Fake news websites, nefarious chain mails, declining press freedom, polarized readers: Central Europe has experienced them all in the past decade. Just how bad the situation is, and how to improve media integrity, were the subjects of a conference arranged by the liberal Republikon Institute in Budapest on February 27.
Media freedom is one of the safeguards against a tyrannical regime, yet all governments are wont to control the media, Tanja Porčnik, president of the Visio Institute, a Slovenian think tank, told the conference in the keynote address.
“We are not talking about bad and good governments, any government will try to curtail these freedoms to some extent,” she said. But regarding Central Europe, 30 years after the demise of communism, the results are, at best, mixed, as indicated by the “Expression and Information” rankings within the latest Human Freedom Index, a report compiled jointly by the Visio Institute and the Fraser Institute of Canada.
These rankings, which include input from, among others, Freedom House, show the media landscape in Hungary and Poland deteriorating significantly between 2008-2017 (see graph).
“Slovakia and the Czech Republic have stayed at about the same level. On the other hand, Poland and Hungary have been declining. After 2009, in Poland, there has been a drastic drop in freedom of expression and information,” Porčnik said by way of initiating discussion.
But panelists felt that even this assessment was optimistic.
“In Poland, the common knowledge would be that, especially in terms of the public media, the biggest crisis came after 2015, when the [ruling] Law and Justice party simply took over and created a propaganda tool out of the public media,” said Leszek Jażdżewski, editor of the liberal-leaning Polish magazine Liberté!
But even Poland, he said, was better off than Hungary, which he deemed “a very different landscape.”
Péter Krekó, executive director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank, reinforced this point.
“Poland is one of the most problematic cases, [….] but it is nowhere close to what we can see in Hungary right now, in terms of media concentration, where 500 media outlets were put into one foundation. It’s a centralized, over-politicized, politically driven media empire that is spreading disinformation and fake news prime time,” Krekó argued.
In contrast to the ownership structure in Hungary, Slovakia has a number of important media outlets in foreign hands, a factor that, perhaps counter-intuitively, strengthens media independence, argued Viera Zuborova, executive director of the Bratislava Policy Institute. Foreign owners “don’t bow so readily to government pressure”, she said.
Zuberova also argued for education measures to counter increasingly extreme propaganda and the growing menace of fake news, pointing to research that has revealed that 80% of Slovak youth receive their news only from blogs and associated comments on the internet.
A mere 16% make an effort to fact check, she said, concluding: “Our younger generation is uncritical. They read everything on the internet, and they don’t have a historical memory to understand the context.”
Although the 2019 Human Freedom Index places the Czech Republic firmly at the top of the “Expression and Information” rankings among the V4 countries, in fact the country has seen a sharp decline in the quality and reliability of media in recent years, says Roman Máca, an analyst with the Institute for Politics and Society, a Prague-based think tank.
Máca points to a growing concentration in media ownership, a trend reflected in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, which placed the Czech Republic 40th in 2019, down from 13th place in 2014.
More alarmingly, he says the country has experienced exponential growth in deceptive “alternative” news websites.
“There was a milestone in 2014, [coinciding with] the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, [along with] the migration crisis. Fake news websites, mostly pro-Russian, mushroomed in the Czech Republic,” Máca told the Republikon conference.
The appearance of such sites, along with a storm of misleading campaigns via billboards, emails and social media, had an impact on the 2018 presidential election, in which the pro-Russian incumbent Miloš Zeman defeated the pro-European, independent candidate Jiří Drahoš by a mere 152,000 votes.
“We saw all these fake news websites and social network campaigns operated from Dubai, by a Czech professional working there in marketing and PR. They were supporting Miloš Zeman, because he’s a patriot and he’s fighting against Islam and migrants, and he likes Vladmir Putin and he’s for traditional [Czech] values,” Máca said.
Drahoš, in contrast, was supposedly paid by American billionaire-philanthropist George Soros and wanted to invite Africans to settle in the Czech Republic.
“The result was 51.4% for Zeman against 48.6% for Drahoš. I think the impact of fake news could have changed the final result,” Máca argued.
Barely had the sound systems for the Republikon conference been dismantled when a new controversy broke out over alleged political interference in the state-owned Hungary media.
On March 2, Brussels-based website Politico published a story based on leaked emails that claimed bosses at MTI, the Hungarian state news agency, had ordered reporters to request permission before reporting on Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish environmental campaigner, and on European political subjects.
The article also claimed reporting on “leading human rights organizations” such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were banned, and that editors were issued with a list of subjects, including “migration, European terror, Brussels, church issues”, which required consent from above prior to publication.
In response to enquiries on the allegations from Index, a leading Hungarian news website, the press office of the Hungarian state media said Politicoʼs information was “a lie based on conspiracy theories.”
The office later followed up with a statement that the original article, and subsequent questions from domestic media were part of a “coordinated attack” designed to “create noise around a credible, restrained [state] news service”.
The statement, published in full by Index, deemed the website, along with independent domestic outlets Azonnali and 24.hu as “fake news” producers that had earlier published misleading stories on the spread of the coronavirus.