Journalism Is Under Attack – Fighting Against Declining Press Freedom in CEE

Journalists now are expected to protect themselves while fighting against oppressive and illiberal governments, politicians, and disinformation, says Alexa Wandersee, an American journalist based in Prague.

Hostility towards journalists and declining press freedom has been increasing in recent times as authoritarian regimes rise to power and seek influence over the public, threatening independent journalism entirely.

“Media freedom is a pillar of democracy. Journalists and investigative reporters hold governments to account by exposing corruption, and informing citizens on the issues most important to their lives,” – H.E. Mr. Mark Gitenstein, Ambassador of the United States to the EU.

During panel discussions on 8 November 2022– one on Broadcast News and the other on Print and Digital News– ten experts discussed the future of the free press in Central and Eastern Europe.

“The order is being rewritten around the world… we need urgency. We need to be coming up with new solutions, new networks, new collaborations with a sense of urgency,” said Natalia Antelava, Co-Founder of Coda Story, Tbilisi.

Political Influence Through Media

Politicians and oligarchs are buying media companies and co-opting newsrooms and public broadcasters in a bid to gain political influence over the public and control the published narrative. Mis- and disinformation often coincide under these media companies, resulting in journalistic integrity becoming corrupted by political agendas. 

“Undermining trust in the Czech TV and, on the contrary, strengthening the unregulated, more marginal, and sometimes even disinformation media, was an important part of [Czech President Miloš Zeman’s] agenda,” said Petr Dvořák, CEO of Czech Television, during his opening speech on declining press freedom in the Czech Republic.

Former US President Donald Trump was exemplified as another person in power openly berating the independent media for reporting on what he labeled as ‘fake news’. Politicians and governments being given this position of power to question the integrity of journalism results in distrust from the public. In light of this and the current authoritarian regimes rising to power globally, there is a divide between the audience and public service media.  

Jamie Fly, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, commented on media companies being co-opted: “These challenges are global…no one is off limits and no media outlet has been spared from this, no matter how significant the safeguards are. The authoritarians are taking advantage of that.”

Criminalizing Journalism in Russia

Russia has become a prominent player in the attempt to silence journalists. With the ongoing war against Ukraine, Russia took to criminalizing journalism in order to maintain total control over the media.

“On March 3, the Russian parliament adopted a new legislation on so-called ‘fake news’ on Russian military activities in Ukraine; the second law is about discreditation of the Russian army in Ukraine, which means that if you are spreading any kind of information telling the truth about the Russian army in Ukraine, you could face up to 15 years in jail,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, Editor-in-Chief for TV-Dozhd (TV Rain).

Russia perpetuates government and politician’s attacks on journalists, which include harassment, physical threats and attacks on their families, a trend that is becoming more common globally. Belarusian President Alexandr Lukašenko has followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lead by criminalizing journalism, banning viewer access to international media, and attacking journalists and reporters, as discussed during the Broadcast News panel. “Our staff is not in Russia because TV Rain is still a foreign agent…more importantly, we are being viewed as an enemy,” said Dzyadko on having to leave Moscow.

While Russia faces censorship and disinformation, Ukraine experiences the opposite as the public has been frustrated with journalists using their media freedom to report negatively on the government amid the war. “There still exists free speech and the fight for freedom of speech regardless if the public agrees with the timing”, said Sevgil Musayeva, Editor-in-Chief for Ukrayinska Pravda

Social media take control over information

Social media platforms play a large role in mis- and disinformation and are increasingly becoming more prominent competitors with public service media.

“We have very little control over the way that we actually engage with those audiences. It’s all in the algorithms, a lot of that control has been taken away from us and is residing with people who are driven by market dynamics, not really in the public interest,” Fly said.

I believe it is crucial to be utilizing the trending social media platforms to reach broader audiences and break through the disinformation barrier. It was mentioned that when it comes to real life situations, the audience always resorts back to independent journalism. I think finding a way to bring independent journalism into the everyday lives of the audience via social media platforms is a step in the right direction in infiltrating disinformation and eventually forcing the algorithms to push truthful journalism.

Media companies producing good content is not enough to compete, according to several panelists. The controversiality of good content is that anyone can create it; there is no standard for ‘good content’ needing to reflect the truth or embody any sort of journalistic values. They agreed that good content is important, but truthful reporting remains the priority when differentiating independent journalism from the disinformation found on platforms. 

“I don’t think there is any other answer than us doing the job that we are required to do, that we’re paid for, and that the law, in case of the Czech law, stipulates: the truth. Nothing but the truth,” said Martin Řezníček, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Czech Television.

Newsrooms, journalists and public broadcasters alike need to be open to engaging the audience in open and honest conversation about the standards of reporting and the editorial decisions being made. I think it’s important to be focusing on reporting the truth but also becoming acquainted with the audience and getting comfortable answering uncomfortable questions.

The trust lost by the public can only be rebuilt if public service media takes that extra step to close the gap. 

Stable funding is the key

The panelists discussed the challenge of sustainability for CEE public service media companies; a key issue being maintaining a stable income. Competing with social media platforms for advertising support has proved challenging as the platforms can deliver advertising more efficiently, which is drawing advertisers to them rather than to newsrooms. Antelava commented: “The same platforms that give us a voice give voice to all sorts of other people. The business models of the platforms that we use to reach out to audiences are built around disinformation and fake news and clickbait.”

For countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland, stable funding that allows for innovation is difficult to obtain. Brygida Grysiak, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of TVN24 Poland, said that “government friendly media outlets get much more money for advertising…from the government or state-owned companies.”

It’s not uncommon for governments to financially support media companies. However, today we are seeing governments only supporting media companies if it is beneficial to their political position. Since many media companies– both public and private – are avid about maintaining impartiality and journalistic integrity, government funding is more difficult to obtain because the narrative cannot be controlled.

Non-authoritarian governments were criticized for their current role in the protection of – more specifically, lack of – media freedom and journalists. If governments are supportive of media freedom, then they should be setting up safe-hubs for journalists under attack and speaking out more aggressively against the governments and politicians implementing said attacks, according to panelists. 

Journalists are under attack

Journalists now are expected to protect themselves while fighting against oppressive and illiberal governments, politicians, and disinformation. The panelists concluded that all newsrooms, journalists, and public broadcasters should offer support, protection and solidarity against the threats to independent journalism.

We are living in a time where forming alliances among journalists and media companies is more important than competition.

We face increasing oppression and illiberalism. As journalists, we need to remain tough when facing conflict and persevere for the sake of public interest. With the mis- and disinformation overload swarming the audience daily on government owned media and social media platforms, we cannot fault the audience for their lack of trust. There is too much information for them to actively disseminate truth from fact.  

This is where the importance of truthful journalism and alliances among journalists is relevant: to reach through the confusion with clarity and bridge the trust-gap between us and the audience.  The future of the free press and independent journalism is at stake, and for the sake of prosperous democracy, we have to fight to protect it.

“We should do as much as we can to stick together” said Řezníček.


Article is published thanks to author’s participation at the panel discussions on the Future of a Free Press in Central Europe which was organized by Aspen Institute Central Europe and Aspen Digital. The program is kindly supported by Microsoft and the Bakala Foundation.

Alexa Wandersee

is an American journalist based in Prague, Czech Republic; currently studying for a B.A. in Journalism and Media Studies at Anglo-American University.

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