Visegrad/Insight devoted much of its November 2017 issue, ‘The Buzz Around the Ballot’ to the state of the media in its member countries – Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. ‘Media landscapes and disinformation in Central Europe’ gave serious attention to a subject most in the region shy away from.
And there was much to talk about, in particular the dire and worsening state of the media in Hungary under the newly re-elected Prime Minister Victor Orbán, a situation that can only get worse as Orbán exploits his greatly increased majority.
Asked to comment on the issue, two main points sprung immediately to mind. The courage of Visegrad/Insight in taking on a subject that has become a hot potato in the region is outstanding; its editors and staff are to be congratulated.
Further, the issue came out before the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée in February this year. However prescient the editors at V/I may be, they could not have foreseen either this event, nor the impact it has had in the region, but it gives an added poignancy to the issue.
Briefly, to take the Visegrad countries individually, V/I makes all to clear the decline of media standards and freedom in the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a process that, according to its writers, has accelerated dramatically in the past decade.
In Hungary, argues Szabolcs Töhötöm Tóth – Editor-in-Chief of Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation), a Hungarian daily founded in 1938 – the government has been so successful in dealing with recalcitrant or critical media that “newspapers, television stations and online news sites belonging to its propaganda machine now threaten to suffocate the real thing: those who still try to maintain editorial independence” run the risk of obliteration.
In Poland, argues Michał Kobosko – head of the Polish office in the Washington think tank Atlantic Council – the process seems simpler though equally effective: “the taking over of the most popular newspapers, portals, news stations, companies and publishing houses by those officially or quietly linked to authorities. Instead of de-concentration, there will be media concentration in the hands of PiS (Law and Justice Party), currently the largest party in the Polish parliament, and the acolytes of the party.” It is mostly about money and power Kobosko continues, “in order to cement the political power of the country for years to come. The language of ‘increasing media freedom’ used by PiS is a classic use of Orwellian ‘doublespeak’,” he concludes.
In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, writes Beata Balogová – Editor-in-Chief of Slovakia’s SME – the main factor in the decline and fall of the independent media has been its progressive takeover by oligarchs. “The past decade has shown that the presence of oligarchs in media houses has often eliminated media independence and challenged the reputation of even previously trusted media.” Even SME was not immune, but, unlike many others, managed to re-establish its independent voice.
In Slovakia, the recent Kuciak murder itself ignited awareness of the media situation and brought thousands onto the streets in protest. For the younger generation, this was “a month of accelerated history and instruction in politics, a subject which many of them had hitherto neglected,” says Slovak writer and academic Samuel Abraham, stressing that the lessons learned, including the departure of the Slovak government, will have a lasting impact.
In all these countries, the lack of independence and transparency of ownership, has led to a profound distrust in local media, a process charted by the International Republican Institute in a fascinating survey of these countries plus Germany. The study also looks most specifically at the influence/infiltration of “fake news” and propaganda from Russia, an issue that occupies more than one of the writers in this issue of V/I.
“Public opinion data is crucial to understanding how and why disinformation is gaining ground,” argues Miriam Lexmann, a former Slovak diplomat and currently the EU Program Director for the International Republican Institute.
Yet, this challenge has not begun to receive the attention it deserves from either the EU or the wider international community until relatively recently.
Which dovetails neatly into my final point: while their situation may seem more extreme, the Visegrad countries are not alone in their situation. Unlike others, they have had the courage to talk about it. For most of Europe – or what a Bulgarian journalist calls the “so-called Western democracies” – censorship is something that happens “out there”. Murdered journalists, writers and commentators “disappeared”, newspapers closed down or were taken over by hostile forces, editors put behind bars: this is a phenomenon that afflicts the dictatorial regimes of Africa, Asia and the world beyond democratic Europe.
Not so, says the latest report from Index on Censorship, the foremost anti-censorship journal for almost 50 years. Its most recent “Mapping Media Freedom”, which covers 42 countries in and around Europe, published in March this year, raises the alert on Europe:
Today we recorded our 4,000th case of a media freedom violation in Europe. That’s 4,000 cases in which journalists have been harassed, threatened, arrested, jailed – or even killed. Four thousand cases. In just four years.
“We need to stop behaving as if threats to journalists’ safety happen ‘somewhere else’”, adds Index’s CEO Jodie Ginsberg. In the European Union, two investigative journalists – Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose car was blown up as she was driving, followed by the more recent killing of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in February this year – has shattered the complacency of the media world in Europe. Both journalists were working on stories of corruption in their respective countries, highlighting the growing involvement of the Italian Mafia in government and financial circles.
During a speech in Budapest in March, at the award ceremony of the European Press Prize for 2018, Miklós Haraszti – a Hungarian journalist, human rights activist, diplomat and former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media – highlighted these new and growing threats. Like V/I, he chose to cite the deteriorating media situation in Hungary as a warning to others in the EU. “Notwithstanding their camouflage of an elective democracy,” he argues, “these states are able to achieve a deep-seated censorship and propaganda effect, comparable to what the erstwhile totalitarian states had accomplished.”
By bravely shining the spotlight on this issue, along with specialist publications such as Index and the more recently founded Centre Librexpression, V/I has set an example others would do well to note.
Judith Vidal-Hall is the former editor-in-chief of the free expression magazine Index on Censorship and currently producing The Ship at St Anne’s College in Oxford. She is a member of the Eurozine Advisory Board and recently appointed to the board of Centre Librexpression.