime should be considered.
This could come under the form of an exemption of certain categories
of media providers – for instance non-profit community media, outlets
with very limited audience/revenue shares or with revenues below
a certain threshold, or single-authored media (operated by individuals).
Or, disclosure requirements could be limited to certain categories
of media outlets, such as those that pursue economic activities;
publish on a regular basis; reach certain circulation/distribution/revenue
thresholds; involve multiple authors and exercise editorial oversight
over the content (as is the case, for example, in Latvia and Iceland).
24. Another important consideration is whether both domestic and
foreign media are covered by reporting requirements. Only if the
rules apply to all media operating in the country will citizens
have access to the information they need to make informed choices
about the media they use and be able to evaluate the information
they receive. Extending disclosure requirements to foreign companies
will be difficult in practice to enforce. Better co-operation between
media authorities and linking national databases in Europe can partly overcome
such problems, as the media environment is now globalised. Consideration
should be given to whether online intermediaries, because of their
capacity to select or rank information, should also be brought within
the disclosure requirements.
25. However, national legislation on transparency of media ownership
should not discriminate against foreign media, but limit its focus
on transparency irrespective of where owners are located. In a few
member States of the Council of Europe, there seems to be a political
tendency to restrict or even exclude foreign ownership of media
outlets, often for political reasons. Article 10 of the European
Convention on Human Rights protects media freedom “regardless of
frontiers” and, therefore, media outlets should not work behind
3.3.2. To whom must disclosure
26. The ideal scenario combines direct and indirect disclosure
requirements to ensure maximum transparency. Having only direct
disclosure obligations in place entails the risk that information
provided is too technical in nature and difficult to understand
for the general public. This problem can be overcome under a system
of indirect disclosure requirements, whereby media regulators gather
relevant data and make those available in a meaningful way to the
public (for example by identifying cross-links between media owners, visualising
data in clear graphs or schemes). Admittedly, this requires an independent
and well-performing regulatory body with sufficient resources and
staff – a condition which may not be fulfilled in all Council of Europe
27. Whereas such obligations are already quite common in the broadcasting
sector, this is not, or much less, the case for printed press and
the Internet given the sensitivity that exists regarding State regulation
of these sectors. In the light of the growing convergence between
text and audiovisual media, it can however be justified that certain
legal obligations – like transparency requirements – apply equally
to all media sectors.
3.3.3. Which data is required
to be disclosed?
28. The starting point should be that the amount and
type of data required should be relevant, appropriate, adequate
and proportionate to the aim pursued, which is to detect undue forms
of control or influence on media and to enable citizens to evaluate
the quality of information provided by the media so they can make
better informed political as well as personal decisions. It is obvious
that identification and contact information, as currently requested
by the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, is far from sufficient
to achieve this goal. A first step to finding out who is controlling
a particular media outlet is to obtain data on the ownership structure of
the organisation that has editorial responsibility: who is participating
in the structure, who is holding shares and in what percentage?
It is important here to set disclosure limits at an appropriate
level. Whereas it may make not much sense to require data on minor
shareholders, thresholds for disclosure should not be set at too high
a level either.
29. In order to understand who really owns a media outlet it will
often be necessary to look behind the front-line shareholdings and
consider indirect shareholdings, as well as hidden shareholdings
where the real owner may not be disclosed at all. Even where the
law requires information about hidden owners, it can be a challenge to
establish whether the information provided is correct. With hidden
holdings the object will often be to hide the real owner for commercial
or political reasons and it is thus to be expected that such information
will not readily be divulged.
In addition, to grasp the full picture, it is also important
to have insight into:
interests (that is interests in media outlets held by individuals
affiliated to the owner, in particular family members);
- linked holdings or cross-holdings in other companies (that
is information on the nature and the extent of the interests held
by media owners in other media outlets, or even in other economic
31. In order to understand in greater detail not just who owns
but also who controls the media (transparency of influence), it
is imperative to have also details about other persons or bodies
likely to exercise a significant influence on the editorial policy.
One category are persons who take up key positions in the company
(senior management, such as directors, key executive officers, the
managing editor). Another category are sponsors; financial data,
in particular information about the sources of media funding, can
reveal potentially significant commercial or political influences
(via State subsidies, advertising or donations), as well as media
influence on political parties or State bodies.
32. In addition, it has been argued that disclosure requirements
should also cover political or religious affiliations in order to
help illuminate potential influences on the programming policy or
editorial policy (or inversely, media influence on political parties
or State bodies).
3.3.4. How accessible
is the information to the public?
33. Accessibility is not only a matter of availability
of the information, but also of reducing its level of complexity.
Economic data are often very technical and not easy to grasp by
non-experts. It is therefore advisable to consider also procedural
aspects when framing media ownership transparency provisions.
3.3.5. How effective is
the disclosure regime?
34. To ensure that information is comprehensive, accurate
and readily accessible to the public, in other words that disclosure
is effective, databases should be kept up-to-date and disclosure
requirements should be backed by effective oversight and appropriate
4. The situation in
35. A number of recent comparative studies have taken
a closer look at existing disclosure requirements in European States,
the most recent one being the media integrity research conducted
between July 2013 and February 2014 as part of the regional project
South East European Media Observatory. The study covered five countries
in south-east Europe: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia,
“the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and Serbia (all Council
of Europe members). With regard to media ownership transparency,
the research findings paint a grim picture of the situation in those
countries, despite a number of laudable initiatives in recent years
to increase transparency and combat political instrumentalisation
of the media.
36. A systematic survey that specifically focused on transparency
in media ownership was carried out by the Open Society Program on
Independent Journalism and Access Info Europe in 2012 (hereafter:
“TMO Study”). The study looked at media-specific regulations and
company laws in 19 Council of Europe countries in different parts
of Europe (plus Morocco) to assess the extent to which data on ownership
of media outlets is available to the public (directly or via the
37. The conclusion was that in more than half of the countries
surveyed, the existing rules on company and media ownership do not
permit members of the public to know who the real or hidden owners
of the media are, and in the majority of countries the legal framework
fails to ensure public access to information about the owners of
print or online media.
38. The survey did, however, also find best practice models and
examples of how to ensure transparency of media ownership. The subsequent
paragraphs describe these best practices drawn from different countries but
structured along the lines of two specific case studies, namely
Norway (whose regime can be considered the most advanced for a number
of reasons according to Access Info’s report for the High-Level
Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism) and Croatia (whose legislation
is well defined, but where implementation is lacking). A third item
looks specifically at self-regulatory and voluntary bottom-up initiatives.
5. The way forward
The aforementioned TMO study carried out by Access
Info and OSPIJ resulted in “Ten Recommendations on Transparency
of Media Ownership”.
recommendations spell out, inter alia
which categories of information should be provided to media authorities;
which thresholds for disclosure are needed; how the information
should be collected; and how and where it should be made available.
They have been improved by consultation with nearly a hundred civil
society activists and media experts, and tested by discussion with
European officials and parliamentarians in Brussels, including –
very constructively – the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council
In essence, the recommendations require three major action
points that are to be realised at national level:
- States should put in place a
clear and precise legal framework imposing mandatory reporting requirements
on broadcast, print and comparable online media to allow identification
of their hidden and ultimate owners, back to natural persons;
- an independent body should exercise effective oversight
over these requirements;
- the public should have access free of charge to relevant
information on media ownership directly through the media’s websites
and through an online centralised database published by the media
41. Nine recommendations of the TMO study focus on what national
parliaments in Europe can/should do to improve ownership transparency
in the media sector, since this is the policy level closest to the
“field” and capable of producing the most direct results. But as
the realisation of genuine transparency will depend on a concerted
effort of different stakeholders at various levels, the tenth recommendation
rightfully deals with transnational access and comparability.
42. The Council of Europe should continue promoting detailed standards
in the area of media ownership transparency and urging members to
implement those standards at national level. The European Union
should consider introducing media ownership transparency standards
in a legislative instrument in order to create the tools to enforce
compliance in European Union member States. These standards should
be in accordance with those developed by the Council of Europe and
consistency should be ensured with initiatives in other areas, such
as against money laundering.
43. As elaborated above, national parliaments should put in place
a detailed legal framework that introduces, or further develops,
strong disclosure requirements and that empowers the regulatory
body(-ies) to operationalise these requirements.
44. Regulatory bodies should co-ordinate and exchange examples
of good practice – for instance via the European Platform of Regulatory
Authorities (EPRA) or the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual
Media Services – with a view to creating a common format for systematic
data gathering and registration. A greater consistency in the various
domestic databases will enable interconnection between them, render administrative
obligations less onerous for firms operating in multiple countries,
and facilitate cross-country comparisons.
45. Relevant non-governmental, civil society and academic organisations,
as well as commercial operators and professional bodies should be
consulted in this process for two reasons. Firstly, they have often
taken important initiatives to enhance media ownership transparency
and hence developed valuable experience in this area. Secondly,
their role in creating “a culture of transparency” is not to be
46. Finally, one should not forget that installing a sound legal
framework is but the first step, albeit a crucial one, on the road
to genuine ownership transparency. Equally crucial is the effective
implementation of the legal rules – which requires, in addition
to bold legislators, also independent and performing regulators,
co-operative media outlets, and vigilant civil society watchdogs.
Judicial bodies at all levels – European and national – should be
encouraged to expressly recognise the links between freedom of expression,
media pluralism and a functioning democracy, on the one hand, and
media ownership transparency, on the other.
47. In other words, fostering a genuine culture of transparency
is the responsibility of all parties involved. It cannot be denied,
though, that national parliaments are in the driver’s seat. They
may have a bumpy road ahead of them, but as the saying goes: “A
burden shared is a burden halved”. So if national and international actors
co-ordinate their efforts, the burden of ensuring media ownership
transparency – which, admittedly, is obviously not light – might
not be so unbearable after all.
48. As found in the TMO study, the absence or limited
nature of media specific or general disclosure provisions in many
States means that citizens are unable to establish who owns or controls
the media operating in their country. Therefore, further action
is needed at the domestic level.
49. Judicial and legislative bodies should be encouraged to expressly
recognise the links between freedom of expression, media plurality
and a functioning democracy, on the one hand, and media ownership transparency,
on the other.
50. Steps should be taken to adopt freedom of information legislation
in those States that have yet to do so in line with Recommendation
No. R (81) 19 of the Committee of Ministers on access to information
held by public authorities and the Council of Europe Convention
on Access to Official Documents (CETS No. 205).
51. In order to fully understand who effectively owns or controls
these media outlets, it is also necessary for the following types
of information to be disclosed: indirect and hidden holdings, affiliated
interests, linked holdings in other companies, and potentially significant
commercial or political influences, for instance from public advertising
52. States and their regulatory bodies should co-ordinate and
exchange examples of good practice with a view to gradually establishing
concrete standards relating to media ownership transparency. These
should build, inter alia,
on the categories identified in Committee of Ministers Recommendation
CM/Rec(2007)2 on media pluralism and the diversity of media content.
53. If they have not yet done so, States should introduce measures
requiring politicians and public officials to declare any interest
they may have in media outlets.
54. The Council of Europe and European Union should further co-ordinate
their activities to enhance media ownership transparency in Europe.
The development of a European-wide database should also be explored, possibly
building on the information already being recorded by the European
Audiovisual Observatory and including both print and online media.