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Doc’s IN:How to ensure media pluralism & access to information for all

By Dr Amal Punchihewa

There are many challenges that countries may encounter in ensuring access to reliable information for all citizens without a gatekeeper from multiple sources. This month we highlight and present some of the responses from various countries to sustain Public Service Media (PSM) and free-to-air (FTA) broadcast services by reviewing the purpose and funding of these services, as well as examining appropriate regulatory mechanisms.

There has been a reduction of funding for PSM while they continue to experience fierce competition in the broadcast and media (B&M) industry. The rapid advancement of technologies, increasing capabilities of devices and changing audience habits have exacerbated the situation.

Broadcasters’ content is being monetised by large platforms and tech companies while driven by receiver manufacturers — and devices such as smart TVs may restrict access to content. Some countries are taking mitigation action to avoid the exploitation of broadcasters’ content or gatekeeping by smart TV manufacturers.

Prasar Bharati (PB), as the public broadcaster of India, believes that it is the most important vehicle of information, education, entertainment and engagement for the people, especially in the remote areas of India through Doordarshan and All India Radio. As PB claims, it has played a stellar role in communicating public health messages and awareness to the public during the pandemic.

Based on a proposal by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, the government of India has approved nearly 25 billion Indian Rupees (USD$302 million) to improve Broadcasting Infrastructure and Network Development (BIND). This reiterates the Indian government’s commitment to develop, modernise, and strengthen PB’s infrastructure and services, which is a continuous process.

Free TV Australia, the industry body that represents the FTA TV networks in Australia, has been working on the modernisation of the country’s anti-siphoning rules to ensure that all Australians can watch live and free sports on TV.

Anti-siphoning laws and regulations are designed to prevent pay-TV broadcasters from buying monopoly rights to televise important and culturally significant events before FTA TV has a chance to bid for them. The current anti-siphoning list in Australia is due to expire in April 2023. This out-dated scheme currently only protects Australians from sports being acquired by subscription TV and would not stop a streaming service or digital platform from buying exclusive rights.

A new proposed model will ensure live and free access to key sporting events for all Australians whether they choose to watch FTA services through terrestrial broadcast or online streaming.

Free TV has been working hard to ensure that all Australians have access to free TV services, regardless of what technology is used to deliver it, which is the most urgent regulatory issue for the TV sector. They are also looking forward to working constructively with digital platforms and TV manufacturers to provide the best outcome for audiences.

The Australian Government has already prioritised work on the issue of prominence through the Broadcast Working Group, and a White Paper announcement from the UK Government provides confidence that Australia or any other country could move even more quickly to a proposed solution that will be in line with comparable international jurisdictions.

On 28 April 2022, a policy paper was presented to the UK parliament, outlining the vision for the broadcasting sector. The UK Broadcasting White Paper, which updates UK broadcasting regulation for the digital age, sets a clear direction for reform, with important implications for other countries.

The UK proposal recognises the Australian News Media Bargaining Code Model as delivering an effective approach to issues where one or two big tech companies occupy a gateway position for consumers seeking to access local media services.

Free TV has requested Australian policy makers to act urgently to ensure that Australian TV screens are not turned into one big search engine where those who pay the most are found first. Free TV is also pressing for guarantees that free broadcast channels and broadcaster video-on-demand (BVoD) apps such as 9Now, 7Plus, Tenplay and iView are easy to find on connected TVs.

The UK Broadcast White Paper has also proposed expanding the UK equivalent of anti-siphoning rules to apply to digital and on-demand rights.

The News Media & Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code is a mandatory code to help support the sustainability of public interest journalism in Australia and addresses bargaining power imbalances between digital platforms and Australian news businesses. The code enables eligible news businesses to bargain individually or collectively with digital platforms over payment for the inclusion of news on the platforms and services.

New Zealand has taken similar initiatives to protect local news media and journalism.

In Australia, digital platforms must participate in the code if the government decides to specify that the code applies to them, in accordance with Section 52E of the Mandatory Bargaining Code.

Through the European Media Freedom Act, the European Commission (EC) proposes rules to protect media pluralism and independence in the European Union (EU). The European Media Freedom Act ensures that both public and private media can operate more easily across borders in the EU internal market, without undue pressure and taking into account the digital transformation of the media space.

For the protection of editorial independence, the regulation requires EU member states to respect the effective editorial freedom of media service providers and improve the protection of journalistic sources. In addition, media service providers must ensure transparency of ownership by publicly disclosing such information and take measures to guarantee the independence of individual editorial decisions.

To protect media freedom, the use of spyware against media is disallowed, and the Media Freedom Act includes strong safeguards against the use of spyware targeting media, journalists, and their families.

Wherever public service media exists, the funding provided for any independent public service media operator should be adequate and stable to ensure editorial independence. The head and the governing board of public service media will have to be appointed in a transparent, open, and non-discriminatory manner. Public service media providers shall provide a plurality of information and opinions, impartially, under their public service mission.

In the EU, as a media pluralism test, the Media Freedom Act requires EU member states to assess the impact of media market concentrations on media pluralism and editorial independence. It also requires that any legislative, regulatory, or administrative measure taken by a member state that could affect the media is duly justified and proportionate.

To ensure transparent state advertising, the Media Freedom Act will establish new requirements for the allocation of state advertising to media so that it is transparent and non-discriminatory. The Act will also enhance the transparency and objectivity of audience measurement systems, which have an impact on media advertising revenues, in particular online.

The above discussion and the analysis highlight several voluntary best practices that aim to promote editorial independence and greater ownership transparency. Independent creation of editorial content, through empowering journalists to participate in crucial decisions for the functioning of media outlets, is a strategic enabler for ensuring the long-term stability of news content production.

I wish to conclude the article with some questions: Do PSM or FTA services in your country experience challenges? What are they and how are they being addressed?

Next month, we shall address the role, challenges and opportunities of B&M to communicate disaster information in the converged Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) and media sectors.

Dr Amal Punchihewa is an ITU expert and advisor/consultant to the Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), and was formerly Director of Technology and Innovation at the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU).

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