Central Asia’s Reliance on Russia Has Made It Vulnerable to Conflict
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The condition of free media in Central and Eastern Europe is far from foolproof. With the aim to improve its standing, certain metrics need to be evaluated and none more so than information sovereignty. Our attempt at this task resulted in the analysis of the EU Labour Force Survey data on the number of working journalists in the region and the trends of their profession over the past decade. Although the results may suggest a positive development, it is useful to look at the surrounding circumstances and what they hold for the future of journalism in CEE.
To begin with a bold claim: we have the right to know if the information we are being given is true.
It is reminiscent of the values which are driven into most of us from a very early age and which is repeated time and again by teachers, family members and public figures (albeit occasionally with more than a hint of irony).
Yet, we have witnessed a strange consequence of postmodern subjectivity: while giving opportunity and platforms for a multiplicity of perspectives that were missing from the contemporary, historical and collective discussions, we inadvertently brought into question some of the more concrete notions of truth and validity. Malign, non-democratic actors and states subsequently took advantage of this space and populated it with fake news, using our very platforms and attempts at being inclusive against our societies so as to undermine our democratic security and erode trust in our institutions.
We have the right to ask our societies and governments for tools to help us understand what is accurate reporting and what is misleading; we have the right to information sovereignty. After all, having control over the polity’s information space has a significant influence on a society’s decisions in democratic elections.
Visegrad Insight’s previous report defined information sovereignty as ‘a set of conditions and processes that enable societies to exert oversight of the government and have control over their future’.
Measuring the level of information sovereignty is as complicated as any abstract notion; however, a useful indicator is the number of independent journalists working in a given society or sector. The rationale behind this thinking is rather straightforward: fewer journalists working in independent outlets leads to less available and reliable information in the mediasphere and in effect, decreases the ability of a society to take informed decisions.
The report takes into account the challenges that free media is facing in the CEE region, for instance, unsustainable business models, the spread of disinformation and democratic backsliding.
All of these factors influence the environment journalists are working in. Whether it is laying off media employees, receiving threats from the people who believe mainstream media is part of a global hoax or being told what to write by elected officials whose aim is to crack down on the free media of their country.
In a region where democratic backsliding is either already in full swing in some countries or lingering in the background in others, the trends of journalists’ working conditions or even the trend of the number of working journalists can paint an image of how the environment is changing for the people at the forefront of the struggle for reliable and independent media.
Together with the Group for Research in Applied Economics (GRAPE) centre, Visegrad Insight took a look at the data from the EU Labour Force Survey (LFS) to explore the socio-economic trends of people who applied the ISCO categorisation to self-identify as Journalists (code 2642) or in the wider category of Authors, Journalists and Linguists (code 264).
There are numerous uses for such analysis, which may have security-based, economic, political or social implications. For example, the countries that have been examined are all members of the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), a format that allows members to cooperate on large, cross-border infrastructure projects worth billions of euros in political environments where informality and a lack of transparency are still part of major state ventures.
In another report, Towards 3SI Civil Society Forum, we outline the perils associated with having a weak civil society; namely, it can have a profound impact on investment into the necessary connectivity projects of the region. To ameliorate the situation, we called for the creation of a Civil Society Forum, one which aims to monitor the economic exposure of the 3SI and help understand what is legitimate or not in terms of democratic innovation.
High levels of information sovereignty stemming from well-funded and properly functioning mediascapes are essential for civil societies to flourish.
What the LFS data shows us, expanded on below, is that less democratic media landscapes in the CEE region might actually offer more stability to loyal journalists at least in the short term. The increasing numbers of journalists are the most visible mainly in the worst-performing countries in terms of media freedom.
Along with the recommendations presented in the Information Sovereignty report, we also propose the following suggestions:
As mentioned above, in order to assess the media environment, we looked into the trends of the number of working journalists; the share of wage-employed journalists; the share of full-time employed journalists; the average number of hours worked per week and the share of journalists receiving a below-the-median wage. These indicators were viewed in the light of various indices revealing an intricate situation in the CEE media landscape.
The data from the Labour Force Survey we were able to access provided the numbers for the category of Authors, Journalists and Linguists (ISCO 264) for 10 3SI countries: Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Although the inclusive categorisation of journalists and other professions makes the data only approximate, the main objective of the research was to discover the trends and not the exact numbers of indicators in question.
However, for Poland, we were also able to examine the data of the Journalists category (ISCO 2642) only. In another source from the Czech Statistical Office (the Structure of Earnings Survey) an approximate number of journalists could also be found for the Czech Republic allowing us to draw rough proportions of what share of people categorised under the inclusive ISCO 264 category in LFS are journalists.
Accordingly, from the latest data available, the approximate number of journalists working in the 10 countries where the data was accessible stands at 100,000-120,000. And the number seems to be growing at least since 2011. In 6 countries (Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Romania), there is a distinguishable positive trend while in Lithuania and Slovakia a negative trend can be discerned.
Although a simple assessment of the growing number of journalists could indicate an increasing appeal of the profession, (i.e., more people choosing the occupation and a positive trend), the countries listed — excluding Estonia — are undergoing the most negative trends regarding media freedom. The RSF World Press Freedom Index rates the five states the lowest in the CEE region, with only Bulgaria scoring lower. The state of media freedom has deteriorated there at least since 2013 for several different reasons: governmental takeover of state broadcast media or private outlets, smear campaigns against journalists and media ownership concentration in the hands of a few oligarchs.
What is even more interesting is that out of the 10 countries researched, the Czech Republic, Romania, Croatia, Poland and Hungary are also evaluated as carrying the highest risks to journalistic profession, standards and protection by the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom in their 2021 report.
Alongside the absence of a legal framework to prevent Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, journalists also rarely have laws protecting their working conditions and lack social security, especially self-employed journalists whose conditions were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in Croatia, 85 per cent of freelance journalists lost their contracts in public or commercial media at the beginning of April 2020.
According to the LFS data, in every country researched except for Poland and Romania, people who identified themselves working in the inclusive journalists category were more likely to be self-employed than the rest of the working population, which indicates a less stable working environment.
However, the increasing numbers of freelancers were recorded only in the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, while in others, no significant change or decrease in the number of self-employed journalists was distinguishable. Croatia was the only country that had a significant negative trend of the number of freelancers working in the 264 ISCO category, a tendency that, as mentioned before, must have been enhanced after 2020 by the pandemic.
The data also tells us that in the Czech Republic there is a significantly larger share of inclusive category journalists working as freelancers than in the other countries researched. In 2015, around 37 per cent of journalists working in newsrooms were working for the public service media. However, a lot of these journalists are not employed but work as freelancers in order for the organisation to save on health and social contributions and taxes. Although this group of journalists working for public media may constitute a minor share in the data, it is still an important factor when considering the state of protection of journalists’ socio-economic conditions.
While working as a self-employed journalist provides more flexibility and freedom of choice, it also comes with less stability and limited social security, especially in the CEE countries. The possibly growing numbers of freelancers in the aforementioned four countries could indicate that an increasing number of journalists are working in conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to economic or any other crises that affect the media landscape.
Another indicator offering a glimpse into the structure of media employment in the 3SI countries is the share of journalists working on full-time contracts. According to the LFS data, in the majority of the 3SI countries, employees in the inclusive journalists category are less likely to work in full-time positions than the rest of the working population. However, in all of the 10 countries except Austria, the trend stays above the 70 per cent line with the highest percentage in the most recent available year being reported in Romania, Croatia and Hungary.
A positive trend for the share of journalists from the inclusive category working full-time is distinguishable in 4 countries: Hungary, Poland, Croatia and Estonia with the former two exhibiting considerably steep rises. A decrease in the share of full-time employees can be discerned in the Czech Republic, Latvia and Slovakia.
When it comes to the average weekly working hours of journalists, authors and linguists in the 3SI region, Hungary is a country that stands out with a distinguishable growing average of working hours since 2011. In the majority of the 10 countries, people who have an inclusive journalists category occupation have a lower average of working hours compared to the rest of the working population, and the average seems to be generally decreasing. With a growing number of journalists, it seems natural for the average working hours to decrease; however, Hungary then becomes an interesting case in the study.
Lastly, we were able to look into some of the countries’ inclusive journalists category income data and see whether there has been any change in the share of journalists receiving a below-the-median wage. This data for at least 6 years in between 2011-2018 was available for Austria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
From the graph, it is visible that in Estonia, Austria, Romania and Croatia the share of respondents receiving a below-the-median wage has increased which does not necessarily mean that more journalists started receiving lower wages. However, what it could indicate is that economically the status of the journalist profession is declining. Meanwhile, in Lithuania, Hungary and Slovakia, one can discern that an increasing share of respondents from the inclusive journalists category is receiving above-the-median wages.
While the situation in the media landscape after 2018 — the most recent year for which we could access the LFS data — has been significantly altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many media outlets laying off their employees, Nelly Ognyanova, a professor of media studies at Sofia University in Bulgaria, states that the pandemic has only ‘come to magnify the existing problems’ in the Central and Eastern European region.
To look into the existing problems of the media landscape of the region and predict how it would develop in the future, it is not particularly constructive to generalise the situation for the whole region. Therefore, the scenarios from the ‘Information Sovereignty: Scenarios for Central Europe’ report can be adjusted to specific CEE country groups.
From the trends identified above, four groups of 3SI countries can be discerned in terms of respondents’ from the inclusive journalists’ category working conditions and their socio-economic status. The countries were classified according to their overlapping trends and similar ranking in the World Press Freedom Index. However, the Czech Republic fell in between two groups having overlapping characteristics with two groups similar to its score in the Freedom Index. The groups are presented in the table below.
The first group of Austria and Estonia has a positive trend of a growing number of people working in the inclusive journalists category (although Austria’s trendline is quite subtle). There is little to no change in the share of self-employed respondents from the category in the two countries, meanwhile, an increasing share earn a below-the-median wage. Journalism in both states faces very little risk to its fundamental protection; however, there is an increasing horizontal concentration of media. Estonia and Austria lack an effective legal framework to prevent media mergers or consolidating media companies in the hands of the few and hindering natural competition. The current circumstances seem to indicate that the two countries are on the path of Scenario One: Centralisation of Media. Although these two countries rank the highest in the Media Freedom Index, their score has also deteriorated compared to the start of the 2010s showing signs that the media landscape in Austria and Estonia are not in a healthy condition.
The next group of countries links Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia together.
In these three countries, there is either a negative trend in the number of respondents working in the inclusive category of journalists or no change is reported. Also the category is seeing a decrease in the share of full-time employees while the average of working hours per week has a negative trend line as well. Similar to the first group, these countries also protect journalism’s fundamental tenets better than in the rest of the region by having a legally enshrined protection of freedom of speech and the governments or leading politicians of the countries usually avoid attacking free media verbally or by legal action (in Slovakia, at least since the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak).
In Latvia and Slovakia, besides the Latvian and Slovak media players dominating the market, there are also Russian and Czech-based media outlets who have an important role in the media landscape respectively. Also, in the three countries, there is an increasing problem of the decline of local media with their advertising revenues being very low and political and business actors stepping in to fund the outlets not without strings attached.
Taking everything into account, this group could be projected heading towards Scenario Two: Disruptive Decentralisation. With the leading media outlets expanding their digital toolbox and building up subscription-based business models, leaving the market diversified with local media lagging behind and taken over by interest groups who start mixing journalism with PR activity. The vulnerable groups of society are left to consume partial media leading to more polarisation in the society.
The third group consists of Croatia and Romania which show a positive trend in the number of people working in the inclusive category of journalists. There is also a decrease in the share of self-employed journalists, authors and linguists and an increasing share of them earning a below-the-median wage.
Both countries’ media landscapes suffer from ineffective regulation and self-regulation leading to the lack of media plurality and owner interference into the published content of the media outlets. There is also a lack of monitoring and regulation of the online advertising market.
The conditions in the media landscape put Croatia and Romania on the path of Scenario Four: Collapse of the Advertising Market. Although the digital markets in these countries are yet to reach the levels of Estonia, the lack of legal framework and awareness for the dangers that come with business models based on online advertising show the absence of resilience these media landscapes have to online advertising fraud and inflated advertising markets.
The Czech Republic’s LFS data characteristics seem to be overlapping with two groups of countries, positioning it between Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia and Croatia and Romania. Although there is a positive trend in the number of people working in the inclusive journalists category in the Czech Republic, there is also a decrease in the share of them working full-time, and the average working hours per week is also shrinking.
While the legal measures for the violations of freedom of expression are effective and both the state and commercial sphere respect the basic rights in journalism, there are also significant issues with horizontal concentration and lack of transparency of media ownership. The situation in the regional media has been worsening for more than a decade: in 2009, there were 60 local newspapers, in 2019, only 29 remained.
These factors seem to indicate that the Czech Republic is heading towards Scenario One: Centralisation of Media. Though independent media does not disappear in the country, uninformed media messages lead to a lack of diverse opinions and views in the public discourse benefiting political and business actors who have agenda-setting power in the media.
Finally, the last group of countries consists of Hungary and Poland. Both of these countries have been at the forefront of democratic backsliding in Europe with their media landscape being overtaken by the ruling parties and their circles either through the state institutions themselves or by creating a parallel state.
However, according to LFS data, the number of journalists is increasing, as well as the share of journalists working full-time. Moreover, the share of self-employed journalists is positive. The media landscape in the two countries is exceptionally polarised with pro-government media often portraying events and processes in a biased way while independent media critical of the government is being cracked down by legal initiatives or commercial acquisitions by people close to the ruling parties.
The two countries fit into Scenario Three: Growth of a Fragmented Sphere in which governmental funding for the pro-government media damages the advertising market in turn leaving a possibility for a fragmented media landscape when a crisis constrains the government from funding its propaganda machine. Vulnerable market spaces can then be easily filled with ‘alternative information sources’ leaving an already polarised society even more so.
What the LFS data shows us is that less democratic media landscapes in the CEE region might actually offer more stability to loyal journalists at least in the short term. The increasing numbers of journalists are the most visible mainly in the worst-performing countries in terms of media freedom.
The data from Poland and Hungary indicate that there is an increasing trend of journalists working on full-time contracts and Hungary is one of only two countries where a decreasing share of journalists earn a below-the-median wage. Although this data is preliminary and the deduction is mostly intuitive, the increasing number of journalists in the 5 worst-ranked CEE countries could be showing that unhealthy media environments prompt more people to work as journalists; perhaps this phenomenon could be happening due to unsustainable government funding for pro-government media who is able to hire more journalists or maybe more people decide to get into journalism in order to write about the media deterioration happening in their countries.
This report was written by Valdonė Šniukaitė and contributed to by analysts and economists at GRAPE as well as the team at Visegrad Insight.
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