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Wanted: New Gardeners

The citizens of Hungary and Bulgaria must learn again how to cultivate media freedom before once fertile ground turns irreversibly into a journalistic wasteland.

by Peter Gross 3 April 2018

The seeds of Eastern European freedom planted in 1989 promised an eventual blossoming of a colorful, healthy, sunflower-like expanse of democracy and independent media. Sadly, long ago some stunted, thorny, gloomy weeds crept into that garden – carefully tended for nefarious employment by the illiberal democracies across most of the region.

 

Historical and cultural differences aside, most of the post-communist region appears to have a common denominator: the skilled Frankenstein-like landscapers present in the guise of politicians, and media owners, who in some cases are themselves politicians or their eager bedfellows. The often-noted incremental increase in media concentration and manipulation during the last 28 years has now reached alarming proportions in some countries, which means that a significant portion of Central and Eastern European audiences are fed more propaganda than bona fide news and information. Two examples stand out.

 

Hungary: Taking No Chances

 

In the land of composer Bela Bartok, not even the delicious Palinka brandy can make one forget that already by 2016 the media were “increasingly dominated by oligarchs with close government ties,” and that “the right-wing media reconfigured and expanded with new owners and outlets that actively promote the government line,” according to a Media Pluralism Monitor report published by the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom in 2016.  

 

Media pluralism has been further reduced since then. Prime Minister Victor Orban’s allies now control up to 20 television channels, 11 radio stations, and about 500 online and print outlets, giving hefty credibility to the claim that almost 90 percent of media are directly or indirectly controlled by the ruling party, Fidesz.

 

And there is more.

 

In preparation for the parliamentary elections that will take place this weekend, Orban’s pals snapped up all – yes, ALL – 18 regional newspapers in the country by last fall. There is nothing like a democracy with hardly any independent media; it’s like having the puszta, Hungary’s grassland plain, being left with only one or two small patches of grass. Of course, there is a practical side to this for those who control the country. Now that the number of independent journalists and media outlets have been winnowed down, Orban and Fidesz have fewer of them to attack, and more time to strike at Hungarian philantrophist George Soros and to harass foreign journalists who are apt to probe the happenings in the “Fuhrer Democracy,” as Hungarian author and journalist Paul Lendvai has labeled the new Hungary.

           

Bulgaria: The Definition of an Oligarch

 

In large measure, as is the case in the Hungarian “garden,” the story of the media in Bulgaria has a name and a main character: Delyan Peevski. A report released in early 2018 by the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria – “The Media Freedom White Paper” – asserts that Peevski, a member of parliament, has overwhelming authority over most the media business, including most of the country’s distribution network. In and outside the country, Peevski has been described in rather unflattering ways … and that is putting it diplomatically. German news magazine Der Spiegel called him the “iceberg of corruption,” and none other than the president of Bulgaria’s Supreme Court, Lozan Panov, compared him to the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. 

 

By all accounts, the shrewd and calculating Peevski embodies the classic figure of the politician-oligarch, aggressively employing media on his own behalf and that of his political pals. Bulgarian media is thus employed to “gain control, defeat opponents, maintain the political status quo, [and] distort public opinion to the extent of a total reality shift,” as the white paper argues. Since 2007, Peevski has grown and used his media empire to obliterate politician opposition and is now intent on “blotting out the last pieces of independent journalism,” writes Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data, and Society, in MediaPowerMonitor.com, a media analysis site.  

 

One of Bulgaria’s most distinguished historians-philosophers-sociologists, Tzvetan Todorov, wrote in his 2003 book Hope and Memory: Reflections on the Twentieth Century: "For evil to take place, the acts of a few people are not sufficient; the great majority also has to remain indifferent.” Though Todorov, a humanist and champion of liberalism, died in February 2017, Bulgarians should still heed his advice and stand up to the likes of Peevski.

 

Not counting Russia and Belarus, whose media gardens have been largely turned into wastelands, Hungary and Bulgaria’s may now be the reigning champions of shabbiness in Eastern Europe. Media concentration is at the highest it has been since a good number of these young democracies became “managed” by Berlusconi-Putin wannabies, and the flowers of media freedoms have been thinned out and those that remain look rather peaked. Make no mistake, in this respect Hungary and Bulgaria outdistance other countries in the region only by the width of a seed. The course of media conglomeration in Albania, Poland, and Romania, for instance, has also been rapid, extensive, and pernicious for media freedoms and good journalism.

 

Civil societies need to weed out those individuals and political parties that insist on stunting the budding democracies and their promising media gardens, turning them into dusty playgrounds for their power games. Only then will the promises of 1989 be fulfilled.
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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