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Living With the Wolf at the Door – and at Home

Liberal democracy and press freedom have been under threat for so long that warnings are losing their effectiveness.

by Peter Gross 18 March 2019

The European Federation of Journalists' call for “urgent action” to protect press freedom in Europe” is the latest voice in the clamor about threats to liberal democracy, and yet somehow, all of these democratic voices together are no more than the repetitious crescendo of Ravel’s “Bolero.”


The EFJ contributed to the “Democracy at Risk” report, published in mid-February, which warned that journalists “increasingly face obstruction, hostility, and violence as they investigate and report on behalf of the public.” The report was launched by the 12 partner organizations of the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists.


Unfortunately, like Ravel's musical motif, this is just reiteration, and says nothing new about the catastrophe that has been building for over a decade in the West and for nearly two decades in Central and Eastern Europe. “Urgent” calls are so routinized that they have become no more than ineffective gestures, virtually unacknowledged by either elites or ordinary citizens.


Will Croatian journalists' 3 March protest against censorship and legal attacks matter? Have similar protests across Central and Eastern Europe had any effect?


The situation was no less urgent a decade ago, when France, Italy, Spain, Northern Ireland (UK), Denmark, and countries across Central and Eastern Europe saw threats, murders, attempted murders, assaults, arrests, further judicial intimidations, and other “very serious risks [to journalists]… within Europe” – as Reporters Without Borders reported at the time.


Media watchdog groups, journalists, and democracy supporters have not been crying wolf over the years; they have been howling, as democratic mechanisms and freedom of the press have morphed into sinister tools employed by autocrats and wannabe autocrats. Freedom of the press has been menaced, then figuratively incarcerated, and now appears to be facing a multinational firing squad.


The multifaceted assault on the progress the world made after World War II, and the fall of communism, has been an attack on a wide front, with additional pincer movements of populism on the left and right wings, where those with anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-Western, and anti-Enlightenment attitudes see a free and socially responsible press as fundamentally unnecessary – in fact, they see it as a threat.


Yet let us not forget that organized illiberalism has not done this alone, but with the help of servants and allies. Not all journalists “investigate and report on behalf of the public,” in the EFJ phrase. On the contrary, with bias and careless reporting, some journalists effectively collaborate with the dark forces of political regression, which are bent on turning back the clock to authoritarianism – even totalitarianism – in order to “protect” the nation, guarantee everyone everything, and just make the world perfect – again.


This battle is not only against new entrants to the field – the likes of Sputnik and RT, and other media organs specifically set up to spread disinformation, propaganda, and a cornucopia of deceptions, both domestically and internationally. Nor is it only against more historic contenders – pro-government media steamrollers such as Hungary's, which “[harken] back to the communist era, when the party-state and media were fused, with the press serving up nothing but propaganda to further the regime’s goals,” as an article in World Politics Review recently pointed out.


It is an existential struggle also against the media as a whole in some countries, and not just individual journalists or politicians. This is most notable in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe where the “mainstream” media's directed and self-directed biases are wreaking havoc.


Take, for example, the case of Romania, where a large portion of the traditional media engages in social engineering and manipulation – disseminating anti-EU, anti-science, anti-democratic, and incendiary pieces that set liberal and professional principles on fire. As a result, the population’s worldview is now, according to journalist and filmmaker Dan Alexe: “pessimistic, nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-Western, and anti-modernist.”


In Romania, as in other countries, politics and the media have been mutually entangled in an incestuous, unwholesome bond. Alexe points out, for instance, that even media claiming to oppose the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) for its corruption and its anti-EU, anti-liberal outlook, will publish fake news – for example, a story asserting that: “Macron seems to have proposed a European army to defend the EU from the U.S.”   


Rebuilding trust in the media and in democracy will take much more than the feeble suggestions being offered up these days, doomed to fail without the backup of specific democracy-supporting actions, education, and political effort.


For example, ten propositions made by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy, run by the Aspen Institute with support from the Knight Foundation, would accomplish little in the U.S., and would be outright irrelevant in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. In these European regions, the fundamental issues are both limited liberalism and incomplete democratization.


This crisis may well be in its most acute – or even its last – stages. Media freedom, independence, fairness, accuracy, and balance have been placed in this predicament largely because Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History turns out not to be the culmination of socio-cultural and political evolution – but the point at which humanity tragically decides to make a U-turn.


Beneath the distracting crescendo of Ravel's “Bolero,” perhaps we should be listening for the strains of Chopin's “Funeral March.”

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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#PragueMediaPoint Conference for journalists, media professionals, and scholars

​The 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world. – WHAT’S WORKING





Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


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