This article comes from The Buzz Around the Ballot edition of Visegrad Insight 2/2017 devoted do media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe. Read full contents page here.
It is exactly a year ago this October that the journalists of Népszabadság, Hungary’s mostread political daily, announced that they had had to close shop. The story of the paper and its eventual demise serve as the perfect parable, as well as a timely warning, for the state of the media in Central Europe.
Népszabadság had started out as the state mouthpiece under communism but turned into a quality political daily following its privatisation in the early nineties. For many years, it was a newspaper that depicted as well as represented the status quo of politics in Central Europe. It published articles on day-to-day events that were reassuring yet a little bit bland and boring; it ran op-eds by intellectuals emphasizing the importance of catching up to the “West,” and it operated in a media sphere dominated by left-liberal voices. Above all, it helped broadcast the elite consensus of the day that there is no alternative to the policies implemented— characterising those policies often not as “good” but rather “necessary.”
As Ivan Krastev and others have argued, this meant taking the politics out of the politics in the region, which in turn helped prepare the ground for the eventual, angry return of ideologies, mostly those of nationalism and reactionary conservatism.
Now that politics is back with a vengeance in Central Europe, the media are no longer independent observers either. They are tools in a political fight and, more often, convenient enemies for power- hungry populist leaders.
This phenomenon is most visible in Hungary but present in all countries across the region. Following successful privatisations in the 90s, the heyday of the media was in the early 2000s when the market was profitable enough to sustain a plethora of outlets. This, however, did not last long. While the departure of foreign owners after the 2008 global economic crisis was not completely unexpected, it had far-reaching consequences. Just as investors started selling their shares, the old business model came crashing down, giving way to the uncertainty of online journalism and ridding papers of any hope of profitability in the foreseeable future.
This period—besides laying bare globally the media’s inability to adapt to the new situation—revealed problems locally that had not been visible earlier. Similar to other institutions in Central Europe’s newly built democracies, such as the judiciary or civil society, the press had fulfilled its functions reasonably well by the early 2000s. Yet, it became clear when the good times ended that it lacked the firm support of society and that low pay along with increasingly uncertain working conditions have destroyed solidarity among journalists. While there were protests and expressions of camaraderie after the closure of N.pszabads.g, they quickly died down, and on the first anniversary of the event only a few dozen people gathered to demonstrate in Budapest.
Just like civil society—a significant percentage of which has relied on external grants and has developed weak connections with local groups and actors (the reasons for this are complex and go beyond the scope of this article)—the media increasingly serve as easy and convenient targets for populist governments. Political parties, which are also poorly embedded in society in the region, with practically non-existent and inactive membership, have tried to coopt and capture media outlets from the very beginning. Yet, these attempts have grown in frequency and have become more aggressive recently, as the collapse of the old business model has provided an opening and as governments in the region are gradually turning illiberal.
In Freedom House’s annual reports, this process is reflected in a series of first slow but later accelerating declines. In Freedom of the Press, which is a global survey focusing on the media, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all suffered declines in the past decade, with Hungary and Poland dropping by double-digits. In Nations in Transit, which evaluates democratic governance in Central Europe and Eurasia, independent media in the region has deteriorated more sharply than any other indicator, including corruption.
The capture of the media by interests other than the public interest is very visible in the Czech Republic, where the country’s richest businessman, who also owns a significant share of the media market, has just won elections. Andrej Babiš’ 2013 acquisition of Mafra, the most influential press group in the country, was a watershed moment for Czech media. It came following the departure of German investors and was complemented by other local oligarchs buying outlets. A similar process, with less political involvement, has also taken place in Slovakia. These investments were hardly profitable at the time; their real value was in furthering the oligarch’s other business interests. We could observe this in action already during the election campaign— scandals connected to Babis’ businesses made it to the first page of all papers, except for the ones owned by Babis himself.
The press has been less of an easy target in Poland, where the size of the market has so far largely guaranteed the independence and profitability of outlets. Yet, the Law and Justice (PiS) party has already turned the public media into a propaganda arm for the government and is intent on destroying private media critical of its actions. It has deprived several outlets of advertising funding and is working on a draft that would break the back of critical outlets by drastically limiting foreign ownership. Besides such plans, the government is not hiding its deep hostility toward the press; over the summer, the defence minister threatened to launch criminal proceedings against a journalist who had written about alleged links between a minister and the Kremlin.
But the country where the media are both used as a tool and are gradually being turned into an enemy is Hungary. Nearing its eighth year in power and certain to be re-elected next year, the governing Fidesz party has not only overhauled the legal framework, it has also overtaken the media market through sheer political will. With a subdued and weak opposition ahead of the elections, it is running out of enemies to blame and—besides George Soros and NGOs—is increasingly targeting journalists. This summer, Prime Minister Viktor Orb.n’s regular Baile Tusnad speech identified “Soros supported” media as the next target. Since then, smear campaigns have started to spread and some have even claimed the country’s “foreign agents” legislation should be used to crack down on the press.
If we accept that Hungary is ahead of the curve in the region, there is plenty to worry about. The foundations for a truly independent press were never really present in Central Europe, and the past few years’ structural transformation as well as changes in consumption habits have put the media in a very vulnerable position. Now, with populist and illiberal voices on the march, the fate of the press seems to depend only on the goodwill of politicians. For the future of the region, that is certainly not the place where we want to be.
Zselyke Csaky is a senior researcher for Nations in Transit by Freedom House.