Polarisation and Clientelism Limit Media Freedom in Central and South East Europe

Challenged media pluralism, amid polarization and clientelism in Central and South East Europe, was the focus of a public debate in Budapest featuring prominent media experts.

The regional conference titled “News Media and Parallel Realities in Central and Southeast Europe” was held on Human Rights Day, 10 December, organized by the Center for Independent Journalism (Budapest), the Network for Professionalization of Media (SEENPM), Goethe-Institute Budapest and IFEX.

Marius Dragomir

We are focusing on the same issues as 20 years ago when media concentration and media independence were in focus, said Marius Dragomir, director of the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) at the Central European University in Budapest, opening his keynote speech on how populist trends and technological changes affect independent media and freedom of expression.

However, we live in an entirely different media landscape now: one of its features is a more diffused nature of the enemies of free expression. New generation of oligarchs are taking big part of media markets creating media concentrations.

The biggest challenge to media pluralism today is the new elite controlling state structures and running media as private enterprise,” Dragomir stressed, pointing to a number of ways in which such trends could be countered.

New models of journalism, such as new web portals, often small, but managing to find business models and niche audience perhaps can’t compete with large media companies, but Dragomir believes their joint push could be strong.

He also highlighted successful cross-border collaborative investigations, of which we have seen a lot in the past decade, something that Dragomir believes should be supported further.

Long term response, however, should be policy, Dragomir opined, pointing out that that large donors no longer fund media policy in the region, something that has very negative effect on the media situation.

“Media policy is now more closed to public scrutiny than ever before and it is crucial to put it on the agenda again,” Dragomir concluded.

When Polarization Rules

Panelists of the discussion focusing on social and political divisions influencing the discourse in news media agreed that polarization had always existed in their countries, albeit in somewhat different forms.

According to Boro Kontić, director of Mediacentar Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a society deeply polarized along ethnic lines.

“The country is still slave to the war that ended 22 years ago. But looking at the media you would think that it finished a few days ago. If the society is polarized, the media follow that,” Kontić said.

Marius Dragomir pointed out that polarization existed before the internet era, along ideological, economic and social lines, but social media made it much stronger.

Dragomir thinks that the most negative impact is on sound, objective, fact-led journalism. In countries such as Hungary and Turkey, independent journalists become opposition journalists, something that may affect their objectivity.

Objective, fact-based journalism is still possible, an example being countries with strong public service broadcasting systems, such as Nordic countries, Dragomir said.

Kontić explained that public service media in Bosnia are controlled by the authorities, while it is precisely these outlets that should be erasing division lines.

As a result, citizens’ ability to distinguish between good and bad journalism, understand nuances and pay attention to important details has been diminished, an observation that prompted panelists to emphasize the need for institutionalizing media literacy education as a response to polarization in media discourse.

Evren Gönül and Boro Kontić

Rights based journalism was put forward by Evren Gönül of Bianet (Istanbul) as a way to give voice to “all colours of society,” with this approach offering protection from compulsions of repressive state and the market.

Such journalism is practiced by Platform for Independent Journalism P24 and Bianet in Instanbul, for example, according to Gönül.

Supporting good journalism and good media policies in particular is important. We have to find more creative and innovative ways how to do that, said Biljana Petkovska of the Macedonian Institute for Media.

Clientelism and Market Distortions

A presentation on clientelistic media systems and journalism practices in Hungary by Péter Bajomi-Lázár PhD, media researcher from Budapest, opened a panel on corrupt political and business practices that lead to marginalisation of independent and critical voices in media.

Bajomi-Lázár described the Hungarian media system and journalism culture since 2010 as one marked by strong state intervention that led to almost complete centralization of media scene today under Fidesz party and the Central European Press and Media Foundation, the media conglomerate headed by Prime Minsiter Viktor Orbán’s supporter and media owner, Gábor Liszkay.

As a result, Hungary now has a clientelistic media system, founded on a web of privileges.  The outcome is unequal access to the media, pro-government news bias and marginalisaton of critical voices, Bajomi-Lázár said, adding:

“Collaborationist journalism seems to be flourishing – media as an agent of controlling society, a means of regime apology and defending status quo.”

Bajomi-Lázár pointed out that clientelistic media systems and unethical journalism generate ideologically loaded messages. Privileges reward unethical journalism and sanction the ethical one, with unethical journalism becoming an adaptation strategy and even a viable business model.

The situation in Turkey has changed remarkably in the last few years. The government controls at least 95% of mass the media industry. Even the private media is under government control.  In this atmosphere some voices are trying to get through, explained Andrew Finkel of P24 (Istanbul).

The question is why president Erdoğan and the government still feel the need to go after dissident media. It is because the independent media has the power to disrupt the dominant official discourse, Finkel said.

Yana Pelovska

Bulgaria was 36th in 2006, just before joining the EU, and has since dropped to 111th place in the RSF World Press Freedom Index (out of 180 countries), Yana Pelovska of the Media Development Center (Sofia) pointed out.

A single oligarch owns most newspapers in the country and 80 percent of distribution. Pelovska recalled that last year the first issue of a newly launched quality cartoonist newspaper was not distributed as the oligarch was featured in it, which resulted in thousands of citizens distributing it from hand to hand and via social media as a form of resistance.

In Croatia, every new government “grabs” the national public broadcaster after it gets elected, Saša Leković of the Investigative Journalism Center (Zagreb) explained.

The Croatian society is split, which reflects on journalism, with ultra

Saša Leković

nationalist, clerical media, supported by the church and the government, now emerging claiming what they do is journalism, he said.

Leković, who is a former president of the Croatian Journalist Association HND, pointed out that Croatia lacks media strategy that would result in new media laws, because the government does not want that.

In Albania, clientelistic media system has started to perfect itself after 20 years of existence, said Ilda Londo of the Albanian Media Institute (Tirana).

The overall climate of distrust towards institutions in society translates to a media scene where 67 percent of journalists do not want to be part of trade unions and associations as they do not see the benefits.

Ilda Londo

General reaction of the public to the media situation is missing, while the only source of resistance is the media operating on foreign funds, Londo said.

The public event was organised as part of SEENPM’s General Assembly, an annual gathering of the network’s 19 member organisations from thirteen countries of Central and South East Europe. The General Assembly meeting was an opportunity for the network members to exchange experiences and knowledge and conduct strategic planning on future cooperation.