Who Is Responsible for the Free Press

The Illiberals Are Taking Advantage of COVID-19 – Time to Stop Them

3 September 2020

Wojciech Przybylski

Editor-in-Chief

Over the summer the biggest online portal in Hungary has seen its top editor sacked and most of the team leaving in protest. Signs of solidarity displayed by the European press with the colleagues from Index.hu are a bare minimum. They will not suffice to ward off domestic or foreign pressure by autocrats.

The democratic public space is at risk of losing information sovereignty not merely in the Hungary of Viktor Orbán. The ongoing subordination of press to the illiberal paradigm puts the whole European project at risk.

Key takeaways

  • The collapse of the biggest independent portal in Hungary Index.hu is not an isolated case and demonstrates a pattern of how media in Europe may be undermined by a mix of economic and illiberal pressures. This pattern was expected in a scenario-based report by Visegrad Insight earlier this year.
  • Overall, the EU media market is exposed to similar trends. The EU needs to act in order to fend off risks that are manifesting in Central Europe, a region which has once again become a testing ground for modern hybrid warfare between autocracies and democracies.
  • A new report by N-Ost and Ebert Foundation confirms that similar patterns have developed in the region.
  • Tech companies bear a special responsibility towards the media market: they can provide a technological advantage to develop viable business models, as proven in the case of DennikN in Slovakia.
  • The EU needs to invest in the development of local journalism to be carried out as support for media NGOs as well as easily accessible grants to media enterprises. Once local journalism market is hollowed out, it enables the autocratic mindset to be entrenched.
  • The US Agency for Global Media governance system must keep its integrity in delivering media pluralism in countries at risk, including in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • The old rivalry with the eastern style autocracies remains not only relevant but has been shifting to a higher gear by a post-modern culture of doubt and “questioning more” in volumes that prevent verification of facts and allow for the build-up of conspiracy theories. The principle of Ockham’s razor should be considered as a supplementary anti-disinformation training for journalists and students of media literacy programmes

Pande-media

As the COVID19 pandemic continues the worrying trends that impact media landscape in Central Europe are accelerating. The challenge to information sovereignty – which translates to the independence and pluralism of media from autocratic control – comes primarily through the sharp power pressure exerted by China or Russia.

But the current situation displays the structural economic processes that undermine plurality and resilience of the democratic ecosystem. Just like in 2008, the press is the silent victim of the economic crisis.

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Wojciech Przybylski

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad Insight and President of the Board at the Res Publica Foundation. His expertise includes European politics and political culture. Previously, he has been the editor-in-chief of Eurozine - a Vienna based magazine with a European network of cultural journals, and a Polish quarterly Res Publica Nowa. Wojciech also co-authored a book 'Understanding Central Europe’, Routledge 2017.

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