Independence needs solidarity

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There must be reform of public law, there must be no influence on content. A position by Malu Dreyer

Democracy thrives on participation, openness and freedom. That is why we need strong, free and independent media in Europe. I am concerned because private and public media are under considerable pressure. It is about economic pressure, but also about influencing media policy. Everyone is struggling together – especially in the European context – to find answers to the challenges in the digital media world. With the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, which we are implementing in Germany with the Interstate Media Treaty, we have taken an important step into the future. Ensuring more transparency, user-generated content and the protection of minors from harmful media are just a few of the most important key words of the Directive.

But we are also experiencing other phenomena that alarm me: Disinformation, hatred and hate in the social networks change and poison the political discussion culture. Journalists and editors are insulted, defamed and attacked. Right-wing populists attack media institutions and want to exert political influence.

Let us recall that public broadcasting was founded in federal Germany because the democratic society wanted to ensure free media independent of individual interests. The media have the task of uncovering and critically reporting social grievances. This applies all the more to politics. The events in our neighbouring country, Austria, for example, are therefore worrying. There it was to be inferred from the media that politicians would have suggested to a moderator of the ORF to take a “time out”, because some contributions were not permitted to them, in order to threaten in the same breath with budget cuts.

Reform discussion not left to the wrong forces

We experienced heated debates about public broadcasting in Switzerland with the “No Billag” popular initiative against the local broadcasting licence fee or in Denmark with the conversion of the financing to a tax. Despite the consent of the Swiss to the public media, budgets were subsequently cut without reforming the institution. France is also currently discussing the financing and possible restructuring of the institutions – as is the case in Germany. It is precisely against this pan-European background, but also with a view to our national debate, that I would like to emphasise: There is no contradiction between urging urgently needed reforms and at the same time protecting the many journalists and their good, independent work. On the contrary, we must not leave the reform discussion to the political forces, which basically only want to influence the content of the broadcasting stations through the instrument of financing.

And something else is important to me in the discussion: the dual media order in Germany has two pillars. We need and want plurality and diversity – also in the digital world. It was therefore important that we found a compromise with publishers on the public online presence. It is always crucial for the community of states as media legislator to enable public broadcasters to further develop their digital offerings and at the same time to keep an eye on the economic scope for development of private market participants. The State Treaty on the Online Order of ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandradio is a good example of this. It safeguards the “existence and development guarantee” of public service broadcasting and at the same time addresses the legitimate interests of private media, publishers and broadcasters.

One thing is clear: the pressure on the media has been growing for years due to the challenges of digitization alone. On the one hand, the Internet has opened up many new possibilities. It has never been so easy to actively participate in the social discourse itself. At the same time, we are observing that control over access to content is changing, that opinion power and market power are increasingly collapsing and that purely economically driven mechanisms are increasingly coming to the fore. Cut-throat competition from new, mostly US providers has increased sharply – especially from providers who would not necessarily call themselves “media companies”. Their growing importance for public discourse can no longer be denied. One of the central challenges for media policy in the coming years will therefore be to ensure equal opportunities for communication and to keep communication spaces open.

The offerings of public service broadcasting can help to prevent concentration and monopolization of power of opinion and, at the same time, to promote diversity.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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