Central Europe readies itself to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Communism. Looking, however, at the contemporary state of some of the key democratic institutions across the V4 countries, particularly at the media, there is not much of a reason to celebrate.
Central Europe readies itself to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Communism—a crucial point in the history of the region which opened the doors to political and economic transformation to democracy and a free-market system, and set the course towards the European integration, successfully accomplished fifteen years ago.
Looking, however, at the contemporary state of some of the key democratic institutions across the V4 countries, particularly at the media, there is not much of a reason to celebrate, as many achievements of the previous decades have been significantly undermined by the rise of the illiberalism and authoritarian style of governance that has affected much of the region.
And while fingers have been conventionally pointed at Hungary and Poland, as the main examples of the process of democratic backsliding, in many areas the two other countries are not too far behind on this slope—and the troublesome situation of media freedom and pluralism is certainly among them.
Hungary and Poland: the Illiberal Trendsetters?
Although some conservative politicians and pundits in other V4 countries have attempted to marginalize the rapidly declining journalistic freedom in Hungary—including the Czech ex-minister of Foreign Affairs, the newly elected MEP Alexander Vondra, who recently claimed in an interview that Hungary is “just a normal democratic country”—the grim state of the Hungarian media at the end of the third decade since the transition is visible to the naked eye. Since 2010 when his party first came to power, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has gradually managed something extraordinary, and reminiscent of the pre-1989 era, namely to bring almost the entire media system under his government’s control.
The first step towards achieving that goal was the changing of media legislation, which among other measures intended to curtail media independence involved creating a new regulatory authority—the Media Council—whose members were all appointed entirely by Fidesz. The consolidation of different state media into one news organization (MTVA) and their transformation into a tool of government propaganda (further secured by replacing key personnel in the management and editorial room by party loyalists) was the second step that followed soon after.
Orbán has gradually managed something extraordinary, and reminiscent of the pre-1989 era, namely to bring almost the entire media system under his government’s control.
This was followed by economic pressures—distributing state advertising in a way that favored government-friendly media outlets, and bled dry those that continued to be critical to Orbán. According to the Hungarian researchers Attila Bátorfy and Ágnes Urbán,¹ the share of state advertising on total advertising revenues in the newspaper market grew progressively higher over the course of the last several years, up to 26% in 2017, making it a substantial source of income in a market segment struggling with declining circulation and advertisers’ shift to digital platforms. Directing advertising expenditures towards media companies with ties to the government has, therefore, become a form of state subsidies, distorting the market and driving many independent media out of business.
This practice has not just been limited to the newspaper market—as Bátorfy and Urbán have demonstrated, the politically motivated distribution of state advertising has been observed in the online media segment as well, with the pro-government website Origo.hu being allocated over 40% of all state online advertising between 2016-2017 following the purchase of the website by the son of the president of the Hungarian National Bank, while its closest competitor, the independent server Index.hu, saw its revenues from the state virtually disappear at the same time.
The change of hands in Origo.hu in 2016 was part of a broader trend of media ownership changing hands from independent proprietors to domestic businessmen with a personal connection to the government, which eventually led to the closure of several prominent legacy newspapers, most notably Népszabadság in 2016 and Magyar Nemzet in 2018.
Having secured an unrivalled dominance over the Hungarian media landscape, by a combination of legislative changes, re-allocation of economic resources and the transfer of private media ownership under the control of his cronies, the final trick that cemented Orbán’s media hegemony was pulled in November 2018, when owners of nearly five hundred newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and websites “donated” them to the newly founded organization entitled Central European Press and Media Foundation, run by Gabor Liszkay, a close ally of Orbán, with Fidesz party members seated on the Foundation’s board.
After this move, which was officially declared an event of “national strategic importance”, an estimated 90% of the Hungarian media is under Orbán’s control; judging from this perspective, Hungary’s 87th place on the most recent Reporters without Frontiers’ World media freedom list appears perhaps even too merciful.
Directing advertising expenditures towards media companies with ties to the government has therefore become a form of state subsidies, distorting the market and driving many independent media out of business.
The story of the sharp decline in media freedom in Poland, now sitting at 59th place on the World Press Freedom Index—down 40 places only since 2015—is in many aspects very similar to Hungary. Shortly after the 2015 elections which brought to power the Law and Justice party (PiS), the new government initiated the transformation of governance of public service media, starting by replacing the head of the public service television (TVP) by a former party member Jacek Kurski, and followed by substantial personal changes in the public broadcaster’s editorial room, with more than one hundred journalists dismissed or having resigned since 2016.
TVP has subsequently been turned into the mouthpiece of the government, synchronizing its news coverage with the PiS party agenda and constantly undermining the opposition; this has most recently been documented in the TVP coverage of the 2019 European Parliament election campaign which, according to an independent analysis published by the Bathory Foundation, “favoured the ruling party and omitted, downplayed, ridiculed or vilified the opposition parties”.
Unlike in Hungary, however, Polish private media have not yet been captured by the government, which is why they remain a prime target of the government’s attacks, especially the ones with foreign owners.
Unlike in Hungary, however, Polish private media have not yet been captured by the government, which is why they remain a prime target of the government’s attacks, especially the ones with foreign owners. Having put them under substantial economic pressure by shifting the flow of state advertising—a move that has particularly harshly impacted the leading liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza which saw its ad revenues from state companies slashed by 90%—the government has recently revived the plans for “repolonization” of foreign-owned media companies, an idea already floated out several years ago but this time adopted by the Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin as a pledge for the upcoming 2019 Parliament Election campaign.
While it is yet unclear how exactly the Polish government would go about getting rid of the pesky proprietors whose media are seen as the key platforms for the opposition—among those the US-based Discovery which owns the channel TVN, or the Swiss-German Ringier Axel Springer that publishes Newsweek as well as the leading tabloid Fakt. it is obvious that the resurfacing of these ideas before the elections is part of the systematic attempt to increase hostility against these media and intimidate the journalists working for them.
Slovakia and the Czech Republic: Shadows over Public Service Media
In both Poland and Hungary, media freedom has been significantly eroded, and a large part of the media outlets captured over the last several years, following very much the same illiberal playbook. A bird’s-eye view on the situation in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, especially when relying on these countries’ current ranking in the press freedom indices (35th and 40th in the World Press Freedom Index, respectively), might suggest that there is no risk of the Hungarian/Polish scenario being extended into these two media systems any time soon.
A closer look, however, reveals certain disturbing parallels, as well as other tendencies that threaten the already fragile state of media freedom and pluralism in both countries. The Slovak public service broadcaster RTVS has been perceived as getting under tighter government control in relation to some controversial decisions by the Director General Jaroslav Rezník, a man whose appointment in 2017 prompted criticism for his existing links with top politicians. The concerns proved justified when RTVS suddenly discontinued its flagship investigative program in January 2018, after several reports aired on the program that were critical of the government coalition.
The conflict of RTVS journalists with the management escalated in the months following the murder of the journalist Ján Kuciak (and his fiancée) in February 2018 when dozens of journalists signed an open letter to the management, accusing it of attempts to muzzle critical reporting and cosying up to those in power. This, in turn, has led to dismissals of several acclaimed reporters and the departure of many others, increasing fears about the future of independence and the ability of the broadcaster to abide by its watchdog role.
In both Poland and Hungary, media freedom has been significantly eroded, and a large part of the media outlets captured over the last several years, following very much the same illiberal playbook.
The recent ownership changes on the Slovak print media market have not exactly been reassuring either when it comes to the plurality and autonomy of Slovak journalism. In 2018, the daily Pravda came into the hands of the Czech Senator Ivo Valenta, publisher of the news server Parlamentní listy which is infamous for spreading anti-immigration propaganda and disinformation.
The same year, the biggest-selling Slovak tabloid Nový Čas was sold by Ringier Axel Springer to the Slovak businessman Anton Siekel, however, the ownership structure has been seen as non-transparent, with rumors circulating about the allegedly very good relationships between the supposed owner and Penta company, one of the largest players on the Slovak financial and media market, and notorious for its secret ties to government politicians, as revealed through the “Gorilla”scandal several years ago.
The recent ownership changes on the Slovak print media market have not exactly been reassuring either when it comes to the plurality and autonomy of Slovak journalism.
In the Czech Republic, public service broadcasters have been enjoying a more autonomous position vis-à-vis the government than their Hungarian, Polish or even Slovak counterparts, and generally have been considered a safe haven for independent, quality journalism—the opposite of many other mainstream media outlets that have been captured by local oligarchs, first and foremost by the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš whose company Agrofert owns the largest Czech media house Mafra. This has brought them, however, into frequent clashes with both the Prime Minister (whose business affairs have often been featured in investigative reports, particularly by Czech Television), as well as with President Miloš Zeman.
The increasing verbal attacks and rhetorical hostility against public broadcasters voiced by Babiš and Zeman—and by some other populist and radical right-wing actors—have recently been complemented by an arguably more efficient strategy for silencing critical reporting and constraining political independence, namely by using the government majority to safeguard control over the appointments of new members of the broadcasting councils.
Several such appointments in the last year have only sparked public outrage, given not just the political affiliations of the new appointees but also their active involvement in the Czech disinformation scene dominated by websites often characterized by openly pro-Russian, anti-EU and illiberal attitudes.
This tendency to entrust regulatory control over the public service media— most recently over the Czech Press Agency as well—to people who not only have little respect for public service broadcasting values but who advocate ideas incompatible with liberal democracy itself, is deeply troubling, and poses a risk of replicating the Hungarian model—perhaps not as suddenly but with no less efficient outcomes in the end.
Civil Society to the Rescue
Despite growing government pressures and hostility by populist political bodies, public service media can still rely on continuing audience support. In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, public broadcasters have repeatedly been displaying the highest level of trust among news brands, as measured by the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report; interestingly, both Hungarian and Polish state broadcasters are on the opposite side of the same ranking, clearly indicating public disapproval of the broadcasters’ subjugation to government’s control.
The Czech public and civil society, in particular, has shown an awareness of the importance of PSM independence for the survival of democracy itself, and a determination to defend them from politicization, most recently when Czech Radio dismissed the widely respected Director of its cultural channel Vltava—a decision widely interpreted as being politically motivated.
In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, public broadcasters have repeatedly been displaying the highest level of trust among news brands, as measured by the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report.
The continuing demonstrations against Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, that have been filling up the Czech squares since March 2019, have been significantly driven by his perceived attacks on Czech Television, as well as by his ownership of multiple media channels. In Slovakia, the recent election of Zuzana Čaputová as President has electrified those who have not yet given up on the democratic and liberal future of the country, and on the political independence of its media which she is an outspoken defender of.
Even in Poland, the government had to scrap the proposed law which would have restricted journalists’ access to Parliament following mass protests that brought thousands of people in the streets on December 2016. These examples illustrate that while democracy in the region might indeed be deconsolidating at the moment, and institutions might be failing, civil society could perhaps still be a source of (cautious) hope.
- Attilla Bátorfy & Ágnes Urbán (2019) State Advertising as an Instrument of the Transformation of the Media Market in Hungary. Forthcoming in East European Politics.
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