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No Hope in Sight

Given the media’s role in recent elections, only a fool would think this year will be any better. 

by Peter Gross 3 March 2017

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The post-communist media’s contributions to the region’s electoral battles are as monotonously predictable as they are enervating to democracy advocates.

 

The patterns established since the region began democratizing in 1989 are not likely to be broken either in the upcoming 2017 parliamentary elections in Albania, Armenia, and the Czech Republic, or in the Hungarian, Serbian and Slovenian presidential elections. The media’s congenitally bad performances during last year’s elections elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia reinforce the predictability of future developments.

 

We can, therefore, expect that political parties, oligarchs, presidents, prime ministers, other politicians, and government officials will again either perniciously affect or outright control the media’s campaign coverage. As a byproduct, tabloidization and manipulative journalism will lead to lesser-informed electorates. The more traditional media, where and if they have any independence, may be of marginal importance. Generally, social media have become a more influential factor. Yet their reach remains limited because of their unequal usage in urban and rural areas – as well as among educated and uneducated, and well-to-do and poor voters – mitigating their overall importance. Television will continue to be the dominant, albeit highly unprofessional, source of news and information in the upcoming elections.

 

A Less-Than-Optimistic Roll Call

 

Albania’s only “partly free” mainstream media will handle the campaign for the 18 June parliamentary election as they have in the past, allowing themselves to be manipulated, particularly by the press offices of political parties that are adept at preparing television video clips related to their campaigns. Alexander Cipa, the head of the Albanian Journalists Union, says his organization “will do everything possible for this [manipulation] not to happen. We will try to appeal to young reporters and editors not to violate professionalism.” There are roughly 650 media outlets available online, 120 of them supporting the incumbent Socialist Party and approximately 70 that support the opposition Democratic Party. Cipa plausibly forecasts that the role of online media will be significant; almost 63 percent of Albanians are Internet users.

 

The Armenian media, “owned by people with political interests,” are not expected to act independent and “objective” in the upcoming campaign, says former BBC reporter Mark Grigoryan, now back in Yerevan’s journalism world. Newspapers will not play a major role in the buildup to the 2 April elections, while social media will be more influential than in the past. Self-censorship, lack of real protection for sources (even if enshrined in law), and minimal transparency in television station ownership, continue to severely plague news media in the Caucasus country. Four major TV channels – Yerkir Media TV, Kentron TV, H3 TV, and Ararat TV – actively push the agenda of political parties and may even belong to them, despite the law prohibiting political parties from owning stations. Ultimately “it will be a television election,” Grigoryan said, adding that channels consistently air coverage favoring the government.

 

Many of the major Czech opinion-making news outlets, including online ones, have ties to political parties. The populist-centrist ANO Party, founded and led by billionaire Andrej Babis (now deputy prime minister), has a good chance of sweeping the elections to be held in October. ANO’s success can in no small way be tied to Babis’s ownership of two influential newspapers and a radio station, says Vaclav Stetka, a lecturer at Loughborough University, UK and former senior researcher in the Political Communication Research group at Charles University in Prague.

 

Czech media are generally free from political intervention, but pressure from owners/businessmen takes its toll on media autonomy and, therefore, journalistic independence. Additionally, defamation is still a criminal offense, which brings into question the media’s future freedom in bringing unfettered information and news to their audiences. Recent accusations of “oligarchization” in the aftermath of the German Verlagsgruppe Passau selling its publishing house to Penta Investments – an alleged backer of the new populist, anti-immigration Realiste party – don’t help matters either.  

 

Looking at previous elections, “it is safe to say that the [Hungarian] press and media will cover the [2017 presidential] election quite extensively and in line with their political and ideological affiliations,” concludes Peter Bajomi-Lazar, head of the Institute of Social Sciences and associate professor in the Social Communication and Media Department at the Budapest Business School. In other words, the majority of media coverage of the presidential campaign will be biased.

 

The controversial closing in October 2016 of Nepszabadsag, a left-of-center newspaper critical of the ruling Fidesz party, diminished the number of critical voices. Those still operational are mostly accessible to urban audiences – the weeklies Magyar Narancs, 168 Ora, Elet es Irodalom and the daily Nepszava, along with the last national television channel with a critical stance, RTL Klub. Independent news sites, such as index.huhvg.hu444.huatlatszo.huarbcug.hudirect36.hu, have a predominantly urban readership.

 

Rural voters have limited critical voices available to them, says Bajomi-Lazar, given that local radio stations mainly re-transmit news bulletins produced by the Fidesz-controlled National Wireless Agency national press agency. Regional daily newspapers are controlled by domestic oligarchs with close ties to the ruling party.

 

Serbia’s presidential election is also scheduled for this April. The media are expected to be less than balanced, highly subjective, and primarily focused on the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SRS), and predominantly on its leader, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, according to Jelena Petrovic, a journalist with N1 News Channel (CNN Exclusive News Channel Affiliate).

 

An analysis of reporting during the 2016 Serbian parliamentary campaign carried out by the Office of Security and Cooperation Europe and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network shows that the mainstream media played a biased role. Vucic was highly derisive of any media critical of him, calling social media and other critical voices “scum” – perhaps setting the general tone for the upcoming elections.

 

Slovenia’s media are generally considered free by outside observers, yet they are also encumbered by some negative aspects and unresolved issues. The expansion in 2014 of the Access to Public Information law, for example, is counterbalanced by the lack of protection of sources, and defamation remaining a criminal offense. Working conditions are challenging for some journalists, partly a result of financial constraints under which many media outlets operate, as the 2015 Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report shows. On the whole, the media are heterogeneous but the major newspapers are almost all left-leaning. Lastly, journalists working for public service media such as RTV Slovenia have complained in the past of political pressure during elections.

 

Perhaps the media’s roles and behavior will be less predictable in the 10 presidential and parliamentary elections in East and Central Europe in 2018. That’s very difficult to fathom – will the Russian media, for example, be less controlled by the Kremlin in next year’s presidential election?

 

But hope springs eternal and democracy advocates are not likely to give up the fight for a free media with professional standards appropriate to democratic life. 

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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