The media in Europe is under "extreme pressure" and European Union member states must "vigorously pursue and prosecute all attacks on journalists", European Commission vice-president Vera Jourova has said.
Speaking to an Institute for International and European Affairs webinar, Ms Jourova said the shifting of advertising revenue to online platforms, and the enormous economic pressure the media was facing, made the media an easier target for politicisation.
In an address focused on supporting independent journalism and fighting disinformation, the Commissioner for Values and Transparency said 900 journalists in 20 member states suffered physical injuries last year.
“This cannot continue. We expect all member states to vigorously pursue and prosecute all attacks on journalists,” she said, adding that the commission was looking at measures to counter the rich and powerful being able to silence journalists by initiating long and costly court proceedings.
It is working on proposals that would allow judges to dismiss cases at an early stage if they believe they constitute an abuse of the system.
Any measure would have to be balanced against the right of access to justice and should not create a “private caste of journalists”.
Worrying trends in the EU, involving Poland, Hungary and other member states, had created an awareness that there was a need for special protections in the EU for the media, the former Czech government minister said.
Strict rules were being introduced in relation to online political campaigning, she said. “Lying is winning elections. Anonymous lying is winning elections.”
The new rules will address such matters as the funding of political advertising and “microtargeting on the basis of sensitive data”.
The commission is seeking to strengthen national regulatory bodies and help with the fight against disinformation, while at the same time reducing state influence on the media.
Ms Jourova said she had spent the first half of her life in a totalitarian state and remembered “how strong a body the ministry for information was”.
While the commission was anxious to help the media, it did not want to create a situation where editorial independence was affected. “We know that good intentions pave the way to hell.”
Referring to hate speech, terrorism content, child pornography and child abuse, she said that “what is illegal offline has to be treated as illegal online”.
The commission wants platform providers to take steps to remove such content, to co-operate with law enforcement agencies, and to accept the responsibility “that algorithms should not drive the production of crime”.
A Code of Practice is to be finalised next month that will be aimed at co-ordinating the efforts of the media, the platforms and the advertising industry to work against disinformation, she said.
Disinformation was “being flooded into the European information space that is being produced by pro-Kremlin sources”, she said.
If disinformation wins in one or two EU member states, capturing 40 per cent of the population, which is the critical mass required, then “the whole of Europe will have a horrible problem”.
The EU had been letting disinformation flourish because it had not sufficiently protected the truth, especially during the pandemic, she said. Europe needed the media to help in the fight against disinformation, she told the webinar.