Groundbreaking new EU laws to safeguard the independence of newsrooms received the final seal of approval by the European Parliament on Wednesday.

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The Media Freedom Act – first proposed by the EU executive in September 2022 – was overwhelmingly adopted on Wednesday with 464 votes in favour, 92 against and 65 abstentions.

The Act will oblige EU governments to better protect media against malign interference and limit the use of spyware against journalists. Outlets will also have to transparently disclose information about ownership, funding and state advertising.

A bespoke EU body, called the European Board for Media Services, will be established to oversee the implementation of the laws.

Widespread disinformation, lack of transparency on media ownership and increasing pressure on journalists prompted the bloc to intervene with the sweeping new rules. It is the first ever EU regulation to safeguard the free press, considered a cornerstone of European democracy.

The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, said the parliament had “made history” by adopting the Act, and honoured the memory of journalists such as Malta’s Daphne Caruana Galizia and Slovakia’s Ján Kuciak, both murdered for speaking truth to power.

NGO Reporters Without Borders described the move as a “major step forward for the right to information within the European Union.”

Věra Jourová, European Commissioner for values and transparency, told the parliament on Tuesday the law would send a “clear message to those who want to weaken democracy.”

“It is a threat to those who want to use the power of the state, also the financial one, to make the media dependent on them,” Jourová added.

Sabine Verheyen (Germany, EPP), the lead lawmaker on the file, said shortly before the vote the Act will enable the media to become more independent from the influence of state authorities, amid fears of a backsliding on press freedom in several member states.

While several northern EU countries, including Ireland, Finland and Sweden, rank among the world’s top 5 countries for media independence, other countries are trailing behind. Greece ranks at just 107th globally.

Verheyen said that the new European Board will be able to hold both governments and media services to account by drawing up independent opinions and mediating in disputes. The parliament had called for the Board’s secretariat to be independently appointed to ensure independence from the Commission, but this was not possible due to “legal structures,” she said.

EU countries clinch exemption on spyware

The Parliament had hoped the law would introduce a full ban on the use of spyware against reporters, in response to reports of the use of software such as Pegasus and Predator to hack the equipment of reporters in Greece, Hungary, Poland and Spain.

“We would have liked stronger wording when it came to spyware, but that wasn’t something we could achieve,” Verheyen acknowledged. 

But a handful of member states – including France, Italy, Malta, Greece, Cyprus, Sweden, and Finland – had pushed for an exemption allowing governments to tap into conversations between reporters and their sources in the event of a threat to national security.

Verheyen explained that under the new laws, EU governments will only be able to use spyware against reporters as a ‘last resort’ mechanism where there is a legal motive.

Journalists whose equipment is hacked on national security grounds will also need to be fully informed of the steps taken against them, she added, but assured there would be “no restrictions on the investigative work carried out by journalists.”

Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld of the centrist Renew group welcomed the new curbs on spyware, but warned the European Commission not to allow EU governments to continue to undermine the freedom of the media and the rights of journalists.

“There are lots of governments inside the European Union who do not like to be scrutinised,” she told the parliament Tuesday, asking the Commission to robustly enforce the new rules and to prevent member states from flouting their responsibilities.

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Responding to her concerns, Jourová said; “We will be watching how the member states deal with the clear task of establishing truly independent enforcement bodies.”

Switching to her native Czech, Jourová also took aim at the government in Slovakia, led by Prime Minister Robert Fico, for planned changes to the country’s RTVS public broadcaster.

“Changing the way public television works is one of the things that, I think, deserves our attention,” she said.

“Not just the Commission, but anyone who understands that in every country there should be a really strong public service media and not a media that will serve as the mouthpieces of the party and the government.”

The Media Freedom Act will now go back to the Council, before it can be formally adopted into law.

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