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Push the Alarm Bell Already

It’s time to put the catastrophic state of the region’s media freedom front and center.

by Peter Gross 2 June 2017

European news organizations should band together and form a “rapid response” unit of seasoned journalists to report on the alarming attacks on media freedoms in Eastern Europe, and provide front-page exposure to this snowballing trend.


Non-governmental international organizations like Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, admirably track media freedoms and the fate of journalists across the world. Yet only a handful of their reports find their way to the mediated consciousness of democratic-minded citizens. That needs to change at a time when right- and left-wing ideological polarization and populism fertilize the ugly, destructive weeds of illiberalism.


Thirteen years ago a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty headline proclaimed, “Press Freedom Deteriorating in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.” Alas, such headlines today are few and far between these days, but not for want of supporting data, as the summation of Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom of the Press report demonstrates: “Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.”


Among Eastern European media systems only six are free (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Slovenia) – one fewer than in 2015. Twice that many are only partially free (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine), and three are not free at all (Belarus, Macedonia, and Russia).


Equally damning is the 2017 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders at the end of April. It illustrates a continued degrading of media freedoms in a region that has struggled to move up the rankings like a one-handed mountain climber trying to reach the top of Mount Everest. Four of the six countries ranked in the top 40 in 2015 lost ground in 2016 (Lithuania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia), while only two eked out small gains (Slovenia and Estonia). The rest either declined or ever so slightly improved. Media freedom is still missing in Russia and Montenegro. 


RSF’s rankings are just a tad suspect, however. How to explain the U.S. media’s ranking that puts it only three rungs up from Romania’s notorious, oligarch-controlled media? Or Russia’s ranking remaining the same as in 2015 given the two journalists imprisoned in 2016 compared with a year earlier; Putin’s closure of the non-governmental Levada Center polling and sociological research center; the involuntary resignation of three editors from the media group RBC – which the Guardian called “one of the last independent publications” – and the forced selloff of German group Axel Springer shares in the Russian edition of Forbes and other assets held the country.


Not a Good Year Already


The full arsenals of judicial, extra-judicial, policy, economic, and other weapons employed by governments, parliaments, political parties, and politicians have already pruned media freedoms and threatened journalists in 2017.


In the first quarter of 2017, journalists were arrested, charged with various offenses, and physically attacked in Albania, Belarus, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia, according to RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists. The assault on media freedom took up a chauvinist cudgel in Croatia where nationalists demanded the closing of a local Serbian newspaper; in Ukraine where an independent Russian TV channel was banned; and in Poland where Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who heads the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS), called for private media to be returned to Polish ownership, in a not-so-veiled reference to German-owned media. The PiS government has also created economic hardships for the main independent newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, by withdrawing state agencies’ advertising. Russia charged a Crimean journalist with inciting “separatism,” and arrested an Uzbek journalist living in Moscow and threatened him with extradition to Uzbekistan from where he fled in 2009.


Autocracies and dictatorships used to be the sole enemies of all freedoms, Arch Puddington and Tyler Roylance write in their overview essay to the Freedom House “Freedom of the World 2017” report. However, “in 2016 it was established democracies—countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system – that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.” To suggest this happened overnight or even in a 12-month timespan, is delusional.


The semi-autocracy of populist, quasi-liberal socialistic policies, as well as the deficits of democracy at national and European levels, all contributed to the rise of illiberalism. And so has the left’s conspicuous, persistent, decades-long attacks on both political and economic liberalism. Together, they have also generously fertilized the re-growth of the right and its brand of populism, with xenophobic and autocratic inclinations.


It is no surprise then that both in practical and ideational terms, Western Europe’s efforts to liberalize and democratize Eastern Europe have been woefully inadequate. “To the EU’s detriment, its policy toward its Eastern neighbors is neither creating an arc of stability nor encouraging democracy,” concludes Judy Dempsey in a Carnegie Europe report.


It is painfully obvious that the media and their journalists have much work to do. First and foremost, however, they must secure their freedoms to do so by loudly alerting the world of any attempts to degrade them. 

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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