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Rise and Fall

Media freedom in Central and Eastern Europe has dramatically deteriorated since five countries in the region joined the EU. 

by Daniel Penev 17 July 2017

When you follow closely the evolution of the media environment across Central and Eastern Europe, sooner or later you inevitably start asking yourself if you are not watching the same movie over and over again. The cast, the directors, the scriptwriters, and the budgets vary 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 with similar recent histories that are now full-fledged members of the European Union. These countries are also alike in terms of the challenges they face, namely intimate relations between politics and business, incessant high-profile corruption that eats away from the already meager trust in state institutions, and a plethora of media that create the illusion of pluralism but in fact belong to a handful of influential politicians and businesspeople – typically with a shady past (and/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 many other industries) upside down. Daskalova describes the substantial changes that have taken place in Bulgaria, 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.

 

The Media Landscape in Numbers

 

According to the World Press Freedom Index, published annually by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 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 in last among EU member states. 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 the situation was described as “free,” the designation has been consistently “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 the top 30 of the World Press Freedom Index. Since Viktor Orban returned as prime minister in 2010, however, the clouds hanging over the media have been acquiring a grayer tone. As a result, the country dropped from 40th in 2011/2012 to 71st this year. The negative implications for the media after Orban’s return to power are further reflected in the Freedom of the Press reports. Whereas between 2002 and 2011 the Hungarian media were considered “free,” in 2012 they moved to the “partly free” category.

 

Poland’s performance in the two rankings is perhaps the most dramatic. 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 in 18th – the country’s best result so far. Nevertheless, it landed 47th in 2016, and this year it left the 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 KaczyƄski’s Law and Justice Party. The current government’s actions toward the media have had a profound 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. Notwithstanding occasional steps backwards, the country has been part of the top 50 for most of the past six years. Of the five countries analyzed here, Romania is the only one in which the media have consistently 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, ranking in the top 25 of the World Press Freedom Index for 14 years now – and even as high as number five in the 2006 index. In contrast to the other four countries, the Czech Republic 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, as discussed below.

 

Media Empires with Politicians at the Helm

 

Political influence over the media across Central and Eastern Europe has grown considerably in the past decade, as many of the foreign media companies have withdrawn from the market. 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 opponents.

 

This vicious practice came even more into focus in the Czech Republic just a few weeks ago. In audio recordings leaked in May, Andrej Babis, then the minister of finance, is heard discussing the possible publication of articles targeting Babis’s political opponents with a reporter of the daily Mlada fronta Dnes (MfD), which Babis had owned not long ago. The second richest person in the country, Babis had been the owner of Agrofert – a food and agro-industrial group of over 250 companies, including media organizations including two of most influential dailies in the country (MfD and Lidove Noviny); the most popular news website (iDnes.cz); one of the largest private radio stations (Radio Impuls); and a music TV channel (Ocko). After the coalition partners of ANO (Babis’s party) and the opposition passed a conflict-of-interest law, Babis transferred his business empire with 34,000 employees in 18 countries to 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 undermines media freedom in Bulgaria as well, which is compounded by non-transparent media ownership. In recent years, international watchdog organizations have regularly mentioned the name of Delyan Peevski, a member of parliament and the owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group. In its 2017 report, RSF notes 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 percent of the print media distribution network in the country.

 

Since he took over as prime minister for a second time following the 2010 parliamentary elections in Hungary, Viktor Orban 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, Nepszabadsag,” stated the 2017 RSF report on Hungary. “Although the Austrian owner of Mediaworks, the publishing company of Nepszabadsag, 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 … The rapacious appetite of the ruling party has no limits.”

 

Although the Media Act in Hungary contains provisions aimed at preventing conflicts of interest 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.

 

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 March for Europe session in Prague. Image via Aktron/Wikimedia Commons.

 

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, excessive political meddling with the public service media, and limitations on free speech in relation to Polish history and identity have created 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,” states this year’s report. “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.”

 

Playing with Taxpayers’ Money

 

One of the consequences of EU membership, the distribution of EU funds to member states as part of specific programs, which governments and municipalities then allocate to certain organizations, stands out with its particularly unintended, but harmful effects on the health of the media in the region.

 

“[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.”

 

According to the RSF, 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.” According to an Open Society Foundations study, between 2007 and 2012, the Bulgarian government spent 71.6 million lev (36.6 million euros) on communication campaigns promoting EU operational programs without providing details on how it used this money.

 

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 in 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, the National Council for Journalistic Ethics foundation, 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.

 

Of course, the political dependencies of the media in Central and Eastern Europe have not resulted solely from the non-transparent allocation of EU funds. The governments in Hungary, Romania, and Poland also 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 percent 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 percent, from 2.6 billion forints (8.3 million euros) to 6.3 billion.

 

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 300 million euros for 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 350 million euros per year.

 

In Poland, government agencies have ended their subscriptions to media close to the opposition, while state-owned companies have cancelled their advertising contracts with them. Actions like these, which limit the room for public interest journalism, have an even 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 above.

 

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 Central European University 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.”

 

At Least a Bit of 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 generate a lack of pluralism. Marie Hermanova, a journalist and researcher in the areas of media and migration, pointed to other powerful businesspeople who own media, but this has not prevented these outlets from producing quality journalism in accordance with core professional standards. A case in point is Zdenek Bakala, who controls the weekly Respekt and business daily Hospodarske noviny, among other publications.

 

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

 

“Somewhat paradoxically, one of the most progressive media lately is 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 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 number of journalists, after leaving leading traditional media, have launched their own projects that help maintain the media’s diversity. One example is the Reporter magazine founded by Robert Casensky, a former editor in chief of the daily Mlada fronta Dnes, 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 many journalists who used to work for Lidove Noviny, also bought by Babis.

 

Despite the unfavorable conditions for journalists and editors since Viktor Orban 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 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.

 

By trying to fulfill their watchdog functions, these and other innovative investigative journalism projects across the region illustrate what Nikoleta Daskalova from the Media Democracy Foundation seems to have in mind when she says she sees grounds for optimism in Bulgaria mainly in the skills and attitudes of individual journalists.

 

“I hope that the journalistic guild will activate 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,” Daskalova said.

Daniel Penev is 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. An extended version of this analysis first appeared on the website of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria.

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