press freedom is declining in Central Europe

Could it Happen Here?

With press freedom declining across Central Europe, Austrians have to stay vigilant to defend the rights of journalists.

2018 world press freedom index
Illustrations: Karin Drehler, karin-grafikdesign.com // Source: World Press Freedom Index 2018; Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontieres

Poland is under siege. So is Hungary. The forces arrayed against our proud, confident nations are numerous, sly and insidious. But fear not! A strong and sovereign Poland, a strong and sovereign Hungary will overcome these ordeals and march onward to a bright future! No questions asked, please.

This, in a nutshell, is the picture an average Pole or an average Hungarian gets when switching on their government-sponsored TV channels. Headlines and news anchors compete with ever-more outrageous claims about the pernicious designs “they” – the Muslims, the opposition, the EU, Germany or favorite boogeyman George Soros – have on the righteous people of Central Europe. Dissent is unwelcome, critical questions are shunned or drowned out, the freedom of journalists is, while not abolished, significantly compromised.

Between 2013 and 2018, Poland fell from 22nd to 58th place on the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters sans frontières. Hungary dropped from 56 to 73, now ranking behind Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mongolia and Mauritania. It is a change brought on and deliberately engineered by authoritarian, right-wing governments. The Law and Justice party (PiS) has ruled Poland since 2015, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has dominated Hungary since 2010.

While the situation in neighboring Slovakia and Czechia is far better, the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée on February 21, 2018, in a small village outside of Bratislava has given the region another violent jolt. Here, the impassioned reaction of Slovak civil society demanding justice was heartening, as were the government’s belated, but important, steps to investigate the case.

Illustrations: Karin Drehler, karin-grafikdesign.com // Source: World Press Freedom Index 2018; Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontieres

Still, the specter of a muzzled and cowed press hangs over Central Europe. So, alarm bells rang when an internal memo of the FPÖ-led Austrian Interior Ministry leaked on September 24, advising officials to restrict information to “the absolute (legally defined) minimum” to media outlets that “continue to report in a one-sided and negative manner.” These papers – the Viennese weekly Falter as well as dailies Der Standard and Kurier – the press office memo contiued, are also to be denied access to “exclusive stories.”

GOOD NEWS FOR MEEK REPORTERS

“A carrot for the good ones; a stick for the critics,” wrote Florian Klenk, editor in chief of the Falter, of the Interior Ministry’s new policy. Yet, “I would not go so far as to say that press freedom is being abolished in Austria,” Klenk told German weekly Die Zeit.

To Austria’s credit, condemnation from the leadership was clear and swift. Government and public institutions bear “a heavy responsibility” for upholding a “free and independent” press, said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on September 25, at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. This was immediately backed up by President Alexander Van der Bellen: The boycotting of certain media outlets is not permissible in Austria, he said. Press freedom is “a cornerstone of our liberal democracy and constitutional state.”

And if a new Austrian Democracy Monitor study, whose results were published on October 12 is to be believed, there is little appetite among the Austrian public for limits on press freedom. When asked if the government should restrict or extend media independence, almost half of respondents in Austria – 49% – believed the press’s freedoms should be expanded, another 38% want it to remain the way it is. Only 8% of Austrians said they were in favor of harsher restrictions on the media. (Contrast this with a recent American poll that 45% of self-declared Republican voters want the US government to shutter “biased or inaccurate” media).

Still, Klenk went on, the Interior Ministry memo shows how press freedom “can come under pressure in a democracy.” The following week, the ministry escalated its conflict with Falter by publishing emails between Klenk and ministry officials. And since their return to government in December 2017, Freedom Party politicians have continually bashed public broadcaster ORF, which vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache even accused on social media of being “a place where lies become news” – a statement later found to be libelous.

Illustrations: Karin Drehler, karin-grafikdesign.com // Source: World Press Freedom Index 2018; Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontieres

When three recent Volksbegehren (people’s petitions) presented their results, the FPÖ chose to ignore the one against smoking in public places (882,000 signatures) and for women’s rights (482,000 signatures). It was the 320,000 signatures against fees for the ORF that interested them, seeing it as “putting the system of fee-financed public broadcasting into question.”

While Austria continues to have a freer media even than the United States (according to a recent study by Freedom House), it also sits on the boundary of a region where press freedom is very much under threat. Investigative journalists have been murdered in both Slovakia and Bulgaria in the last 12 months, while Freedom House now regards the media of Poland, Hungary, and Serbia as only “partly free,” where governments are intolerant of critical journalism, interfere in the affairs of public broadcasting, and, in Poland’s case, even question the right to speak openly about the country’s history and identity.

RADIO NOT-SO-FREE EUROPE

The picture across Central and Eastern Europe is by no means uniform. Czechia, Slovakia, and Slovenia continue to enjoy a free press, while there are Western European countries such as Italy where long-standing problems, including the status of defamation as a criminal offense, political influence on the public broadcaster; and the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few, make for a sub-optimal media landscape. But “unfortunately, the overall trend in Central and Eastern Europe is negative,” said Gulnoza Said, Europe and Central Asia research associate at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in a recent interview. And it is certainly observable that where populist and nationalist parties run the show, press freedom is being constrained. Metropole launched its ongoing “Empire to Republic” series to find out what is moving the region and explore the roots of these developments, covering Hungary in our June 2018 issue (MET 28) and Poland in this issue.

Illustrations: Karin Drehler, karin-grafikdesign.com // Source: World Press Freedom Index 2018; Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontieres

In Poland and Hungary, public broadcasting has become a government mouthpiece. In 2016 the Polish government, controlled by the far-right Law and Justice party, created a new entity in order to circumvent the existing National Broadcasting Council’s influence over hiring and firing decisions at TVP, the only public television broadcaster. By April of that year, more than 140 employees had resigned or were red. Hungary’s public broadcasters Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió – the country’s most influential outlets – and its wire service, Magyar Távirati Iroda, simply echo the views of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on refugees and foreign affairs.

Orbán and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić also benefit from a constellation of allied privately owned media outlets that do their bidding. The Serbian pro-government tabloid Informer, for example, often smears critical outlets and reporters as having links to mafia groups or foreign intelligence agencies. Orbán’s strategy is to “persuade his oligarchs to purchase publications,” guaranteeing that they will be “well-endowed through government advertising,” says Eva S. Balogh, writer and editor of the Hungarian Spectrum watchdog blog, in turn, squeezing out the space for independent media.

At the same time as newspapers like Magyar Idők and online portals like Origo have fallen within the government’s orbit, critical media such as the country’s largest independent daily, Népszabadság, have closed down entirely. (In Népszabadság’s case, its parent company was promptly sold to the firm Opimus Press, linked to Orbán ally Lőrinc Mészáros – never to reopen.) Since the April 2017 election, things have only worsened. With Orbán’s Fidesz winning almost half the popular vote, the conservative daily Magyar Nemzet and commercial station Lánchíd Rádió (partially) closed their doors.

Hungary’s case is the most acute (see also MET 28, June 2018, “The Journalism of Resistance”). When the English-language Budapest Beacon ceased publication in April, its managing editor, Richard Field, commented that the “severe erosion of media plurality in Hungary makes it nearly impossible for us to continue publishing a fact-based newspaper of record about Hungary.”

The Hungarian government influences 60% to 70% of media outlets providing public content, according to the National Associa- on of Hungarian Journalists, and Balogh believes that figure is as high as 90%. “There is an overabundance of media outlets that are, in one way or another, owned by the government,” she told Metropole.

THE AUTHORITARIAN TEMPTATION

“Authoritarian governments use various methods and tools to make sure that what the general public gets is their version of events,” Said says, counting Orbán’s government among them. And as press freedom deteriorates, a climate of self-censorship takes its place.

This is even more pronounced in countries where journalists fear for their safety. Natallia Radzina, a well-known Belarusian journalist living in exile in Poland, has recently been subjected to death threats, while in Serbia, attacks on journalists are simply part of the profession, routinely uninvestigated, unsolved and unpunished.

Illustrations: Karin Drehler, karin-grafikdesign.com // Source: World Press Freedom Index 2018; Reporters Without Borders/Reporters Sans Frontieres

The investigative journalist Stefan Cvetković went missing in June near the town of Bela Crkva. His car was found with the motor running, the lights on and the driver’s door open – but with no sign of the driver Cvetković. Although he was found two days later, the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and re-emergence remain unclear even to him.

In the current climate, critical journalists – and especially those investigating government corruption – have good reason to fear for their lives. In February, Ján Kuciak, who investigated tax fraud and suspected mafia links associated with businessmen close to Slovakia’s ruling Smer-SD party, and his fiancée were found dead in their home, having been shot in the chest twice. Prosecutors suspect his death was a contract killing. According to the CPJ, Kuciak was the first journalist killed in Slovakia. At least, says Said, “the general public was very much outraged by the killing – and not just those familiar with [his] work.”

Press watchdogs like Reporters Without Borders (RSF) continue to call for a thorough investigation into the rape and murder of the Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova – killed in broad daylight in the border town of Ruse in Octo- ber. Marinova, who worked for a local television station in Bulgaria, had been reporting on large-scale fraud linked to the misuse of EU funds. A suspect was arrested in Germany and while Bulgarian police dispute that the attack was linked to her work, RSF remains cautious. “The investigation is going too fast right now and we would like to make sure the Bulgarian authorities look into all scenarios,” RSF’s EU/Balkan bureau chief Pauline Adès-Mével told Metropole.

SAFE BUT SORRY

The danger is not that Austria, as a consequence of the Interior Ministry’s attempts to restrict journalists’ access ipso facto becomes another Poland, Hungary or Serbia, nor that journalists end up dead in their homes, like Kuciak. The country continues to have a strong constitutional state whose president, chancellor and citizenry value press freedom.

But RSF and the CPJ remain deeply concerned about the role of the Freedom Party in Austrian politics and the party’s attitude both toward critical journalists and toward the ORF’s unfettered status as a truly independent public broadcaster.

“What we’ve seen not just in CEE but in the wider region is that governments try to justify their attempts to limit the media with rhetoric about security and safety,” Said warns, tying press freedom to the changing political climate in general. “The picture in most parts of Europe is not very good unfortunately.” For now, she believes the Interior Ministry memo “was an attempt to control the flow of information,” Said stresses, rather than outright censorship. Still it worries her.

“The fact that the Austrian police were advised to tell [critical media] as little as possible is definitely an attack against press freedom,” says RSF’s Adès-Mével. “We have seen worrying signs, especially coming om the Freedom Party, that show the situation is deteriorating. It’s something RSF is watching very closely.”

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