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European Democracy Action Plan: Remarks by Vice-President Vera Jourová

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op donderdag 3 december 2020.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Sadly, today we learnt about passing away of great French and European politician, former President of France, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. I want to pass my condolences to his family and friends.

It is only fitting to start this press conference by quoting a first sentence written by him in the French Democracy. "No society can live without an ideal that inspires it, nor without a clear knowledge of the principles that guide its organisation."

I dare to add: Our ideal, our principles, in the European Union, are our values: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Sadly, today none can be taken for granted.

Not all but many of today's problems are amplified with the world going online.

And Europe wants to go digital but we want to do it in our truly “European way”, in full respect of our fundamental principles. Our digital agenda that we are rolling out, with today's European Democracy Action Plan and the Digital Services Act soon, among others, aims to shape our information space for the next at least 20 years. It will determine our digital soul for what President von der Leyen called the EU's digital decade.

We are presenting the European Action Democracy Plan, which reacts on a number of new problems and risks. We try to solve following ones.

We have seen the rise of extremism, especially online; a lack of transparency and accountability of online platforms; insufficient application of rules relevant for elections in the digital world or sometimes lack of any rules; we have seen interference in our democratic processes, and the situation of the media and safety of journalists is deteriorating.

And now we are in the middle of Covid-19 pandemic which made all those risks even stronger and more endangering.

The Democracy Action Plan tries to react on all these worrying trends:

  • By enforcing rules on fair competition in online public debates;
  • By protecting the integrity in the electoral process;
  • By involving and empowering the public;
  • By strengthening the media;
  • And last but not least by fighting disinformation and interference.

Let me know briefly describe the key pillars of this plan.

Part 1 - elections

Elections laws date from the offline reality and are not fit for the online world. But political campaigning has moved online. The aim of the plan is to close this gap.

I therefore will prepare the legislation on transparency in online political advertising. I speak about the next year. This is indicatively planned for third quarter of the next year. And just make a comment on the whole European Democracy Action Plan, this is the plan which foresees the future actions to come over the whole mandate of this Commission. So now, I am speaking about next year's activity - legislation on transparency in political advertising.

We are convinced that people must know why they are seeing an ad, who paid for it, how much, what micro-targeting criteria were used. New technologies should be tools for emancipation, not for manipulation.

I don't want elections to be a competition of dirty methods. We saw enough with the Cambridge Analytica scandal or the Brexit referendum.

This is why I want to limit the micro-targeting criteria. Promoting political ideas is not the same as promoting products.

Part 2 of the plan - Media pluralism and media freedom

This Plan, together with the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan that we have just adopted, too, is our political declaration - we do not abandon media and journalists in difficult situation.

Media are not only an economic sector; they are the fourth estate and one of the pillars of democracy.

Yet. Journalists are attacked, harassed online. 73% of female journalists globally have experienced online violence in the course of their work.

Since the start of 2020, at least 140 journalists and media workers were attacked during protests in 11 Member States.

We will work with Member States and the sector to propose a Recommendation on the safety of journalists.

This is another event or activity which we plan for the next year. In addition, I will present an initiative on abusive litigation. This issue of the so called SLAPP came to my attention when I visited Malta and talked to the son of Daphe Caruana Galizia. She had 47 such lawsuits pending against her in Malta and abroad at the moment of her assassination. And the problem is only growing and we need to act.

More so, we want to increase the transparency of media ownership and of state advertising. Public money should not be used to favour only those who sympathise with those in power.

We will also increase support to fund cross-border investigations. Under the next budget, we proposed to have for the first time an envelope dedicated to media pluralism projects (which could amount at least EUR 75 million).

The Media and Audiovisual Action Plan aims to help the media recover and support their digital transformation. The sector has been severely hit by the pandemic and suffers from a huge loss of advertising revenues.

We want to encourage Member States to use recovery money also for the sector.

We will launch an initiative called ‘NEWS' to bring together actions and support for the news media sector. The initiative will use EU funds to leverage investments and help small media companies to get easier access to loans. We will pay particular attention to local media.

At the same time, we will watch closely the implementation of key rules, such as the revised audiovisual and copyright rules. We need to continue striving for a level playing field in the online world.

All this taken together will create, and I am convinced about that, a better, a fairer environment for the media sector which is highly needed.

Part 3 - Countering Disinformation

I am very happy that our response to disinformation is maturing with every step we take. I need to say one thing from the outset. We will not regulate on removal of disputed content. We do not want create a ministry of truth. Freedom of speech is essential and I will not support any solution that undermines it.

But we also cannot have our societies manipulated. If there are organised structures aimed at sowing mistrust, undermining democratic stability, we would be naïve, and we need to respond with resolve.

The worrying disinformation trend as we all know is now on Covid-19 vaccines which is very much debated with the President and colleagues because we need to support the vaccine strategy by efficient fight against disinformation.

This is why we are proposing to make a change - by equipping ourselves with tools to impose costs on those who penetrate our systems with malicious intention.

My goal here is to empower democratic actors and allow people to understand what content they see and why - so that they can make their choices freely.

We have tried, as you know, self-regulation during our last mandate with the Code of Practice against disinformation. And we will build on that.

But we need to go much further and deal with the deficiencies that pure self-regulation has shown.

We need a new Disinformation Pact with platforms, advertisers, websites and the civil society to improve accountability of algorithms; to stop allowing platforms and websites making money on disinformation; to design better ways to deal with manipulation through bots or with the use of fake accounts.

Finally, I will push for structural changes. We will set up a system of monitoring to increase public scrutiny, as the platforms cannot police themselves alone. We will move from self-regulation to co-regulation.

What does this mean in practice?

Thanks to the upcoming Digital Services Act, we will get a legal basis for this move. The Digital Services Act will introduce, among others, a general need for big platforms to take risk-mitigating measures. The Code can be one of those measures, if done right.

But this will mean that the authorities will be looking at adherence to and compliance with such Code.

Essentially, the era of the gentlemen' agreements and self-policing alone is coming to an end.

And finally, we look at the citizens, as the long-term solution lies in education and in media literacy.

We are supporting, also financially, civil society to help and of course, we have a lot of proposals to increase the efforts in education and awareness raising side for instance European education strategy, which was presented 2 months ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, the European Democracy Action plan is not ideological. It is not left-wing or right-wing. It is about making the rules of the political contest fairer for everyone who wants to participate in it. This is why I count on a constructive approach from all corners of Europe to implement it forcefully.

Together with the recent Rule of law report, the new Strategy to strengthen application of the Charter of fundamental rights as well as the Media and Audivisual Action Plan, this Plan creates our response that aims to protect and enforce the basic values of the European Union and includes also the digital space.

Let me also mention that we adopted the Strategy on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which opens a door to address new challenges for Fundamental Rights in the EU. We saw them emerging during the pandemic, but they are also linked to the important digital and green transitions.

We therefore will as of next year take a more thematic approach to our annual report on the Charter with a stronger focus on how Member States apply it when implementing EU law.

Speaking about the thematic approach, for the next year, we plan to focus on digital transition and artificial intelligence.

Thank you very much.

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