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On the brink

The media situation in Central and Eastern Europe

4. September 2018
Magazine > Feature > On the brink

Foreign companies are withdrawing from the newspaper business, nationalist governments are taking control of public service broadcasters: the media situation in Central and Eastern Europe.

Tamás Bodoky is standing at the entrance to the attic amid beer crates and an old drum kit, saying he likes it here. The whole place has a makeshift feel to it. Renting the space above the Aurora Jewish Cultural Centre with his editorial staff has, however, saved Bodoky a lot of money. The street outside doesn’t look welcoming either. Plaster is crumbling from the houses’ façades. A homeless person, covered by greasy woollen blankets, is sleeping in a driveway. Used syringes lie on the pavement of a street corner.

Thanks to „God and Viktor Orbán”

Another crowdfunding project in Hungary was founded two years ago. Direkt36 closely cooperates with international research teams such as OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) and, for instance, followed the Hungarian traces of the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. The new internet projects do not compete with each other, says Bodoky: “Our opponents are the state-controlled media that produce fake news on a daily basis.” These opponents are overpowering: three state-run TV and six radio stations plus an agency that centrally supplies all stations with news. The entire management staff was selected by the ruling party. The owners of the largest private TV and radio stations, too, are close to the government. Almost all regional papers belong to a friend of the prime minister who rose from being a heating engineer to become the richest man in Hungary within a few years. He once openly admitted that he owed his fabulous career to “God and Victor Orbán”.

Right after the Hungarian parliamentary elections in April 2018, Hungary’s last opposition daily newspaper, Magyar Nemzet, was shut down. It belonged to oligarch Lajos Simicska, who had fallen out with Orbán. After Orbán’s Fidesz party had won the elections, Simicska withdrew from the media business.

Admittedly, all printed news has seen a dramatic drop in significance: in Hungary, a country with a population of almost 10 million, tabloid Blikk is the only paper with a circulation of more than 100,000. All other daily newspapers have a circulation of only between 15,000 and 25,000 copies at the most. Newspapers still live in the past, says Marius Dragomir, head of Central European University’s media centre in Budapest: “They will have to adapt quickly or risk disappearing.”

Media in Eastern Europe are facing the same problems as those in the west: their print runs are declining, advertising revenue is dropping dramatically, and readers are migrating to free services on the internet. Media expert Dragomir, however, believes the crisis of journalism in Central and Eastern Europe to be much more serious. Economic pressure is increased by governments that try to bring inconvenient media to their knees with severe penalties for supposedly dubious reports and by boycotting advertisements, he says. Those who do not succumb to the pressure are denounced as traitors. Under these conditions it is almost impossible for journalists to remain independent and neutral. In Poland, Ukraine, Serbia and Hungary, media are labelled according to two categories: “loyal to the government” and “critical of the government”. Consumers, however, no longer trust either side.

57 percent of respondents in Germany rely on public service TV and radio as their main sources of information, compared to only 33 per cent in the four Visegrád countries Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

Citizens’ interest in traditional media is declining much faster in the East than in the West, says Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief of magazine Visegrad Insight and president of the foundation board of the Polish think tank Res Publica. Przybylski cites figures showing that 57 per cent of respondents in Germany rely on public service TV and radio as their main sources of information, compared to only 33 per cent in the four Visegrád countries Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. In the Visegrád countries, 23 per cent of respondents, however, use “alternative media” on the internet on a daily or almost daily basis – media whose reports are neither edited nor checked for accuracy. In Germany this figure drops to 11 per cent. But why this discrepancy?

Legacy of real socialism

The lack of trust in traditional media is also a legacy of real socialism. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the countries of the Warsaw Pact used newspapers, radio and TV for party propaganda. Those who were not devout comrades generally distrusted them. The transition period to market economy and democracy saw the emergence of new newspapers, TV and radio stations. The sense of distrust, however, remained. “Unlike the West, people in the East were never loyal to the media,” says Przybylski: “To readers, a newspaper is simply a product; it does not reflect their view of the world.”

The new investigative online media are the first to also emotionally engage their audience. Átlátszó and Direkt36 in Hungary, Aktuality in Slovakia, Hlidacipes (“Watchdog”) in the Czech Republic and Krik (“The Cry”) in Serbia all have loyal readers who donate regularly and frequently participate in research by contributing information. But even when these media reveal scandals reaching the highest echelons of government: nothing happens. Pro-government mass media remain silent, the police does not investigate, the judiciary does not pass judgements. Articles translated into English often provoke outrage abroad. In the countries concerned they are ignored.

Even foreign media groups are starting to have problems with governments. When Eastern Europe ventured into market economy, they were quick to meet the need for new media unencumbered by the past. Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ), Axel Springer, Swiss publishing house Ringier and Austria’s Styria launched flashy, easily readable newspapers that soon had enormous print runs and made significant profits. Nationalist governments, however, now want their “national” media back and make life hard for foreigners, levying taxes and introducing new legislation. And it’s working: “Foreign companies are withdrawing from the Central and Eastern European media market,” says Marius Dragomir. WAZ disposed of its shares in the Balkan countries; Axel Springer and Ringier merged their eastern businesses.

To receive the green light for this fusion from the Hungarian government, Ringier sold the renowned opposition paper Népszabadság to an Austrian, who shut it down soon after and kicked out its editorial staff. Hungary’s largest independent newspaper disappeared from the market overnight.

Foreign media companies now exclusively focus on the online business. They invest in buying internet marketplaces for automobiles and real estate as well as digital job sites. The new times also stimulate demand for small, independent online media, such as Slovak internet portal aktuality.sk for example. Today, journalists from all over Europe and the U.S. frequent the editorial office of aktuality.sk, which is located in a grey office building at the outskirts of Bratislava. The entrance is watched by police and security guards. Ján Kuciak used to work at one of its desks. Together with colleagues in the Czech Republic and Italy, the young journalist investigated links between the Italian mafia and the Slovakian government. This must have deeply unsettled someone. On 25 February Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnirová were shot in their home. Ever since, the office and the entire country have been in a state of emergency. “Even during the 1990s, marred by corruption and violence, journalists would be threatened or beat up here, but never killed,” says Slovakian writer Michal Hvorecký.

„Even during the 1990s, marred by corruption and violence, journalists would be threatened or beat up here,
but never killed“

– Michal Hvorecký, Slovakian writer

The brutal crime led to a government crisis, but also boosted solidarity among Slovak journalists. “There’s no competition anymore, we all work together,” says TV journalist Lydia Kokavcová. Kokavcová herself has learned how important it is to be supported by colleagues. She works for Reporteri, the only investigative programme of public service broadcaster RTVS. In January 2018 its television director unexpectedly announced that the show would be discontinued, citing high costs. The journalists concerned, however, suspected that they had been too critical. And civil society reacted: journalists, artists and scholars protested loudly for Reporteri to be continued. Pressure became so intense that the television director was forced to turn the shutdown into a hiatus of several months.

Despite these small successes the situation of public service broadcasters in Central and Eastern Europe remains difficult. Unlike Austria, Germany and Switzerland, their market shares lag far behind those of big private broadcasting stations. The latter, however, do not broadcast news, or if at all, focus on sex and crime to push up audience ratings and circumvent conflict with the governments, which would be only too willing to bring private companies under their control with economic or legal levers. Poland’s government planned to introduce a new law in 2017 that was to limit media shares of foreign companies to 15 to 20 per cent. This would have primarily affected the American Scripps Network, which has been acquired by Discovery, Inc. this year and operates the news channel TVN24 along with the Discovery Channel in Poland. The legislation was discarded following protests and interventions from the U.S. But the empire struck back: in December 2017 the state media regulator sentenced TVN24 to a large fine for promoting propaganda and threating public safety. The broadcaster had reported about protests against the government.

(cc) Peter Tkac
Demonstration in memory of murdered journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in Bratislava, 2 March 2018. Photo: (CC BY-SA 2.0) Peter Tkáč.

Nationalist sentiment and national pride

Neither public service nor private broadcasters are, however, able to escape the nationalist sentiment. In Slovakia, a quiz game called “I Love Slovakia” and the contest “The Country is Singing”, where choirs dressed in traditional outfits sing about their country’s beauty, have the highest viewing rates. A decade ago, such programmes would probably not have been successful, says journalist Lydia Kokavcová, but: “In today’s globalised world people have lost their bearings. They are looking for their roots; they want to be proud of their nation again.”

If governments or presidents regard themselves as their nations’ only legitimate representatives, criticizing them becomes treason. As a result, journalists can be publicly disparaged and outlawed even by the heads of state. During a meeting with Vladimir Putin Czech President Milos Zeman said: “There are too many journalists. They should be liquidated.” The former Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, now resigned, called journalists “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes.” All the same, press freedom in the Czech and Slovak Republics is still at an acceptable level, says U.S. American NGO Freedom House in its 2017 report. Poland, on the other hand, suffered the “largest declines”. While in the yearly statistics of Reporters Without Borders press freedom in Poland, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina scores badly, it is still slightly better than in Hungary – and significantly better than in the EU Member State Croatia.

Government pressure on media is a relatively new phenomenon in the Visegrád countries, while “in former Yugoslavia we have known it for quite some time”, says Oliver Vujović, head of the South East European Media Organisation (SEEMO). Journalists have repeatedly been threatened and physically attacked since the Balkan Wars in the 1990s: “These attacks come from organised crime, rather than from state-run organisations, however.” Whistle-blower and founder of weekly Nacional, Ivo Pukanić, and his marketing director Ivo Franjić were both killed by a car bomb in the Croatian capital of Zagreb in 2008. Two years later, six members of Croatian and Serbian gangs were condemned to long prison sentences for this murder.

Has the security situation since improved? No, says Croatian journalist Zeljko Peratović. He was awarded the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Without Borders for his research on Croatian war crimes but serious threats by police and criminals in his home country forced him into exile in Switzerland. At the moment, Peratović, 51, can’t imagine returning home: “I would neither be able to earn enough money to survive, nor could I work independently.” While there are more media products today than ten years ago, the quality of Croatian media has deteriorated drastically: “Infotainment prevails.”

Traditional media versus “innovative media projects”

YouTube channel JoomBoos, which belongs to the country’s largest tabloid, 24 sata (“24 hours”), is hailed as a Croatian model of success. Last year the project was awarded in the U.S. as the “most innovative media project” worldwide. 24 Sata owner, Austrian media company Styria, put a German-language spin-off online. JoomBoos has nothing to do with traditional media. The site is a playground for influencers and hopefuls in the field. Topics range from hairstyles, travels and celebrities to the world’s largest pizza. Ringier Axel Springer’s digital media service Noizz takes a similar approach. It provides the “generation C” of young, well connected city dwellers with reports on fashion, music, lifestyle and showbiz. Politics and economics are completely absent. Noizz also publishes content for Poland, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia.

Traditional media can no longer fulfil their role as a control authority within the state, and the rapid growth of social media exposes societies to pure political propaganda, warns Wojciech Przybylski: “Central Europe is faced with this dangerous phenomenon to a much greater extent than the U.S. or other EU partners.” Czech radio produces an annual media confidence index, showing dramatic results: while more than 50 per cent of consumers trusted newspapers in 2006, the number dropped to 30 per cent in 2016. Czech TV and radio are experiencing a similar loss of confidence.

In the Czech Republic, 71 per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds get news exclusively from the internet, primarily via social media. “They get false news from dubious websites and pass it on without checking its accuracy,” says political scientist Vojtech Bruk. Bruk, 26, has launched the initiative Zvol si info (“Choose your info”) with former fellow students with the aim of informing young people about manipulation and disinformation. They have created a PowerPoint presentation to explain the most commonly used manipulation techniques, illustrated with examples. Last year, they started to offer this lecture to Czech schools, and are still surprised by the enormous demand: “Many students want to know how they can talk to friends who believe fake news to be the truth,” says Bruk.

Together with scholars of the university of Brno, Zvol si info has published the “best book about fake news” – a guide to identifying and countering disinformation. Czech actors travel the country and read passages of the book aloud in libraries. “We don’t want to tell anybody what they should read,” says Vojtech Bruk. “We just say, be critical.”

Original in German. Translated into English by Barbara Maya.

This text is published under the Creative Commons License: (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). The name of the author/rights holder should be mentioned as followed. Author: Bernhard Odehnal/erstestiftung.org.
Cover picture: Newsstand in Budapest. Photo: (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr/Richard Ricciardi.