Author:
Christophoros Christophorou
October 2015

1. Introduction

The overall picture of media pluralism in Cyprus[1] is rather positive. The MPM analysis shows low risk in two of the domains (‘Basic Protection’ and ‘Market Plurality’) and medium risk in the other two domains (‘Political Independence’ and ‘Social Inclusiveness’). Risks are linked to deficiencies and problems in specific areas that have a serious impact on the extent and quality of a pluralistic environment.

The media freedoms and free expression (‘Basic Protection’ domain) in Cyprus are generally well-protected, with all four indicators at low risk (average risk at 14%). The ‘political independence’ and ‘Social Inclusiveness’ domains present medium and upper medium risk levels (respectively at 50% and 66%). In the ‘Political Independence’ domain interferences and control affect the independence of the PSM and news agencies, which create a high risk in two indicators, while three other indicators are at the limits of low to medium risk. Only the indicator on ‘Political bias in the media’ shows a low risk. Legal gaps do not guarantee media access by non-political groups, and community and minority media are absent. This and the absence of a media literacy policy, point to high risks for social inclusiveness and pluralism. The centralisation of the media system and low levels of internet use and digital skills present a medium level risk in the same domain.

While the ‘Market Plurality’ domain appears in the low risk category (30%), the indicators on the ‘Transparency in media ownership’ are at the limits between the low and medium risk categories.

Overall, there are seven low risk, seven medium risk and five high risk indicators.

 

2. Results from the data collection: assessment of the risks to media pluralism

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2.1 Basic Protection (14% risk – low risk)

The Basic Protection indicators represent the regulatory backbone of the media sector in every contemporary democracy and they measure a number of potential areas of risk, including the existence and effectiveness of implementation of regulatory safeguards for freedom of expression and the right to information; the status of journalists in each country, including their protection and ability to work; as well as the independence and effectiveness of national regulatory bodies, namely media authorities, competition authorities and communications authorities.

Indicator Risk
Protection of freedom of expression Negligible
Protection of right to information 31% risk (low)
Journalistic profession, standards and protection 21% risk (low)
Independence of national authority(ies) 4% risk (low)

 

Freedom of expression in the Republic of Cyprus is fully protected by the Constitution and, in practice, presents a negligible risk. In cases of the violation of rights, remedies are offered in accordance with both the Constitution and the Laws of the Republic, as well as of the relevant international treaties that Cyprus has ratified. Courts also apply the principles that are set by the ECHR. Libel and defamation have been decriminalised since 2003; offences that may lead to the filing of a criminal case are related to debatable, but very specific cases (the ‘protection’ of the army, of religious symbols and foreign officials). However, legal action needs the authorisation of the Attorney General.

While the ‘Protection of right to information’ is at low risk (31%), access to information held by the authorities remains problematic. Remedies include recourse to the Ombudsman, or to a court, but these are not satisfactory because of long decision-making processes and the expenses that are incurred in court cases.

No formal requirements are set, either in the law or in practice, for access to the journalistic profession, but a professional card and /or accreditation are required in order to access official and other events, or places. Most journalists belong to the only existing professional union, which, along with the media and labour legislation, protect rights that are related to working conditions. Editorial independence is also legally protected, but remains weak; journalists are generally hesitant, or avoid complaining to their union, about possible interference.

Overall, the indicator on ‘Journalistic profession, standards and protection’ presents low risk (21%). However, several sub-indicators, such as interference by media owners, media dependency on financial /commercial interests, employment uncertainty and instances of the lack of respect for journalists’ working conditions, which are attributed to the economic crisis, are all factors that present medium risks to journalism. While physical attacks or open threats to journalists remain extremely rare phenomena, leaks related to the purchase by the authorities of hacking software (e.g., the case of the Hacking Team) raised serious concerns for possible online surveillance targeting journalists, among others. Online safety runs a medium level risk because of this eventuality. The protection of journalistic sources is, in practice, respected and it is explicitly recognised by the courts.

The media regulator (the Cyprus Radio Television Authority, CRTA), is established by law with guarantees of independence. However, the selection procedure and weak criteria for the appointment of its members by the Council of Ministers present a medium level risk for the regulators’ independence. Procedures and practices that are related to budget approval, the functions, law enforcement and mechanisms for appealing against the regulator’s decisions, present no problematic areas, as is the case in relation to the absence of government interference with decisions and their enforcement. However, a risk related to deficient monitoring practices, until recently based mostly on complaints[2] and accountability, has been noted during analysis. No law provision requires an activity report, a strategic plan and/or target achievement reporting, to either the parliament or the government. With respect to the two regulatory bodies that can have a role in the media sector, the Commission for the Protection of Competition and the Office of the Commissioner for Electronic Communications and Postal Regulation (OCECPR), their independence, appointments, budget approval procedures, functions, effective operation, decision appealing mechanisms and non-interference by the government in decision-making and implementation, show no problematic areas. The overall area of regulation presents no significant problems, and the correspondent indicator is at low risk (4%).[3]

 

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2.2 Market Plurality (30% risk – low risk)

The Market Plurality indicators examine the existence and effectiveness of implementation of transparency and disclosure provisions with regard to media ownership. In addition, they assess regulatory safeguards against high concentration of media ownership and control in the different media, within a media market as well as cross-ownership concentration within the media sector.

Indicator Risk
Transparency of media ownership 38% risk (medium)
Concentration of media ownership 49% risk (medium)
Concentration of cross-media ownership 4% risk (low)

 

In order to avoid a situation where there are oligopolies, or a monopoly, the Law on Radio and Television Organisations 7(I)/1998 provides a broad array of measures to avert media ownership concentrations. Despite the existence of numerous rules, efficient monitoring may face difficulties in verifying and in distinguishing trustees /proxy owners from the true owners of shares. This is because the controls under the Media and the Company laws are not fully enforced. This poses a medium level risk for ‘media ownership transparency’ (38%) as is also the case with regard to the efficiency of monitoring compliance with the rules on the thresholds within a media company.

No ownership rules and constraints exist in the Press sector. Any legal or natural person can publish a newspaper, the only obligations being to register the title with the authorities, to name a person who is responsible under the law (RUL) -for companies, and to deposit a small amount of money as a warranty in cases of damages for libel -defamation. The Internet is completely free of any specific regulation. No ownership monitoring agency exists in either the press or the Internet sectors.

With regard to media concentrations that may lead to companies commanding a disproportionate part of the market, as witnessed by market shares, no specific data are publicly available. Data on media audience share are available, but their accuracy cannot be verified. This is because no auditing body exists in any of the media sectors. Specific and strict rules in the broadcasting law target cross media ownership (broadcasting and the press) by imposing thresholds. However, the efficiency of enforcement faces problems that are connected to difficulties in verifying the true owners of shares and in distinguishing them from trustees /proxies. This creates a medium level risk in this matter. In any case, because of the existing rules and the strict control on shareholding changes, which are enforced mainly through the media regulator, and if needed through the Competition Commission, the risk of high degree cross media ownership remains low (4%).

The lack of transparency of ownership is a grey area. The public cannot know who the exact owners are, and thus those who are, in reality, in command of the media. This is because no such obligation exists in respect of the press, while, in the case of broadcasting, there is only the obligation to publish the names of persons, either legal or natural, who hold more than 5% of a licensee’s shares. No exact percentage is published, while the regulator makes neither data /figures nor names available in their ownership and concentration report (which is published every three years). This causes a medium level risk to pluralism (‘concentration of media ownership’: 49%).

 

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2.3 Political Independence (50% risk – medium risk)

The Political Independence indicators assess the existence and effectiveness of implementation of regulatory safeguards against biased representation of political viewpoints in the media, and also the extent of politicisation over media outlets, media distribution networks and news agencies. Moreover, it examines influence of the state on the functioning of the media market, with a focus on state advertisement and public service media.

Indicator Risk
Political bias in the media 20% risk (low)
Politicisation of control over media outlets 33% risk (low)
Politicisation of control over media distribution networks 33% risk (low)
State advertising 36% risk (medium)
Independence of PSM governance and funding 75% risk (high)
Independence of news agencies 100% risk (high)

 

The role of political power, and of politicians in general, in the media overall present a medium risk level (50%) that is linked to many areas; they include political interference in the appointments and the budgets of the PSM, gaps in monitoring compliance with the rules on access by political actors to the media and others.

With regard to the indicator ‘political bias in the media’, it is worth noting that rules on the laws for both commercial media and the PSM provide for the fair and balanced presentation of political views, which are generally enforced. Political balance in media presentation is the only indicator in this area with a low level risk (20%) to pluralism. However, when the issue of the Cyprus Problem[1] is discussed in the media, all of the media tend to be biased. This practice, along with problems in the ways that invitees to programmes are selected, point to a medium level risk.

Rules for securing fair and balanced coverage of politics during electoral periods, covering all types of elections, are more detailed in the case of the PSM, to the point that they interfere with editorial independence. No external monitoring /regulatory body has the powers to examine compliance, except in the case of paid political advertising, which comes under the control of the Radio Television Authority. The absence of an external monitoring body thus presents a risk. However, in practice, access rights are respected and a proportional representation of political views is applied. Paid political advertising is also regulated, under the same set of rules, for both the PSM and commercial media. The PSM also offers free-to-air access. With regard to paid political advertising, a time ceiling, a time-framework period, and rules for equal terms and opportunities, are set in the legislation, as well as the rules that relate to the identification of political advertising as such and its origin; monitoring compliance and the imposing of sanctions in the case of breaches, are ensured by the same body, the Radio Television Authority, with remedies and appeals mechanisms in place also.

With regard to the indicator measuring the independence of PSM governance and funding, it was noted that the appointment of the governing body of the PSM and political interferences with both the budget approval procedures and the level of state funding are areas of concern. This is caused by the lack of objective selection criteria for appointees, of transparency in procedures, and of control mechanisms that would warrant the independence of the body and, by extension, of the PSM. Safeguards for appointments and for dismissals do not exist, and the situation  has deteriorated  with the introduction of a new law, which enables the government to dismiss the governing body of independent government organisations, including the PSM, without requiring a detailed justification, as required by law. The government also sets the level of state funding (over 90% of the budget) without any real consultation. Interference by political parties is a common practice, both in the process of budget approval and in day-to-day work, which poses more problems to the PSM. All the above create a situation of high risk for the ‘independence of the PSM and its funding’ (indicator at 75%). However, it should be noted that employees’ wages are determined in the schemes of service. They are viewed by the public as being too high.

Media ownership /control by political actors are limited, with only one daily being a party mouthpiece and one radio station being controlled by a party, and another by the Church of Cyprus. The general lack of / deficiency in transparency and accessibility to ownership data is an issue of concern, so the indicator ‘politicisation of control over media outlets’ scores at the upper end of low risk (33%).

The same level of risk has been identified with regard to the indicator ‘politicisation of media distribution networks’. A high concentration exists in press distribution, because there are only two networks, although these are not controlled by politicians. In television and radio, even though there is very limited ownership by politicians, a generalised trend to ideologically oriented information, in particular with regard to Cyprus Problem is an issue of concern, causing a risk level that is on the margin between low and medium (33%).

When it comes to the indicator on ‘state advertising’, the allocation of such advertising appears to be fair, in practice, however, the lack of transparent procedures, rules and data, causes concern that leads to a medium level risk (36%).

Finally, the existence of only one semi-governmental news agency, which is funded almost exclusively by the state budget, is a major risk for pluralism, which is reflected in the high risk assessment (100%) of the related indicator

[1] The Cyprus Problem is an issue caused by the pursuance of divergent goals by the two main communities of Cyprus: the Greek Cypriot Community (82%) claimed Enosis or Union with Greece, while the Turkish Cypriot community (18%) demanded Taxim or the partition of the island. Following a coup against the government of President Makarios by the Greek junta of Athens in summer 1974, the Turkish Army invaded the island and occupied its northern part, which resulted in a de facto partition. Negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations since then aim at re-uniting Cyprus under a federal solution. The Republic of Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004 with the northern part exempted from the acquis communautaire until the reunification of the island.

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2.4 Social Inclusiveness (66% risk – medium risk)

The Social Inclusiveness indicators are concerned with access to and availability of media for different, and particularly vulnerable, groups of population. They assess regulatory and policy safeguards for access to media by various cultural and social groups, by local communities and by people with disabilities. Moreover, they assess the centralisation of the media system, and the quality of the country’s media literacy policy, as well as the digital media skills of the population.

Indicator Risk
Access to media for different social and cultural groups, and local communities 88% risk (high)
Availability of media platforms for community media 100% risk (high)
Access to media for the physically challenged people 25% risk (low)
Centralisation of the media system 44% risk (medium)
Universal coverage of the PSM and the Internet 38% risk (medium)
Media literacy 100% risk (high)

 

The ‘social inclusiveness’ domain presents the highest risk level of all of the domains and it is at the limit between medium and high risk (66%). This is mostly due to there being no law provisions on community media and on the rights of social and cultural groups to access PSM. Various groups and minorities, other than politicians, are not guaranteed access to the PSM. Moreover, local news and programmes on PSM are not self-standing but are included in the general programming. These limitations to access to the PSM present a high risk (‘access to media of different social and cultural groups, and local communities’ indicator (88%). However, the existence of commercial local media must be taken into account as being a decisive mitigating factor.

Community media is a concept that is completely missing from the legislation. Even though there are no minorities in Cyprus, in the sense of the MPM definition,  the very high risk for the indicator ‘availability of media platforms for community media’ (100%) is due to the lack of any policy measure to guarantee this kind of media outlets as a distinct group alongside commercial and public media. As a result, different groups or minorities in the broader sense of the term have no access to ‘third media’ platforms.

Although policies for persons with sight and hearing impairment are not fully developed, adequate measures are applied that make access possible in practice (subtitles and sound descriptions are available for people with hearing impairments who are watching TV, see variable I3.2). This results in a low level of risk for the ‘access to media for the physically challenged people’ (25%).

The licensing of local/regional media has led to a proliferation of radio stations, but after the switch-over to digital television (mid-2011) local TV either closed down or was ‘upgraded’ to national coverage. No local dailies exist. Local media receive no specific to the sector state subsidies beyond those in the form of tax free equipment offered to all media. This situation leads to a centralised system and to a medium risk for local/regional media (‘centralisation of the media system’ indicator: 44%).

Territorial coverage of PSM is 100%. Almost the same is also the coverage for commercial media. When combined with broadband coverage (59% of the population) and low upload and download speeds, this presents a medium risk for universal coverage (38%).

No policy on media literacy has been adopted so far, even though some media literacy activities take place in practice. This is an issue of high risk, as there are low levels of Internet use (<70%) and of digital skills (<50%) (‘media literacy’ indicator: 100%).

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3. Conclusions

Based on the findings of the MPM2015, the following issues have been identified by the country team as more pressing or deserving particular attention by policy-makers in order to promote media pluralism and media freedom in the country. . 

While the overall picture of media freedoms and free expression in Cyprus appears positive, measures are needed in order to remedy for deficiencies and problems in areas that have a serious impact on the extent and quality of a pluralistic environment. A most serious is the need for ensuring the independence of the PSM at all levels – adequate funding, non-interference, independent governance, in accordance with the relevant recommendations of the Council of Europe. A reform of PSM should include law amendments in order to recognise and offer explicit, in practice access to various groups and minorities. This should include the establishment of bodies to monitor compliance. In accordance with the above, the inclusion of provisions that promote local and community media is essential as it would enable broader public access and participatory practices.

In an effort to broaden freedom of expression, it is important to adopt legislation on access to information and enforce compliance by all public authorities. Ensuring transparency in ownership data so that the public knows who is in command of information is needed.

Low levels of internet use and digital skills should be tackled by specific measures, on the one hand through the development of structures enabling universal and speedy access to the Web, and, on the other hand, through the adoption of a policy for media literacy. The need for Cyprus to introduce media literacy policies and a comprehensive plan is urgent because it trails behind most EU member states, even though the rate of tertiary education graduates is very high.

The absolute centralisation of the distribution systems, with one state-supported news agency and a duopoly in press distribution needs review. A decrease of dependency of the media on a “news subsidies” scheme, is required to warrant pluralism, in selection and presentation of news, while creating bodies for monitoring the press distribution networks and auditing circulation figures might contribute to a more democratic media environment.

Programmes for training and educating media professionals with focus also on defending editorial independence are highly needed as measures that can offer some response to the increased influence of commercial /financial interests on the pretext that we run through times of crisis.

 

Annex I. List of consulted national experts

Themistokleous Antigoni – Cyprus Radio Television Authority

Stratilatis Costas – University of Nicosia

Spyridou Lia-Paschalia – University of Nicosia

Simopoulos Michael – Action (Former CMCC)

Makrides Antonis – Cyprus Union of Journalists

Georgiades Stavros – Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation

 

[1] The present report is about the section of the Republic of Cyprus that is under the effective control of the government of the Republic.

[2] Latest information from the regulator indicates that selective monitoring started recently. However, we will need time to evaluate the efficiency of the system.

[3] It needs to be noted that this indicator has been found to be problematic in the 2015 implementation of the Media Pluralism Monitor. The indicator aimed to combine the risks to the independence and effectiveness of media authorities, competition authorities and communication authorities was found to produce unreliable findings. In particular, despite significant problems with regard to the independence and effectiveness of the authorities in many countries, the indicator failed to pick up on such risks and produced and overall low level of risk for all countries. The indicator will be revised for further versions of the MPM.

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