Is the Free Media in Central Europe Under Threat?

20. 10. 2023

We Have to Convince the West that the Problems of the Media in Central and Eastern Europe Are also their Problems. Without free and pluralistic media, the region will continue to slide further towards authoritarianism, with grave consequences for the future of the entire European Union, says Václav Štětka in an interview with Robert Schuster.

We Have to Convince the West that the Problems of the Media in Central and Eastern Europe Are also their Problems. Without free and pluralistic media, the region will continue to slide further towards authoritarianism, with grave consequences for the future of the entire European Union, says Václav Štětka in an interview with Robert Schuster.

Where do you currently see the biggest risks to media freedom in Central Europe?
If we talk about the region as a whole, arguably the most direct threat to media freedom currently stems from illiberal governments attempting to either capture or intimidate independent media, while using their own channels to disseminate propaganda. Hungary and Poland are leading this trend, but there are certainly political actors in other countries who might pose a similar threat if they got to power. After all, we got a taste of that in the Czech Republic when Andrej Babiš was Prime Minister, even if he never went as far as his counterparts in Budapest or Warsaw in attacking the free press. But the pressure exerted during his government, especially on public service media, was a very troublesome sign of where things could go, should the parliamentary opposition and especially civil society waver in their active defence of Czech Television from political capture.

In which countries is the situation most critical? Where have there been shifts and, if so, in what direction?

I guess the answer depends on where we draw the boundaries of Central Europe. Among the Visegrad countries, the situation is obviously the worst in Hungary, and has been for several years now. Directly or through allied oligarchs, Viktor Orbán’s government wields control over a significant part of the Hungarian media market – up to 80 percent by some calculations. Poland has been on a downward spiral ever since 2015, and although the independent media camp is comparatively stronger than in Hungary, it is under constant attack from the government, whether by economic means – such as stripping them of state advertising – or by legislative instruments, attempting to force international media owners out of the country. In Slovenia, the ex-PM Janez Janša has recently tried to emulate the Hungarian scenario too, but fortunately did not get too far before he was removed from office.

In contrast, media freedom and pluralism has recorded a notable improvement in the Baltic countries over the last decade.

In the early 2010s, the political and media landscapes of both Latvia and Lithuania were dominated by oligarchs, and the space for independent journalism was shrinking. Today, Lithuania is ranked 7th on the World Press Freedom Index, maintained by Reporters without Borders, and Latvia is 16th .

This “Baltic success story” gives us some hope for Central Europe:

while we have already learned that democratic transition is, sadly, not a one-way street, the Baltics teach us that neither is democratic backsliding.

What do you consider to be the greater risk: the attempt to take political control of the media or to gain economic control over it? Or, do they go hand in hand?

This depends on the particular context. In countries with a more established democratic tradition and stronger systems of checks-and-balances, the risk of political capture is relatively smaller, and the threats to media freedom and pluralism usually come from the economic powers – especially advertisers or proprietors.

In Central and Eastern Europe, where democratic institutions are generally weaker, and the regulatory framework does not provide the media with enough protection, it is much easier for illiberal strongmen like Viktor Orbán, Janez Janša or the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to assume control over the media, and to make life for independent journalists difficult.

Of course, media owners might pose a big risk to media freedom in these countries too, but their power is usually limited to a particular news brand or media house, while political elites can endanger the freedom and pluralism of the entire media system.

Are public electronic media or traditional paper media more at risk?

The future does not look bright for either of those media types. When it comes to traditional paper media, I am afraid they are walking fossils, a species awaiting extinction, which will inevitably come in the very near future. As long as their demise won’t be accompanied by the death of journalism as a profession, there is no need to mourn for them. Unfortunately, there are not too many signs indicating that professional, independent journalism could really thrive in the new digital environment, dominated by global platforms. Most newsrooms are struggling with the digital transition, still searching for a sustainable business model that will generate sufficient profit in an oligopolistic digital economy where the rules are set by the likes of Facebook, Google or Amazon (for the Czech Republic, we need to add Seznam to them as well). Of course, there are exceptions, like The New York Times or Financial Times, which have all built an impressive digital subscription base, but these are global brands, capitalizing on the size of their audiences around the world. This is clearly not a model for most European news brands, and even less so for those from Central Europe.

As for the public service media, their survival is threatened by both political and technological developments. Across Europe, they have been targeted by right-wing populists and illiberals for their alleged elitism and liberal orientation, portraying them as being “out of touch” with the people.

Under the conditions of the platforms-driven, fragmented communication ecosystem, where information is abundant and highly personalized, it is no wonder that the societal consensus about the need to maintain the institution of public service media – especially one that is funded by a mandatory payment, such as the license fee – is quickly eroding. I think that safeguarding a meaningful future for public service media and protecting them from the combined assault of populism, commercial competitors and digital platforms will be one of the biggest challenges for democratic politicians in the nearby future. This is particularly true for Central Europe, where we have already experienced how crucial strong and independent public service media can be as a barrier against authoritarian tendencies – which is precisely why both Orbán and Kaczyński eliminated the independence of public service broadcasters as one of the first steps in their power grab.

A year ago, the European Commission put forward draft legislation on media freedom – what are the motives?

I have no reason to suspect that the motives are any different from those officially communicated upon the launch of the Act, namely, to finally obtain an EU-wide, legally binding instrument to protect media freedom and pluralism across the EU. There has been a long history of EU institutions being criticized for not doing enough to safeguard the independence of the media in member states, especially in the new ones, despite freedom of the press being among the core European values.

With EMFA, the EU might finally get such an instrument – and thereby add teeth to numerous proclamations that have not been able to make any real difference on the ground. The draft is obviously not perfect, and there is room for improvement, but I believe it deserves a chance. Interestingly, it seems that the public is in favor of stepping up efforts by the EU to protect media freedom – at least based on the results of a poll 1 carried out by the Committee for Editorial Independence in Visegrad countries earlier this year, according to which over 60% of respondents across these four countries agreed that there should be penalties or sanctions imposed by the EU on countries whose governments interfere with media freedom.

There have also been a number of critical reactions on the part of serious newspapers and their publishers, who warn of the risk of restricting freedom of expression…

Yes, there is a strong opposition against EMFA from some Western publishers, especially in Germany and France. For them, the Commission goes too far in prescribing how they should manage their internal affairs, particularly with regards to Article 6 which asserts that media providers should adopt specific measures to safeguard editorial autonomy. However, there are also Western publishers who are backing EMFA, particularly in Scandinavia, and major journalistic associations are in favor of the proposal as well. Generally speaking, the strongest support for EMFA is voiced by media and journalists from Central and Eastern Europe, who see it as pretty much the only chance to defend and foster independent journalism in the region, in the context of rising illiberalism and the weak economic situation of the media, which makes them an easy prey for oligarchs. The challenge is to convince Western countries that the problems of the media in Central and Eastern Europe are also their problems, because without a free and pluralistic media, the region will continue to slide further towards authoritarianism, with grave consequences for the future of the entire European Union. At the same time, Western media are themselves far from being completely immune to risks to their independence, especially those from ownership pressures. Last year’s revelation that the CEO of Axel Springer, Mathias Döpfner, has actively intervened in editorial decisions of the tabloid Bild, to push a particular political agenda before the elections, clearly demonstrates that editorial autonomy can be easily compromised even in the established democracies.

There is also criticism that the planned proposal is too ‘soft’ towards large internet concerns that could censor/filter content…

The question of whether and how to regulate journalistic content distributed by VLOPs (which refers to “very large online platforms”, such as Facebook, Google, X and others) has been one of the most contentious issues within the draft of the EMFA, as it reveals substantially divergent perspectives on media freedom and censorship by different stakeholders, as well as by EU bodies. The Commission’s intention, encapsulated by Article 17, was to ensure that VLOPs do not unilaterally and without any previous consultation take down content produced by professional media, if such content is found to contravene their terms and conditions. This is why this article introduces so-called “media exemption”, which essentially gives news organizations a privileged position vis-à-vis the VLOPs. In other words, the intention has been to strengthen the media’s hand in their dealings with digital platforms. However, by doing that, the draft potentially opens a loophole that might be abused by shady, self-declared “news organizations” to disseminate disinformation and other harmful content, while leaving it up to VLOPs to decide whether such news producers are legitimate or not. There are also concerns that this provision might give a free reign to the government-controlled broadcasters in Hungary and Poland, which would also receive an automatic exemption as “public service media”.

So, this particular Article seems like a classic example of a well-intended regulation that might achieve exactly the opposite than what it aims to, simply for failing to secure an adequate mechanism for its implementation.

During the covid pandemic, ideas emerged in some countries, including the Czech Republic, to provide financial support for publishers who were in trouble due to a shortfall in advertising, etc. What do you think of these initiatives?

I think that countries which introduced such programmes demonstrated a great deal of sensibility towards the situation of the press, which suffered a sudden and unprecedented decline of revenues throughout the pandemic. In fact, most EU countries supported the media during this period, either by direct subsidies or indirectly, via tax reductions or state advertising. Of course, in some cases there have been issues around the transparency and fairness of the distribution of such aid. But the very idea of the state offering a hand to the ailing media sector in times of crisis was fully legitimate – after all, most other sectors of the economy have benefited from the same approach, so why not the media? I find it unfortunate that the Czech government decided not to follow the examples from abroad in this regard, not only because it would have helped the media at that particular time, but also because it would have helped to normalize the concept of state support to media, which is somehow still shunned, despite being an established part of the media systems in various other EU countries.

How do you think artificial intelligence (AI) can intervene in the issue of media freedom?

The arrival of AI indeed represents a whole new type of risk for press freedom, and one that we are so far ill-equipped to deal with. Layoffs of journalistic staff, to be replaced by AI, is just one aspect of the problem; the deeper issue is the loss of autonomy in the production of news, which is being outsourced to machines. Already now, news organizations are heavily dependent on digital platforms and tech companies for distribution of content and advertising revenues. With the use of AI, they are giving up another part of their autonomy, arguably the crucial one – the authority to decide how news is written.

If the newsroom’s control over the use of language is deferred to machine learning models, we can hardly talk about “journalistic freedom” anymore, at least not in the conventional sense of the term.

The problem is that under the current economic situation, most media companies are likely to embrace the rise of AI with open arms, because it promises to reduce costs. Some of them are already far ahead on this path – for example, the Australian publisher NewsCorp uses AI to write around 3,000 local news stories per week. However, I think that the media really need to think twice before creating too much of an organizational reliance upon artificial intelligence – they are opening up a Pandora’s box, the consequences of which they might not be able to handle.


Václav Štětka

is a media scholar, since 2016 based at Loughborough University in the UK, where he currently holds the post of Reader in Comparative Political Communication. He previously worked at Masaryk University, Charles University and the University of Oxford. His research interests encompass political communication, the role of media in the rise of populism and polarization, and the relationship between media and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. He is an active contributor to several international research projects and networks, including the Digital News Report (Oxford University) or Media Pluralism Monitor (European University Institute in Florence). He has been member of the Committee for Editorial Independence of the Czech media house Economia since 2019.

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