The ECPMF's cooperative idea as part of UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage

by Katharina Mikulcak and Jane Whyatt

Germany's concept of cooperatives was included on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2016. The ECPMF is now an SCE (Societas Cooperativa Europaea), making its legal status match the values it has stood for from the start - a Europe-wide collaboration.

Map of Europe The ECPMF's new legal status allows it to operate Europe-wide.

According to UNESCO, cooperatives allow for community building through shared interests and values. This is based on the subsidiarity principle, which puts personal responsibility above state action. Today, a quarter of Germany's population participates in the practice, making Germany a leading European country for the cooperatives idea – although there are hundreds of cooperatives successfully working all over Europe.

Reflecting the European idea of equality and close cooperation, another movement started some years ago. Since 2006, it is possible to register a Europe-wide working cooperative as an SCE.

In principle, such a coopearative shares the same values as a national cooperative: following the UNESCO definition, it is an association of volunteers that provides services to community members to improve living standards, overcome shared challenges and promote positive change.

The ECPMF's registration as an SCE, a special format in the European media sector, also reflects its core idea as a collective. But an innovative role always comes with pros and cons, as the example of the ECPMF demonstrates quite well. 

An SCE is legally competent to operate in any territory of the European Union. That alone makes it seem like an ideal choice for a newly-founded press and media freedom organisation, whose aim is to support and unite the media freedom community across the whole of Europe.

It is based on the principles set out by the founding fathers of cooperatives, the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. They started their work in the 19th century in the North West of England, and they aimed, in short, to re-distribute wealth and power from the rich few to the hungry masses during the first Industrial Revolution.

Now we are in the fourth such revolution, or "Industry 4.0". Digitalisation and algorithms have abolished the jobs of thousands of media workers, and threaten thousands more. But change is always a chance to set new principles and rules. Hence, a cooperative model is just as relevant for media workers today as it was in the 1840s for other employees to grant them support and stability.

When all members are equal

In addition to that, the cooperative model is inherently democratic. Democracy in this context means that the "one member, one vote" principle is in force. This gives an individual local newspaper journalist in a small town in the Czech Republic the same voting rights as, for example, the representative of a multi-national media empire or representative of the European Federation of Journalists, which itself has more than 300,000 members.

In this way, at the annual members’ assembly, the members of our ECPMF cooperative can truly share the experiences of journalists under threat, whistleblowers and other human rights defenders on equal terms.

The barrier to entry into the cooperative is simple, but important: to become a member of the ECPMF, you must sign our Statute and agree to ECPMF’s Code of Conduct as well as to the European Charter on Freedom of the Press. Also, you have to make a one-off payment of €100 for the time being, for which you will get one share of the cooperative – which makes you member and owner at the same time.

Some members are individual private persons, others stand for an organisation or media outlet. The statute treats them all equally.

In political terms, too, the "fair shares" concept works very well. For example, when the ECPMF’s founders at the Media Foundation of the Sparkasse Leipzig contacted some colleagues in the Balkans to encourage them to become not just members but also board members, there were gasps of astonishment and even a few tears of joy. Freelance journalists and tiny NGOs in remote corners of Europe that receive little attention were suddenly given a voice.

And although the ECPMF receives funding from the European Commission, the region (Land) of Saxony and the city of Leipzig, it can guarantee that those institutions do not dictate its policies or its political orientation, because its members and partners in 15 other countries also have an equal say in the matter. They represent a wide range of different media – print, TV, radio – and different types of journalism, and also include lawyers, academics and whistleblowing organisations.

Justice and Democracy All members are equal in the ECPMF's new legal form, meaning "one member, one vote".

Democratic, European, diverse

This diversity is a further guarantee of political independence - and of a lively debate.

As a non-profit, non-governmental organisation, the ECPMF is able to collect donations and offer tax-relief receipts to companies or individuals who contribute to our funds. It is classed as a socially useful body (gemeinnützig) and therefore enjoys a special tax status, too.

So far, so good – the SCE offers a wide range of opportunities and can be an excellent model for a media organisation that operates across national boundaries and includes a wide range of different members. However, the SCE is a rare organisational type, not often seen in German law or business.

The legal requirements for founding and registering an SCE at the German court are rather challenging, especially in the ECPMF's case, if you are going to register more than five members of the cooperative from at least two different EU member states.

The task is immense. We have to formally register founding members in a wide range of different countries – 34 in our case. We are working across language barriers, with different systems and specialist legal translations, and having to contend with the additional travel and accommodation required.

We have to factor in the political and administrative element: countries like Greece, Moldova or Russia often have totally different legal and administrative systems. What works well in the one country does not necessarily work in the other. Plus, there is the "human factor": People move, change their jobs, change their marital status, names and addresses. People die. So it is difficult, as the months go by, to keep, checking, updating and confirming all the documents necessary.

Nevertheless, for all the reasons stated above, the SCE cooperative is an excellent model for founding a new independent media organisation. But the whole process is not for the faint hearted: there is no framework or guidelines for the founding process. It's all about research, team work and patience – just as it has been for all the first cooperatives in the 19th century that are now honored by the UNESCO.

And if we look ahead, maybe the SCE will one day become a cultural heritage as well.

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