Media diversity under attack in the heart of Europe
In four European Union states – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia – governments are adopting a startlingly similar set of tactics to make media the servants of ruling parties. States led by authoritarian politicians, including those once recognised as functioning democracies, are increasingly seeking to place their supporters into positions of media ownership and control. Public and key private media are becoming propaganda channels, while media companies that remain independent of state control are facing ever more challenging licensing requirements. It’s time for the European Union to take stronger action to prevent further degradation of civic space in its member states.
For Poland’s TVN24 network, 23 September brought much-needed good news. After a 19-month delay, its broadcast licence was renewed – just four days before it was due to expire. But while the news channel can keep broadcasting, there’s still trouble ahead. At the same time as it extended the licence, Poland’s media regulator issued notice that Polish broadcasters should not be majority owned by countries based outside the European Economic Area (EEA). For TVN24, part of US media giant Discovery, the message was clear: it will face continued state scrutiny and pressure to fall into line.
This lingering threat matters because TVN24 is Poland’s largest remaining independent TV station and has often provided critical coverage of the ruling Law and Justice Party, a hard-line conservative nationalist party that shows little tolerance of dissent. TVN24 has continued reporting amidst a media landscape that has increasingly fallen under the control of the ruling party and its allies.
The diversity of media ownership, and broader levels of media freedoms, should be seen as vital issues for civil society. Media freedom trends always track broader patterns in democratic freedoms and civic space. This issue matters because a media universe that offers a variety of credible and legitimate platforms enables a diversity of voices and viewpoints to be expressed. It means the words and deeds of presidents and prime ministers can be scrutinised, challenged and rebutted, rather than taken as gospel, and alternatives put forward.
The diversity of media ownership, and broader levels of media freedoms, should be seen as vital issues for civil society.
One of the problems civil society faces in arguing back is that changes in media ownership or licensing regulations are rarely the stuff of headlines. People may not see a need for action in the same way they do when journalists are violently attacked; a channel gradually shifting its political leanings rather that disappearing from air may be harder to trace. But these are vital and concerning trends all the same.
Poland is not alone. It is among at least four states, all at the heart of the European Union (EU), where media diversity is currently under concerted attack. These developments are part of a regional trend, and therefore require a European-level response.
Poland: an oil giant becomes a media company
People are fast running out of options in Poland, where instead of real news they are increasingly fed a diet of government propaganda. And this isn’t a healthy diet: state media has increasingly been instrumentalised to spew vitriol against the government’s enemies. In the 2020 presidential election, public television overwhelmingly lauded the incumbent, President Andrezj Duda, and presented his challenger, Rafał Trzaskowski, as a threat to the nation. Women protesting against the government’s draconian restrictions on abortion rights, introduced in 2020, are routinely described by state media as ‘supporters of killing unborn children’. State media spreads deliberate disinformation about LGBTQI+ people, accusing them of being a foreign-financed movement intent on destroying the fabric of Polish society, traditions and values.
Beyond its control of a deeply biased state media, the Law and Justice Party has continually spoken of the need to bring foreign-owned media companies under Polish control. What it really means is that it wants them under its control, parroting its views and attacking opponents alongside state media. As rules to restrict media ownership directly would likely incur EU scrutiny, it has adopted more creative tactics.
The ruling party’s chosen vehicle is an oil company with no previous media experience, PKN Orlen. This company, which the government effectively controls though a 27.5 per cent stake, and which had no previous interests beyond fossil fuels, has now taken on an extensive media portfolio, including in advertising and press distribution. Orlen’s CEO, Daniel Obajtek, has hardly come across as a friend of media freedom either: in March, he issued legal threats against Poland’s biggest newspaper after it investigated accusations of shady dealings he was alleged to have been involved in when he was a district mayor.
In February, Orlen closed a deal to take over Polska Press, a group that through 20 regional newspapers, 120 weekly magazines and 500 websites, as well as its own press agency, reaches almost 17 million readers across Poland weekly. Approval for the deal was temporarily put on hold in April when Poland’s ombudsman – subsequently forced out by a government-controlled Constitutional Tribunal – brought a court action appealing against it. Orlen has insisted its takeover is unaffected by the court’s decision and has started to ring the changes despite the court’s ruling.
The new CEO of Polska Press is closely aligned with the ruling party and at least eight editors-in-chief of its regional newspapers have been fired or forced to resign, while numerous other journalists have departed. Replacements invariably come from the ranks of pro-government journalists or those working for state media who have already proved their willingness to toe the party line. Favourable coverage of the government is guaranteed. Accurate reportage of the role of fossil fuel giants like Orlen in driving the climate crisis can hardly be expected either.
Against this backdrop, TVN24’s licence renewal, after a process dragged on by the ruling party-controlled Polish National Broadcasting Council for as long as possible, may only be a temporary reprieve. The media regulator’s ruling against foreign media ownership carries no legal weight, but there have already been attempts to introduce a law to the same effect.
In August, a law banning non-EEA members from being majority media owners, crafted to make it harder for the EU to object and clearly targeting TVN24, was passed by parliament’s lower house, in controversial circumstances. After an initial decision to postpone it, the bill was brought back for a second vote, which the Law and Justice Party won. Cash and other inducements were reportedly offered to vote with the ruling party, and a partner in the coalition government, Accord, quit the government after its leader was fired as deputy prime minister over opposition to the bill. The proposed law was voted out by the opposition-controlled upper house, but there is talk of bringing it back.
Now opposition parties are trying to make media ownership an electoral issue: parliamentary elections are due in 2023 but with the government weakened by the loss of its coalition partner and decreasing support in the polls, a no-confidence vote can’t be ruled out. The stakes are getting higher.
The challenge is of course that attempts by the opposition to beat the Law and Justice Party in an election will only get harder the more it increases its grip on media narratives. As well as through control and ownership, the landscape is being shaped by the government’s channelling of its advertising spend to client media, starving independent media of funds. A proposal to impose taxes on advertising revenue, which led to a blackout protest by privately owned media in February, looms as a further potential threat: oil giant Orlen would presumably find this less of a problem than media companies reliant on advertising sales.
Hungary: Orbán allies dominate the landscape
As in so many attacks on rights, Poland and Hungary are closely aligned. In Hungary, it is not a state-controlled company but wealthy allies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who have come to dominate the media landscape. In 2018, over 400 privately owned news titles were transferred for free to a group run by a close Orbán ally. They had previously been owned by pro-Orbán business leaders, and the fact that those business tycoons gave their titles away for free suggested that their main interest had never been financial.
In 2020, a pro-Orbán tycoon bought a 50 per cent stake in the company that manages the revenue and advertising of Index.hu, which was Hungary’s widest-read news portal and had reported on corruption by members of Fidesz, Orbán’s party. The editor-in-chief was quickly dismissed and many editorial staff subsequently resigned. Today, the portal limps on as a shadow of its former self.
By January of this year, research showed that over half of Hungary’s most influential media outlets were owned by Orbán allies. There is only one daily newspaper and one national TV group that remain fully independent of Orbán’s circle.
As in Poland, Hungary’s state-controlled media relentlessly promote pro-Fidesz lines, independent media are frequently vilified and state advertising spend is directed at allies. The government is alleged to have used Pegasus spyware to hack the phones of independent journalists and media owners.
The government also used the pandemic as a pretext to grant itself sweeping powers and accused ‘left-wing media’ of spreading ‘fake news’. Only state-controlled media were granted access to health workers and critical newspapers were barred from attending Orbán’s first in-person media conference since the pandemic began; in Poland, similarly, microphones were cut when journalists tried to ask questions at a media conference in July.
The latest to fall victim to the ruling party’s insistence on media hegemony is Klubrádió, a popular independent radio station with a reputation for airing criticism of the government. Its criticism made it a target. It was forced off air in February, following a decision by the state-controlled Media Council not to renew its licence on a minor technicality. Its court appeal, on the grounds that pro-government media outlets have not been penalised for similar minor lapses, was rejected. Klubrádió announced it would continue as an internet-only station, but clearly that will not give it the same reach.
In response to the loss of Klubrádió, two non-Hungarian broadcasters, Germany’s DW and the USA’s Radio Free Europe, announced they would resume Hungarian services to try to keep media diversity alive. This of course made them a target for the state; a government spokesperson immediately dismissed DW as ‘deeply biased’.
With an election due in 2022, and opposition parties deciding to field unity candidates, offering a genuine threat to Orbán, further attempts to bend Hungarian media to the service of Fidesz are guaranteed.
Czech Republic: a media in thrall to China
An election campaign also saw intensifying pressure on independent media in the Czech Republic.
Populist Prime Minister Andrej Babiš – himself a billionaire business leader with extensive media interests – knew he faced a real test in the October election – see our story, and ahead of this hostility grew towards national broadcaster Česká Televize, the country’s most used and trusted news source. In April the European Broadcasting Union reported that Česká Televize was increasingly being subjected to political interference, with a government-dominated parliamentary committee consistently shortlisting ruling party supporters for positions on the broadcaster’s governing council.
The previous November, all five members of the governing council’s supervisory board were suddenly sacked, without explanation, in a move that prompted the resignation of the council’s chair. Česká Televize’s director general, Petr Dvořák, who has upheld the broadcaster’s independence, has already faced an attempt to dismiss him, when in March a vote of confidence was held on spurious conflict-of-interest grounds. The aim seems to be to pack the governing council with government allies sufficient to oust him. His job could then be handed to someone far more pliable. Babiš has said that he considers Česká Televize to be part of the opposition and has called on Dvořák to quit.
In May the government opened another front of its attack on Česká Televize, when the office of President Milos Zeman, fellow populist and close ally of Babiš, announced it would stop providing information to several media outlets, including Česká Televize. As in Hungary, this was presented under the guise of combating misinformation.
But Zeman, known for his pro-China views, seemed to have few qualms about the takeover of the Central European Media Enterprises group by Czech billionaire Petr Kellner in October 2020. Kellner was only the latest in a series of Czech oligarchs adding media interests to their empires. His group now owns the Czech Republic’s largest private TV channel, TV NOVA, and provides content to 30 TV channels watched by 45 million people across five Central and East European countries.
Kellner has faced repeated accusations that his media concerns give favourable coverage of China, in which he has extensive business interests, with the aim of building Chinese influence in Europe. China is hardly a state to have qualms about media freedoms. So what now are the chances of media in Kellner’s group running a critical story on the repression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong or the systematic abuses of Uighur people in Xinjiang province?
Slovenia: a chokehold on public funding
There’s another close Orbán ally in Slovenia, in the form of right-wing populist Prime Minister Janez Janša. Predictably, he’s also well known for attacks on the media. Janša and those close to him routinely disparage independent journalists as spreaders of ‘fake news’ and practitioners of ‘opposition journalism’; Janša even blamed media reporting for contributing to the COVID-19 death toll. As sure as night follows day, these high-level smears lead to threats and physical attacks against journalists by ruling party supporters, with women journalists particularly targeted.
Janša’s tactics, startingly similar to those elsewhere, include the withdrawal of government officials from news programmes, the prevention of critical journalists asking questions at media conferences and the channelling of state advertising to media that support ruling party lines.
In Slovenia, along with North Macedonia, Orbán is directly exporting his strategy: Hungarian investors close to Orbán have taken over several media companies. In North Macedonia, shady Hungarian companies even support these media concerns by paying for adverts for products not available outside Hungary. Exposing what is happening brings risks: journalists who report on Hungarian ownership of media in their countries face harassment and threats.
The implication of this ownership shift seems clear: it can only build support for Orbán allies such as Janša in those countries, while also bolstering Orbán is his multiple disputes with the EU. In this context a pro-Orbán media in Slovenia, a fellow EU member, could be particularly useful.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Brankica Petković is a researcher and project manager at the Peace Institute, an independent, non-profit research institution that uses research and advocacy to promote the principles and practices of an open society, critical thought, equality, responsibility, solidarity, human rights and the rule of law in Slovenia.
For years, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been under attacks from Janša, the ruling party and their affiliated media, which consider NGOs and mainstream media as their enemies. As they blamed the media for their political failure, they formed their own media group. This is not a cheap undertaking, so they ended up in a partnership with a Hungarian media businessman with close ties to Orbán.
The content the media in this group produce is highly biased and unprofessional. What they do is not journalism but propaganda, either to promote Janša or to run smear and character-assassination campaigns against figures of the opposition and civil society. These media outlets treat human rights organisations, LGBTQI+ rights organisations and environmental organisations as enemies of the people, as ‘privileged’, and as ‘parasites’.
After the change of government, we have suffered various types of attacks on a daily basis. Janša’s connection with Orbán is not limited to their common media business ally; they have strong political and personal connections as well. They celebrate each other, come to each other’s election rallies. They are very similar politically, and the strategies they use to attack NGOs and the media are also similar. Janša is using social media, particularly Twitter, for his political communication and attacks. He is obsessively and aggressively engaged in tweeting, day and night.
The government has tried to snatch control of the public broadcasting company and to starve the national press agency, but has so far failed. This may change if Janša stays in power long enough. There are also some possible scenarios for taking control of some commercial mainstream media by the ruling party if the owners agree to enter into such deals in exchange for some big government contracts or other business opportunities.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Brankica Petković. Read the full interview here.
Janša is not just relying on Orbán. Another of his key tactics to end media diversity is to starve the Slovenian Press Agency of funding. The agency has not received any state funding in 2021, which means that at the time of writing it is heading towards 300 days without support. This is despite it being a public service agency that the government is legally required to support, something confirmed by a September Supreme Court ruling.
This is a deliberately manufactured showdown: the government’s tactic is to use the cessation of funding to force a new service agreement on the agency, which the agency has said will cause it to reduce its activity, revenues and staffing. The government keeps coming up with new conditions that enable it to further delay the release of funds, and still proposes to pay less than it owes. In September the agency’s director, Bojan Veselinovič, resigned rather than accept the new agreement. So far the agency has been able to keep itself going through crowdfunding, although that cannot be a long-term strategy.
The government has already tried and failed, in 2020, to give the executive rather than parliament control of the agency’s governing council members, and Janša has publicly rubbished the agency as a ‘national disgrace’. A ruling party member has launched a rival and self-described ‘fascist’ national press agency. Imagine the state of Slovenian media if this is successful.
Time for EU action
All of this should be politically embarrassing for the EU, given that Slovenia currently holds its rotating six-month presidency. The European Commission’s 2021 Rule of Law Report identifies Slovenia’s funding block as ‘politically motivated’ and senior officials have called on the government to ensure stable financing to the agency.
But the response from Slovenia, as with the other countries pursuing similar tactics, has been one of contempt: in March, Janša simply failed to turn up at an EU parliament hearing on media freedom, despite having accepted the invitation and negotiated ground rules for discussion. Instead, Janša tried to insist on remotely playing a pre-recorded video, and when that request was rejected, accused the EU parliament of censorship, disconnecting his call.
The EU cannot allow this to go on, in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia or any other of its 27 member states. Given the evident contempt these states are showing towards EU processes and criticism, civil society is demanding action rather than words. A free and diverse media should be understood as one of the cornerstones of the human rights and democracy commitments that come with EU membership. Sanctions should follow for states that try to make the media their mouthpiece.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia should cease their attacks on media freedom and media diversity.
The EU should increase its scrutiny of its member countries’ attempts to exert media control and limit media diversity, and sanctions should result for violations of EU values.
Civil society in Europe and internationally should actively engage with issues of media ownership and diversity, and support the struggles of media to stay independent.
Cover photo by Omar Marques/Getty Images