Decline and Fall of Media Freedom in Central and Eastern Europe

From AEJ

2017-07-11 12:54:27   |  Views: 293  |    |  0 comment(s)

When you follow closely the evolution of the media environment across Central and Eastern Europe, sooner or later you inevitably start asking yourselves if you are not watching the same movie over and over again. The cast, the directors, the scriptwriters, and the budgets are different in line with the local economic and political conditions. The plots, however, overlap almost entirely, and once the movie is over, you are usually left with a painfully bitter taste in your mouth.

To test the validity of this statement, you simply need to observe the major developments in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic – five countries of similar sizes and recent historical experiences which are now full-fledged members of the European Union (EU). These countries are also alike in terms of the challenges they face, namely intimate relations between politics and business, incessant high-profile corruption which eats away from the already meagre trust in states institutions, and a plethora of media which create an illusion of pluralism but in fact belong to a handful of influential politicians and businesspeople – typically with a shady past (or present).

Contrary to common sense, the media environment in these five post-communist countries has deteriorated dramatically since they joined the EU. According to Nikoleta Daskalova, a media expert with the Media Democracy Foundation in Bulgaria, the situation took a particularly negative turn after the beginning of the financial crisis in 2007, which turned the media sector (and virtually any other industry) upside down. Daskalova describes the substantial changes in the Bulgarian media sector, many of which are also present in the other four countries: ever-decreasing advertising revenues, ever-increasing political dependencies, the withdrawal of foreign media owners, dramatically diminishing print circulation, and intensive reader migration to digital media.

“In this context, many of the media, especially the press, turn into a cheaper and accessible instrument in the hands of local actors with political and business interests,” says Daskalova. “All this opens the door to trading in influence, interference with editorial content, self-censorship, unregulated deals, media racketeering. There emerges an acute media appetite for survival through even more commercial content, disregard for ethical standards, hate speech, operations aimed at discrediting public figures and civil organizations, and so on. Under the conditions of market stagnation and dependence on external forms of influence, the media find it very difficult to retain their autonomy. This situation does not benefit pluralism but the aggressive power of the monopoly-based status quo.”

How does Bulgaria’s EU membership matter in this context? “The EU membership does not necessarily give effective mechanisms for overcoming the problems,” says Daskalova. “The EU institutions are fully aware of and have criticized the local risks for media freedom and pluralism, but until now they have followed a cautious policy of non-intervention.”

The media landscape in numbers

According to the World Press Freedom Index, published annually by the Reporters Without Borders, of the five countries analyzed here, Bulgaria has seen the greatest decline in media freedom. Whereas it ranked 34th out of 158 countries in the 2003 Index, Bulgaria has experienced a continuous decline since 2007, landing 113th out of 180 countries in 2016 – the country’s worst performance ever. Noteworthy, Bulgaria came last among the EU Member States.

Even though Bulgaria went up four places in this year’s Index, its media sector continues to face numerous difficulties. In fact, Bulgaria’s higher ranking this year is misleading, since it received a lower score than the one it got last year – 35.01 and 34.46, respectively. This paradox suggests that Bulgaria’s upward movement resulted not from a genuine improvement in the media climate in the country but from its deterioration in other countries.

The unenviable situation in which the Bulgarian media find themselves is also evident from the country’s performance in the Freedom of the Press reports, compiled annually by Freedom House. While in 2002 and 2003 they were described as “free”, the Bulgarian media have consistently been designated as “partly free” since 2004. While they have varied over the years, the country’s scores indicate a decline in media freedom.

The media trends in Hungary are markedly negative as well. Between 2002 and 2010, the country consistently ranked in top 30 of the World Press Freedom Index. Since Viktor Orbán returned as prime minister in 2010, however, the clouds hanging over the media are acquiring a greyer tone. As a result, the country dropped from 40th in 2011/2012 to 71st this year. The negative implications for the media after Orbán’s return to power are further reflected in the Freedom of the Press reports. Whereas between 2002 and 2011 they were considered “free”, in 2012 the Hungarian media moved to the “partly free” category.

Poland’s performance in the two rankings is more than curious. In 2006, two years after its accession to the EU, Poland ranked 60th in the World Press Freedom Index. It kept climbing up the Index until 2015 when it came 18th – the country’s best result so far. Nevertheless, it landed 47th in 2016, and this year it left top 50, occupying a position similar to the position it had in 2005. The sudden drop over the past two years coincided with the return to power of Jaroslaw Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party. Although he conceded the premier’s office to Beata Szydlo, Kaczyński retains a key role in Polish politics. The current government’s actions toward the media have a negative impact on the country’s standing in the Freedom House reports. The negative developments reached a peak this year when the Polish media were designated as “partly free” for the first time in the history of the reports.

After it landed 70th in the World Press Freedom Index in 2004 and 2005, Romania has moved upwards. Its occasional steps back notwithstanding, it has been part of top 50 for most of the time over the past six years. Of the five countries analyzed here, Romania is the only one in which the media have unchangeably been described as “partly free” in the Freedom of the Press reports since 2002. At the same time, with a few minor exceptions, Romania has been improving its performance in the ranking since 2009.

Of the five Central and Eastern European countries, the Czech Republic has displayed the highest levels of media freedom. It has ranked in top 25 of the World Press Freedom Index for 14 years now. Noteworthy, it came as high as number five in the 2006 Index. Another proof of the more media-friendly conditions in the Czech Republic in comparison to the situation in the other four countries is the fact that it alone has never been part of the “partly free” group in the Freedom House reports. Nevertheless, the political and economic developments in the country in recent years have raised concerns about the media’s long-term well-being.

This overview of the performance of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic in the two most popular media freedom rankings shows that the media in Central and Eastern Europe find themselves in an unenviable situation. The main factors responsible for this state of affairs vary according to the specificities of each country, yet they can reasonably be summarized as a combination of political pressures and concentration of media ownership, along with the governments’ use of state and EU money to ensure media comfort for themselves through non-transparent, preferential funding in the context of paper-thin advertising revenues.

Media empires with politicians at the helm

Political interference in the media in Central and Eastern Europe is hardly surprising, given the decades of one-party rule and state censorship prior to 1989. Political influences over the media in the region have grown considerably in the past decade, as many of the foreign media companies have withdrawn from the market for economic reasons. As a result, some of the most respected traditional media have ended up in the hands of local politicians and businessmen who are all too willing to use them as an instrument for wielding political and economic power and settling accounts with ospponents. Even though official censorship is already in the history books, the governments in the region often strive to shape the media content, whether directly or indirectly.

This vicious practice came in the limelight in the Czech Republic just a few weeks ago. In audio recordings leaked in May, Andrej s, the minister of finance and the second richest person in the country, and a reporter of the daily Mlada fronta Dnes (MfD), which Babis owned not long ago, are discussing a planned publishing of articles targeting Babis’s political opponents.  The Czech finance minister is the owner of Agrofert – a food and agro-industrial group of over 250 companies, including media organizations such as one of the two most influential dailies in the country (Lidové Noviny), the most popular news website (iDnes.cz), one of largest private radio stations (Radio Impuls), and a music TV channel (Óčko). After the coalition partners of ANO (Babis’s party) and the opposition passed a conflict-of-interests law, Babis transferred his business empire with 34,000 employees in 18 countries into a trust.

Babis’s media acquisitions are a wonderful example of the so-called “oligarchization” of the media in the Czech Republic. Pavla Holcova, the founder of the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism and an associate with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), says that through his media, Babis can simultaneously “influence politics [and] public opinion, and gain […] state and EU subsidies for his agricultural companies.”

The marriage between politics and media, along with non-transparent media ownership, undermines media freedom in Bulgaria as well. In recent years, the Reporters Without Borders and other international watchdog organizations have regularly mentioned the name of Delyan Peevski, a member of parliament and the owner of New Bulgarian Media Group. In their 2017 report, the Reporters Without Borders note that one of the reasons Bulgaria scores the lowest among all EU Member States is the combination of corruption and the collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs, including Peevski, whose media group comprises six newspapers and controls nearly 80% of the print media distribution in the country.

The lack of transparency regarding media ownership and the concentration of media in the hands of politicians with business interests – or businesspeople with political aspirations – has drawn the attention of diplomats such as H.E. Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes, a former French ambassador to Bulgaria.

“The press’s role is to be critical toward any power, regardless of whether it is political or economic,” de Cabanes said in an interview for the Bulgarian magazine Economist in February 2016 while he was still based in Sofia. “Unfortunately, this press is dependent on the economic power of a person who is not only a very rich businessman but also a deputy in parliament. The public deserves to hear different opinions. True, there are many newspapers but if they all belong to the same media group and its owner determines the journalists’ political line, then the Bulgarian press has a huge problem.”

Since he took over as prime minister for a second time following the 2010 parliamentary elections in Hungary, Viktor Orbán has directed considerable resources toward silencing critical voices.

“In October 2016, the Orbán regime celebrated its biggest score after the suspension of both the print and online editions of Hungary’s most influential daily newspaper, Népszabadság,” the Reporters Without Borders wrote in their 2017 report on Hungary.  “Although the Austrian owner of Mediaworks, the publishing company of Népszabadság, claimed that the suspension was based uniquely on financial grounds, it became apparent a few weeks later that the closure of the leading left-liberal daily newspaper was politically motivated. In November 2016, Mediaworks, at the time the biggest publisher of regional daily newspapers dominating more than 50% of that market, was sold to a company with close ties to the ruling party Fidesz and controlled by one of the Prime Minister's closest advisors. With this acquisition, Fidesz gained control of a dozen of regional daily newspapers and other media outlets […] The rapacious appetite of the ruling party has no limits.”

Although the Media Act in Hungary contains provisions aimed at preventing conflicts of interests and limiting the actions of politicians and political parties in the media sector, local politicians continue to exert influence over the media – either through media acquisitions or through economic levers such as tax policies and advertising revenues. This is one of the main takeaways from the 2016 Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM), which the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute published in May.

“[T]he current Fidesz government has a dominant footing over the commercial TV and radio markets, primarily through a network of indirect ownership among a group of Fidesz-linked business moguls and oligarchs,” write the authors of the MPM report on Hungary. “In more recent years, the print market has been undergoing extensive changes, due to steady declines in revenues, a series of mergers and acquisitions, and the launch of new outlets established by Fidesz-linked companies. Since 2010, government-linked business affiliates have acquired or launched new print titles, despite declining revenues across the print sector.”

The Budapest Beacon, a Hungarian media outlet publishing in English, reported in May, based on information by 24.hu, that the business tycoon Lőrinc Mészáros owns a total of 192 newspapers in the country as well as the TV channel Echo TV.  The same piece mentioned rumors according to which Mészáros, currently the fifth richest person in Hungary, intends to buy some more county newspapers.

The dangerously close relations between media, politics, and business undermine media freedom in Romania as well.

“The private media sector is dominated by Romanian businessmen with political ties or holdings in other industries, and these interests typically determine an outlet’s editorial line,” wrote Freedom House in their 2015 report on Romania.  “In July 2014, the news station Digi TV, owned by Romanian cable and satellite giant RCS-RDS, fired reporter Cristi Citre after he harshly criticized Prime Minister Victor Ponta on his personal Facebook page […] In September, television and radio host Robert Turcescu admitted that he was an undercover agent for the military intelligence service, raising concerns about possible media interference by the country’s spy agencies.

The media in Poland are not immune to political pressure, either. After forming a new government in 2015, the Law and Justice Party adopted measures that directly threaten the independence of the public service media. The government’s growing intolerance toward independent and critical journalism, the excessive political meddling with the public service media, and the limitations on free speech in relation to Polish history and identity have created a fertile soil for self-censorship and polarization. It is for these reasons that this year Freedom House downgraded the Polish media from “free” to “partially free” for the first time since it started publishing its Freedom of the Press reports.

“Legislation passed in December 2015 ended the mandates of Poland’s public television and radio managers and empowered the treasury minister to appoint their successors,” says this year’s Freedom of the Press report on Poland.  “By April 2016, more than 140 employees at public outlets had resigned or been fired. The many personnel changes during the year encouraged self-censorship among reporters who remained at public outlets. As a result of the government’s combative relationship with critical media, self-censorship also increased among journalists working for opposition-friendly private outlets.”

Media comfort through taxpayers’ money

The accession to the EU of many of the Central and Eastern European countries over the past 13 years carries unique benefits but they come at a certain price. Among the multiple unintended consequences, the distribution of EU funds to Member States as part of specific EU programs, which governments and municipalities then allocate to certain organizations, stands out with its particularly harmful effects on the health of the media systems in the region. Some of the funds reach the media in the form of subsidies, others are used for the purchase of advertising with regards to specific campaigns.

The current model of allocation of EU funds puts the governments in a favorable position vis-à-vis the media because it allows them to buy media comfort for themselves. Those in power spend the EU money on activities aligned with their interests and aspirations, while the media, still recovering from the severe financial crisis, are competing with one another for a piece of the cake. Inevitably, this process leads to a decline in media freedom and a simultaneous increase in the media’s dependence on the state.

“[Amid] financial instability and market stagnation, the distribution of funds for the promotion of European projects turns the state into a major advertiser,” explains Nikoleta Daskalova from the Media Democracy Foundation. “This increases the influence of ministries and municipalities over the national as well as the regional media which, in turn, often have to show loyalty by reducing their journalistic criticism toward those in power.”

The Reporters Without Borders have also called attention to this problem. According to the non-governmental watchdog organization, the Bulgarian government allocates EU funding to certain media “with a complete lack of transparency, in effect bribing editors to go easy on the government in their political reporting or refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether.”  Between 2007 and 2012, the Bulgarian government spent BGN 71.6 million (EUR 36.6 million) on communication campaigns promoting EU operational programs without providing details on how it used this money.

Audio recordings leaked in 2013 confirmed the existence of this vicious practice.  They contain a conversation between Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, then-Minister of Agriculture and Food Miroslav Naydenov, and then-Sofia City Prosecutor Nikolay Kokinov that took place on 15 April 2013. The recorded conversation revealed that the government was buying media comfort for itself by providing “technical assistance” in the form of EU money.

According to media reports from August 2012, the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture and Food set aside BGN 100,000 (EUR 51,000) for promotional activities related to the EU rural development program on Facebook, Twitter, and online forums during that year.  One half of the money was to be spent on Facebook and Twitter pages, the other half – on “publishing information about the rural development program in Internet forums.”

The allocation of EU money to media organizations is more than a timely topic, given Bulgaria’s upcoming presidency of the Council of the EU (1 January 2018 – 30 June 2018). It is precisely for this reason that earlier this year journalists and media experts representing the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, the Media Democracy Foundation, Foundation “National Council for Journalistic Ethics”, and the Committee for Journalistic Ethics, among others, proposed a set of quantitative and qualitative criteria for the selection of media partners for communication activities in relation to the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU.  The purpose of the proposed criteria is to provide for a transparent and equitable allocation of EU funds and prevent the creation of political dependencies so that the money can be used as effectively as possible and in the spirit of the EU’s values and rules.

The political dependencies of the media in Central and Eastern Europe have not resulted solely from the non-transparent allocation of EU funds. Instead, the governments in Hungary, Romania, and Poland use at least one of the following two instruments for shaping the media agenda: advertising through public money and control of the budgets of the public service media.

According to recent media reports, the government of Hungary spent 80% more on advertising in 2016 than it did in 2015, becoming the largest advertiser in the country.  The government’s budget for TV advertising grew 140%, from HUF 2.6 billion (EUR 8.3 million) to HUF 6.3 billion (EUR 20.1 million).

In Romania, the budget of the public service media surpasses the budgets of most private media.  In January this year, the government approved a budget of nearly EUR 300 million for the public radio and TV. This is a colossal sum for a country with a population of 21 million in which the entire advertising market amounts to EUR 350 million per year.

This year’s World Press Freedom Index suggests that the situation in Poland is also not very bright.  The Reporters Without Borders point to a pro-government tendency in the public service media throughout 2016. At the same time, government agencies ended their subscriptions to media close to the opposition, while state-owned companies cancelled their advertising contracts with them. Actions like these, which limit the room for public interest journalism, have even a more perverse effect in the context of the government’s involvement in determining the composition of the management of the public radio and TV, as mentioned earlier.

Journalists and media experts agree that if the media climate in Central and Eastern Europe is to improve, the authorities and the various parties concerned should come up with new regulations to prevent political interference in the public service media and ensure a transparent and equitable spending of state money on media-related activities. As noted by Marius Dragomir, the director of the Center for Media, Data, and Society attached to the School of Public Policy at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, this is “a problem concerning the whole society as it involves taxpayer money” and, thus, “[p]eople should know where their money goes and be asked about that.

Grounds for optimism

Despite the host of challenges the media in Central and Eastern Europe need to overcome, the situation is far from hopeless. The well-being of the media in this part of the world depends on the creation of an effective regulatory framework that sheds light on media ownership and the relations between politics and media, and on the principles and actions of individual journalists and editors.

The Czech Republic is a case in point when it comes to the nuances in the media sector. The oligarchization of the media has mostly negative consequences, yet the concentration of media ownership does not necessarily imply a lack of pluralism. Marie Hermanova, a journalist and researcher in the areas of media and migration, says that along with Andrej Babis, there are some other powerful businesspeople who own media (such as Zdeněk Bakala) but this does not prevent these outlets from producing quality journalism in accordance with core professional standards.

The Czech Republic further proves that public service media, which do not enjoy high levels of trust across the region, can do professionally solid and progressive journalism.

“Somewhat paradoxically, one of the most progressive media lately is [the] Czech Radio [the public service broadcaster],” explains Hermanova. “They have a team of data-journalist[s], they have great reporters, they just recently launched a new project called iRozhlas  [literally iRadio] – a special web project offering longer investigative and data-based pieces. A lot of journalists would say that once you worked for [the] Czech Radio. you don’t really want to go anywhere else, because the standard is really high and they are trying to do their job ‘BBC style’.”

In Hermanova’s words, the Czech Republic is home to many smaller independent media outlets, mostly online, which cover the entire political spectrum. Pavla Holcova from the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism adds that a lot of journalists, after they left some of the leading traditional media, launched their own projects that help maintain the media pluralism in the country. One example is the Reporter magazin  founded by Robert Čásenský, a former editor-in-chief of the daily Mlada fronta Dnes (MfD) who left the newspaper after it was bought by Andrej Babis, who would later become finance minister. A similar media project is Echo24.cz , whose team includes mostly journalists who used to work for Lidové Noviny, one of the most influential Czech dailies which now belongs to Babis.

Despite the unfavorable conditions for journalists and editors since Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010, there are still independent media outlets in Hungary, which strive to provide trustworthy information on matters of public interest. One well-known example is Direkt36 , which is part of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The team focuses on investigations related to corruption and abuse of power, which are published both in Hungarian and in English. Another popular outlet producing investigative journalism is Atlatszo.hu , which is financed through private donations and does not accept support from state institutions and political parties. Similar to Direkt36, Atlatszo.hu publishes most of its stories in Hungarian as well as in English.

These and other innovative investigative journalism projects across Central and Eastern Europe effectively challenge the status quo despite the financial troubles of the media sector and the various levers politicians use to put pressure on the media. By trying to fulfill their watchdog functions, these media illustrate what Nikoleta Daskalova from the Media Democracy Foundation seems to have in mind when she says she see grounds for optimism in Bulgaria mainly in the skills and attitudes of individual journalists. “I hope that the journalistic guild will open up its reflexes for self-regulation and the protection of professional dignity [and] create a sense of community that is above the interests of the media,” concludes Daskalova.

Author: Daniel Penev, a freelance journalist and a member of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria). He has just earned an M.A. in international relations from the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary.

Picture: duncan c

*This text is created within the project of the Association of European journalists-Bulgaria called “Mediator 2: A bridge between journalism and society”, funded by foundation “America for Bulgaria”.

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