Press Freedom Is Under Attack in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe

Recent reports from Transparency International and Reporters without Borders show that corruption in the region is on the rise as freedom of the press plummets.

The European idea is founded on the rule of law, on justice, fairness, security, human rights. On living up to a public trust that, as far as possible, Europe will deliver a decent life for all.

Corruption – the abuse of public power for private gain – undermines all of that and is surely our common enemy. But all efforts to the contrary, Europe today is losing ground.

“This year’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) paints a grim picture of the state of corruption worldwide,” wrote the authors of the annual study published by Transparency International in January. “Most countries had made little to no progress in tackling corruption in nearly a decade.”

Ranking 180 countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, the report by the Berlin-based nonprofit shows minimal improvement in 2020 across the board, with more than two-thirds coming in with a score below 50, where 100 means “very clean,” and 0 “heavily corrupted.”

This year, the impact of corruption in the fight against COVID-19 was a central concern.

“The pandemic has tested the limits of Europe’s emergency response, and in many cases, countries have fallen short of full transparency and accountability,” a TI spokesperson told The Brussels Times. The European Union is among the highest-ranking regions on the CPI, with an average score of 64, with some EU countries like Denmark (88), Finland (85) and Sweden (85) topping the list. These successes are mitigated, however, by Romania (44), Hungary (44) and Bulgaria (44), lowest in the region. European non-EU members have marked a similar decline, including EU candidates Albania, Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey.

The Link to Media Repression

In parallel, the 2020 Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders showed marked declines in media freedom in all corners of the world. Even though Europe leads in press freedom generally, increasing pressures have been documented in the majority of countries. Some are minor lapses, such as Sweden’s fall from 3rd to 4th place, but others, like that of the Visegrád countries, are far more serious. Bulgaria, at 111th for the third year in a row, retains the lowest ranking not only in the EU but also among non-EU neighbors like North Macedonia and Serbia, as well.

The two European countries with largest declines on both lists are Hungary and Serbia. Both have tried, and in Hungary’s case succeeded, in using the pandemic to implement laws that would further restrict freedom of the press longer term. Since its foundation in 2018 more than 470 Hungarian media outlets have gotten under the control of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), closely allied with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Of the 246.5 billion Hungarian forint media budget in 2017, KESMA accounted for 24%, according to the European Parliament. Combined with other government-allied media, this number increases to 77.8%.

A Tightening Grip

The pandemic provided the Orbán government with the perfect excuse for emergency measures to further tighten the government’s grip on the press. Beginning with an “operative unit”, as intermediary between the various health institutes and the media, a centralized system hindered the free flow of information. Tamas Bodoky, editor-in-chief of the non-profit news outlet told the International Press Institute (IPI) in Vienna that information requests are being ignored by a growing number of institutions.

“There is no denial or rejection, just no answer,” Bodoky said. “We know from multiple sources that there is a central blacklist of outlets with which public institutions and officials cannot talk. We are on that list,” he added.

This law also criminalizes the dissemination of false information, which hinders the authorities’ fight against COVID-19, with offenders facing up to five years in jail.

“This is not about fighting disinformation. The Hungarian government is taking advantage of a health emergency to accelerate its already extensive control over news and information in the country,” says IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen.

The most recent development is Klubrádió being denied its license in early February. With this, the country lost one of the few remaining broadcasters still critical of the government. The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) has issued a statement warning that this decision will have “far-reaching implications for what remains of media pluralism and independent journalism in the country,” and calling for immediate action from the EU.

Apart from mentions in official reports, the EU response has been so far non-existent.

(C) World Press Freedom Index

Growing Repression

These developments have given Hungary an unenviable spot on the most recent RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. The current ranking of 89th marks a 24-point drop since 2015 (also see map above).

All the other members of the Visegrád Group are ranked significantly higher, with Slovakia 33rd, Czechia 40th, and Poland falling to 62nd, respectively – with all the countries dropping at least 19 spots in the last five years. Other non-EU countries from the region are ranked equally or just slightly below.

This influence of Hungarian state media doesn’t stop at the border. The right-wing populist government has been working on swaying the media in other European countries, notably in Slovenia and North Macedonia. Millions have been invested toward this cause to date, as reported by ORF. The EU estimates that three companies close to Orbán’s party Fidesz have invested up to €5 million since August of 2018 in outlets like Slovenia’s Nova24TV, that promote nationalist right-wing agendas.

Trouble in Serbia

Authoritarian and corrupt governments often profess no tolerance for corruption, even going as far as making it a key election issue, swearing that only they can bring back the rule of law.

The ruling party in Serbia, SNS, has been running on an anti-corruption platform since the parliamentary election in 2012. Its president, Aleksandar Vučić, has promised a sweeping investigation into several controversial privatizations and ties between tycoons and former members of government. Since the party’s ascension, little has been done. There have been a couple of heavily publicized arrests and indictments, but almost no convictions. Since Vučić came into power in 2012, says TI, perceived corruption has only gone up, and ranking down.

At the same time the country plunged on the RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, coming in as 93 in the 2020 ranking, the lowest yet. The work of journalists has gotten undoubtedly more difficult, as Žaklina Tatalović unfavorable treatments at president’s press conferences attests. “In our country there is a great fear of speaking openly,” she told the German broadcaster ZDF. “When the journalists ask questions about the real state of affairs, we get branded as traitors or enemies of the state.”

This “demonization” of the press is a well-known component in the toolkit of any aspiring demagog, as we observed in the USA. In Serbia, it began in the ’90s, when any media outlet speaking against Slobodan Milosević was quickly branded as a mouthpiece of the West. This continues to this day and is now imbedded in the consciousness of a large segment of the population, who judge any form of dissent as treachery.

(C) Unsplash

President Vučić, who served as the minister of information under Milošević, has adopted this model, frequently criticizing the media for being too negative or describing them as “fake news” controlled by the opposition.

This hostility was further documented in 2018, when the journalist Milan Jovanović was attacked and his house set ablaze. Jovanović, an investigative reporter for the independent website Žig Info, who was investigating mafia activities in the municipality of Grocka and links to the government, reported threats on his life prior but has received no protection from the police.

With the start of the pandemic, the Serbian government tried to put an act in place similar to Hungary’s “operative unit,” with its “Decree on Centralized Provision of Information.” This was retracted just a couple of days later, following widespread outrage at the arrest of the journalist Ana Lalić. After reporting on the poor conditions in the clinical center of Vojvodina (KCV), Lalić was arrested for stoking panic and disorder. Public pressure led to her discharge after only one day in detention.

Coverage in European Media

The situation has garnered some attention from European media outlets. ZDF, a German public-service television broadcaster, produced a program on press freedom in Serbia in late November of 2020, featuring Professor Florian Bieber, an expert of South-East European studies at the University of Graz. “Journalists in Serbia have to think twice before criticizing the administration,” Bieber said.

With the pandemic still providing fertile ground for regimes ready to grab power or further restrain the media, the public needs be more vigilant than ever, experts say.

“The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor,” said RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire in the documentary. This further threatens already weakened democracies and brings countries such as Hungary and Serbia one step closer to an authoritarian state along the lines of Putin’s Russia. The EU needs to stop turning a blind eye and confront these issues head on, they say, especially in its own member states

Bogdan Brkić
Originally from southern Serbia, he moved to Vienna in 2013 to study German Philology. He is an aspiring journalist whose passions include history, music and French pastries.

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