Media freedom in Central Europe on the decline

  • Bogdan Ivascu
  • 12.11.2018 07:32

It’s not just the occasional sarcastic remark of a powerful political figure that is alarming the media in the Visegrad countries anymore. The fact of the matter is that media freedom is on the decline across the region. Independent media are becoming more and more constrained by various legal instruments, their ownership increasingly concentrated in the hands of a powerful few and even journalists themselves are becoming a target of harassment. How far will this trend go?

Bad jokes and outspoken cynicism

On the 24th of October 2018, the Czech president Milos Zeman produced another cynical remark at the expense of journalists stating that “I love journalists, that’s why I may organize a special banquet for them this evening at the Saudi embassy,” alluding to Jamal Khashoggi's death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

However, similar statements by the Czech president are only a small part of a larger picture of the current media environment in the Visegrad countries. This environment includes an increasingly restrictive legal framework for the media, growing concerns for journalists’ safety and their freedom of speech and a growing oligarchic control over significant parts of the media, combining political and economic interests.

The increasingly restrictive legal framework  

What has become a matter of concern especially in Poland and Hungary is the legal framework in which the media operate. In Poland, control of public media shifted from the regulatory body to the Treasury Ministry, which can also appoint the managers of public television and radio broadcasters. According to the Freedom House, over 140 public media employees have resigned or have been fired by April 2016. Subsequent laws were passed by the governing party tightening the public media control to such an extent that the public television was considered a mouthpiece of the government by Reporters sans Frontiéres (RSF) in 2017. In 2016, Poland's rating in RSF's World Press Freedom Index plunged 29 positions.

Hungary already has a long history of strengthening state control over public media. Legislation enacted under Orban’s administration, especially in 2010 and 2015, severely deteriorated the status of public media. The media market is dominated by outlets favourable to Orban and his political party FIDESZ. Economic leverage is also used as a pressure tool. Access to public information has been made significantly more difficult in 2015 as public institutions can now ask for large sums of money for every information request. Taxation of the media was also used as a weapon against the disobedient. In 2014, the government adopted a tax law to the clear detriment of the market leader RTL Klub, which is the main competitor of TV2 and critical of Orban. The law was eventually replaced due to international pressure and after an intervention of the European Commission. While the Czech Republic and Slovakia are still considered to have a free press by the Freedom House, Poland ranks as “partly free” since 2017 while Hungary has been solidly installed there since 2012.

Oligarchisation of media ownership

Oligarchisation and increased concentration of ownership is another factor responsible for the deteriorating media environment and the sinking of quality standards. Penta Investments and J&T in Slovakia, Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic (nicknamed “Babisconi” after the Italian media oligarch Silvio Berlusconi), Lajos Simicska in Hungary (fallen from grace of Victor Orban in 2015 and replaced by Andy Vajna and Lórincz Mészaros) are just a few names of powerful individuals and companies controlling the media empires in Visegrad countries. This has resulted in a rollback of quality standards of the press, as unbiased, well-documented investigative journalism tends to become an endangered species. In a report from 2016, Freedom House noticed a decline in the depth and quality of reporting in Czech news media and an increase of “Google journalism” which is not based on primary sources. According to the report, newspapers funding substantial projects remained rare.

Settling the score with inconvenient journalists, mafia-style

The general agreement of the main media watchdog organisations is that physical attacks against media professionals are rather rare. However, they are not out of the question when prominent political and business figures feel their interests threatened. This seemed to be the case of Jan Kuciak whose murder in February 2018 triggered political turmoil in Slovakia. At the time of his death, he was investigating connections between the Italian mafia and Smer-SD (the left-populist party of Robert Fico). Most recently, Ukrainian activist Kateryna Handzyuk died on the 4th of November after an acid attack. She was a well-known critic of police corruption. Ukraine might not be a part of Central Europe but is not that far away, especially when political leaders seem to take their inspiration from systems beyond the eastern border of the EU.

What is particularly worrisome is that the distinction between the rhetoric of the establishment and that of the far right has become sometimes blurred. In Hungary, Orban’s party FIDESZ has often taken up the agenda from the far-right Jobbik, so distinguishing between the two is rather difficult. A wide gamut of instruments is employed in order to tighten the control of the media, from tightening state control to economic incentives or penalties. While physical assaults against journalists are not so common, there is a climate of intimidation for those who aim at authentic investigative journalism, especially when leading political figures have no inhibitions in producing controversial statements. Zeman, Robert Fico and Andrej Babiš are no longer the marginal-extremists, exotic figures of the 90's whom the “serious people” afforded to consider irrelevant buffoons. In 2018, the buffoon climbed up the king’s throne.

About author: Bogdan Ivascu


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