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The Predictable Season

While dismal media freedom rankings for TOL’s coverage region are commonplace this time of the year, the recent surge in citizen activism shows that people are no longer so willing to grin and bear such infringements.

by Peter Gross 9 May 2018

Spring has finally arrived. The weather is warming, students are thinking about summer vacation, soccer fans are intently following the Europa League and salivating over the upcoming World Cup, and media watchdog organizations are giving us the customary bad news in their annual reports.

 

The year-by-year downward turn in media freedom is by now as predictable as the seasons are – even in the age of global warming – thanks to the never-ending threats and violence to journalists and the hatreds that are whipped up against the news media. Like Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” song says, everyone is doing it: “Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it.” Except that this is not love. The nasty fleas in this instance are mostly democratically elected leaders who “no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to whom they openly display their aversion,” according to Reporters Without Borders’ recently released annual press freedom index.  

 

Democracies and, therefore, their citizens are in trouble, and Freedom House concurs, finding the roots abroad as well as at home: “The rise of democratically elected leaders who seek to cripple or co-opt the independent media has been compounded by external forces, most prominently the authoritarian government in Russia.” After years of anti-media and anti-journalist campaigns, the political price for these actions “has diminished, and that tips the balance in the wrong direction,” concludes Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

 

We have tipped so far, we are in danger of falling over. Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European countries are not the worst-of-the-worst in the world, but the continued erosion of media freedoms, threats to journalists, and the murder of reporters makes them great competitors for such a dishonorable mention.

 

While disturbingly menacing to democracy’s future and to its liberal underpinnings, the predictability of this trend makes it no longer interesting. What is far more compelling and gives us reason for a small measure of optimism is the way civil societies in the region reacted throughout 2017 and so far in 2018, with their emphatic calls for press freedom and anti-corruption rallies.

 

In April 2018, Hungarians demonstrated in Budapest against Victor Orban’s fear-driven authoritarian government and specifically demanded media freedom. Next door in Romania, press freedom and protection of journalists were on the minds of protesters in March 2018 in the city of Timisoara after its mayor, Nicolae Robu, called journalists “social parasites.” Slovaks also rallied for press freedom in March 2018, after the murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.

 

Serbia’s free media advocates were equally active throughout 2017. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, not all Russians have succumbed to his authoritarian charms, and some are rejecting his control over the media and the stifling of journalists – which occasionally ends with death – as their demonstrations against internet restrictions in July 2017 and April 2018 showed.

 

Continued anti-corruption rallies across most of the region add to the “education” of citizens in the importance of having a free press. These demonstrations not only contribute to their sense of citizenship, to their democratic empowerment, but also to their realization that without honest information and unbiased, unfettered news reporting their status as citizens ends. Enough people have learned that fighting illiberal policies and the suppression of press freedoms is part and parcel of their resistance to corruption. They are not willing to accept a new status quo that resembles in any way the pre-1989 status quo.

 

In April 2018, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Hungary’s prime minister. Part of it reads: “… You have a renewed opportunity and responsibility to uphold free expression, ensure that citizens have access to a diversity of opinion through media pluralism, and that critical media outlets and journalists do not risk retaliation for their views. Under international law, journalists should not face threats, sanctions, or charges and penalties for criticizing public figures.”

 

The letter should be dispatched to every prime minister, president, and parliamentarian in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. It should be distributed to every high school and college student. It should be posted on every building. Everyone needs to get on the bandwagon and work toward press freedom, responsible news media, and accountable governing that would guarantee both individual and societal liberty as foreseeable as the seasons.

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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