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Bad News for Fans of Free Speech

Eastern Europe is backsliding on press freedom amid harsh economic times and illiberal politics. by Christopher Walker 4 May 2012

Hungary’s descent into the Partly Free category in Freedom House’s just-released annual assessment of global media independence should set off alarms for those who believed the country’s press freedom was firmly established.


In a stunningly short time, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used his Fidesz party’s supermajority in parliament to push through a raft of measures that are patently hostile to media independence. A controversial media law that came into force 1 January 2011 drew sharp criticism from a range of international observers, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Commission.


The related establishment of a National Data Protection Agency and a powerful media and communications regulator, whose tentacles can reach far into Hungary’s information landscape, offers the political leadership an institutional mechanism for media control. Self-censorship is already on the rise, as sensitive topics are increasingly sidestepped in the country’s “new normal” media environment.


Hungary’s fall from Free to Partly Free has exposed the relative fragility of its young democracy, but it also reflects growing vulnerabilities for press freedom in the broader region. Findings from the new Freedom House report, Freedom of the Press 2012, suggest that illiberal politics and a grim economic environment are conspiring to shrink the space for independent media in new democracies in Central Europe and the Baltics, democratic hopefuls in the Balkans, and semi-authoritarian states to the east.


With respect to the last group, Ukraine is a case in point. Early hopes that the country would build on the momentum of the Orange Revolution and consolidate an open media system have been dashed under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, who has made reassertion of effective media control one of his priorities. There is mounting evidence that pressure is growing on journalists in Ukraine to avoid reporting on sensitive subjects. A recent, ill-advised proposal to create a powerful regulatory body called the National Commission for the Protection of Public Morals serves as a sobering indicator of the country’s current direction. Meanwhile, the transition to digital broadcasting in Ukraine is being used by the regime as an opportunity to acquire systematic control of the flow of information, especially as it relates to television stations, from which some 90 percent of Ukrainians receive news and information. The crossover to digital broadcasting is planned for completion in 2015. In this year’s Freedom of the Press findings, Ukraine is just two points away from the Not Free category, having moved quickly toward the poor standards set by the other states of the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, whose average score is 75.25 out of 100, with 100 the worst possible score.


Of the 10 new European Union members, three – Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – are now Partly Free. And as a result of harsh economic conditions, poor media-ownership transparency, and a progressively weaker capacity for investigative reporting, Latvia’s media environment is now four points away from Partly Free status. Even countries with somewhat better economic performance, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, are facing genuine challenges in ensuring the integrity and independence of their news media.


The pressures on outlets producing news that is civically and politically relevant are global but have particularly serious implications for young democracies. If the already stressed news outlets in countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Latvia continue their downward drift, these states’ ability to achieve further democratic reforms will be hobbled. Major overhauls in the fields of health, education, and economic management could go awry without substantive media scrutiny, and making headway in the fight against corruption – a corrosive problem throughout the region – will be all but impossible.


The costs will be even higher for countries with weaker democratic institutions, like Ukraine, if the watchdog and other important functions of the media are disabled by political and economic pressures.


Domestic press freedom defenders, other European governments, and international organizations should step in early and remain vigilant to prevent the current regional backsliding on media independence from threatening the overall democratic gains of the last two decades.

Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House and a member of TOL’s advisory board. He tweets at @walker_ct.


Home page photo illustration from the Facebook page of One Million for Freedom of the Press in Hungary.

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