By Péter Bajomi-Lázár
Since the political transformations of 1989–1991, media freedom has been repeatedly flawed in many of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. A setback in media freedom has been particularly manifest in Kostov’s Bulgaria, Kaczyński’s Poland, Năstase’s Romania, Janša’s Slovenia, and Orbán’s Hungary. Analysts and human-rights organisations have formulated a number of media policy proposals in an attempt to improve media freedom, but few of these have been included in media legislation, and even fewer have been implemented.
Why have many of the media policy proposals been ignored? Why have analysts and human-rights associations not achieved their goals? Why is it that media freedom, which improved constantly in these countries until accession to the European Union, has begun to decline again in many of them?
The first possible explanation is that media freedom is, after all, not just a matter of the institutional framework that media policy proposals can easily improve. No matter how finely constructed are the institutional buffers that are ideally designed to protect media freedom, media landscapes are a function of a number of other factors, including the political culture, the state of the economy, foreign investments, and journalists’ perception of their own role – but media policy proposals hardly have an impact on these.
A second explanation may be that many of the proposals have been modelled on Western European, that is, predominantly British and French experiences. But then, media systems cannot be “copy-pasted” into political and economic systems that are quite different from those in the model countries. To name just one example: the BBC preserves its political neutrality in a two-and-a half party system such as the United Kingdom where all of the major political forces can be more or less equally represented in the news; but the impartial coverage of political forces may turn out to be difficult to realise in multi-party parliamentary systems where a higher number of parties compete for the voters’ attention. Also, it may sound reasonable to suggest that public service broadcasters should primarily rely on subscription fees, but the average household in Central and Eastern Europe is much less wealthy than in the UK. A public broadcaster relying only on subscription fees would find it very difficult to survive and to provide high-quality programming.
The political systems of Western and Eastern Europe differ in other respects, too. Most prominently, many parties in the ‘East’ – unlike those in the ‘West’ – have few members, unstable constituencies, weak structures and fuzzy ideologies. They have limited resources and poor links with society. In order to compensate for their feeble roots, they must rely on state resources, including those of the state media. As a result, media legislation often falls prey to inter-party bargains. Many parties tend to shape media laws so that these fit their own needs rather than serve the public interest. Media laws may, on the rhetorical level, refer to such ideals as media freedom and pluralism, but this only hides the fact that the institutional frameworks these create are designed in such a way that they enable parties to extract various resources from the media – including well-paid positions, advertising money, and radio and television frequencies – that they can then channel to their clients in exchange for past and future services, that is, to survive in the political field. The composition of the supervisory boards of public service television channels in many of the region’s countries is a good example: parties tend to use these in order to build sinecures and to control the resources of the public service broadcasters.
What, then, is the solution? How can analysts and media-freedom-watch organisations help to improve media freedom? While the diagnosis is easy to establish, the remedy is difficult to find. The problems of Central and Eastern European media systems are rooted in their party systems. First, the stability of parties needs to be improved, and only then can parties be expected to respect media freedom and to refrain from extracting media resources. Parties today may be highly unpopular among voters, yet they must be granted more money – in a fair and transparent manner. Only the stabilisation of parties can prevent them from capturing the state media and flawing media regulation.
Péter Bajomi-Lázár is Senior Research Fellow with “Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe,” a European Research Council project based at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, United Kingdom (2009–2013), and Professor of Mass Communication at the Budapest Business School (on leave for the duration of the project).