A tale of two Europes: Public Service Media and societies in transition

Reforms have been required of East European countries to join or approach the European Union, but many remain just on paper, and Public Service Media is still very much of a political instrument even in the transition from socialism. (Photo: public domain)

The European continent is still subdivided into two parts, due to the legacy from recent history. Experiences in some Eastern European countries today remind us of the pressing problems regarding Public Service Media (PSM) amid a transformation not yet completed.

by ECPMF staff 

The transition from a political monolith into pluralism keeps being obstructed and returning to base. In some areas, there is not only a loss of confidence in PSM, but also in general a lack of political and social consensus on its role and importance.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, PSM in Eastern Europe has been developing with obstacles resulting from a particularly misguided media policy. The new authorities have been convinced that privatisation and commercialisation by itself will solve the dilemmas.

Since the transition brought in turbo capitalism and plundering of public property by tycoons and oligarchs, multinationals and anonymous capital, the cards have been reshuffled and societies have been divided once again – but in a new way.

Public media and the transition in Eastern Europe are perceived by the majority of politicians as a domain of the authorities and not the citizens. The methods and approaches have remained more or less the same; therefore, the use of the expression “bolshevism” is sometimes quite appropriate.

It is only that a single ruling party and version of the truth have been replaced by a rotating system of power.

The false appearance of reforms

Since amending media laws was at least nominally required for the purpose of joining the European Union, Eastern European states have introduced legislation aiming to please by giving the impression it is comparable to Western standards. However, its implementation has usually been inconsequential.

Editorial independence of public media and the obligation to make their ownership transparent have been declared everywhere, but almost everywhere obstacles prevent this from being put into practice.

PSM is mostly perceived by the citizens as part of government power, as its instrument and not as a tool of an open and dialogue-friendly society. Almost everywhere there are attempts to keep civil society out of decision-making, so that it is involved only perhaps on a symbolic level.

Sometimes media takeovers (just like five years ago in Hungary and more recently in Poland and Croatia) are accompanied by a veritable cultural revolution – a mandatory change of that society’s values, customs and even historiography. This cannot be the role of government mandates nor of the media.

PSM must not be a servant to governments, parliaments and only a part of politics, but serve the whole public, meaning all citizens. Media organs should provide services for the majority and minority in a balanced manner, foster dialogue and provide a mirror image to any authority.

Whoever holds the capital holds the media – and the country

When it became evident that the privatisation of media would not bring about a healthier and more balanced democracy, the fight started for control over the neglected and worn-out services renamed from “state-run” to “public”. However, they have never really been restructured as such.

The idea of plurality of and within the media has been overthrown by a battle for short-term power, and the replacement of one form of absolute control with another.

Most Eastern European states do not acknowledge conflicts of interest – without any scruples, media owners have become even presidents of a country, ministers or members of parliament.

Ukrainian president Petro Porošenko owns a TV channel, and his editor in chief has also served in parallel as minister for information. Despite warnings and criticism from the OSCE Representative for Media Freedom and initial promises to give up, Porošenko has stubbornly remained in control.

Conflicts of interest also dominate media in the Czech Republic. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has especially emphasised the case of Andrej Babiš, the Czech deputy prime minister and minister of finance. He is not only the second richest man in the country, but owner of the food and agro-industrial group Agrofert and of the MAFRA media group.

Hence, the same man – known as “the Czech Berlusconi” or “Babisconi” –  holds the reins of Czech government and controls the most powerful media outlets. Similar situations involving distortions or merging of political and economic power by oligarchs are evident in many other countries, notably Moldova, Georgia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria.

New problems are on the rise (for instance also in Slovakia, Macedonia and Serbia) while new positive developments can already be seen in countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia, Montenegro, Albania and in Moldova itself. Efforts are being made to avoid inadequate practices and replace the approach of “taking one step forward and two steps back”.

Obstacles to and considerations for change

Tangible PSM reforms are threatened by the instability of the legal framework. Another issue is the widespread lack of funding and sometimes also of professionals and organisation. PSM in Eastern Europe tend to have a low reputation and market share, coupled with little support from the public.

These aspects are interconnected and need to be discussed in light of assessments from the June 2016 study “PSM Correlations”, by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

First of all, for the successful operation and implementation of the mission of “genuine public media services”, a stable and foreseeable legal framework is required. Eastern European public media acts are sometimes changed and amended overnight – usually as required by day-to-day politics – such as in Poland, several times in the past in Montenegro, and in Georgia and Croatia.

The practice of accelerated procedure has prevailed (without any consensual public discussion), as well as the enforcement of such acts or their amendments. This enables new governments to arbitrarily replace staff and make other changes.

Instead of a system of stable and foreseeable financing, these laws often change the sources and methods of financing. Under populist vocabulary, the system of licence fees is replaced or refused by state/government financing, connected with political pressures.

In most cases, PSM are severely underfunded, barely making enough for simple reproduction, not to mention technological innovations. A dozen of them in Eastern Europe are barely surviving, with budgets between €7.5 and €15 million. Others fall within the range of €40 and €100 million, which is considerably lower than public service media on average in Western Europe.

The result is poor program output, inadequate staffing and in some cases, threats to the very existence of PSM in a country. Bosnia and Herzegovina is perhaps the most imminent example, where political and social conflicts also obstruct its operation.

These factors mean that the level of professionalism can be reduced. As a relic from the past, resulting from frequent political, HR and managerial changes, the organisational structure, managing and governance of public service media are often inadequate, as is their capacity to respond to developments and circumstances changing ever-faster.

Finally, the PSM content on offer does not achieve an adequate response from the public. Confidence level, support, market share and relevance for their societies remain low.

However, the only solution to the PSM scenario in Eastern Europe lies precisely in fostering the more active involvement and assertion of civil society, in order to create a new paradigm of openness by PSM institutions. A transformation of form and content is also needed, including keeping up with technology.

In many PSM in Eastern Europe, a more fundamental change of generations is required.

The way forward

Unlike the case in Hungary years ago, today we can see the beneficial role and importance of formal and informal responses as well as international solidarity. Although the recent complications concerning public service media in Poland and in Croatia have sparked a polarisation of unimagined proportions among the local and international public, they have indeed brought some positive consequences.

Due to the vehement response at home and interventions by international and professional institutions (the EU Parliament and Commission, the Council of Europe, OSCE, ECPMF, EBU, IFJ and others), the anticipated legal and accompanying personnel changes (and employment conditions) in Poland have at least slowed down. They are being conducted in a more moderate environment, although many of the conceptual questions remain open.

In Croatia, extraordinary parliamentary elections have softened the radical intent concerning the public broadcasting service, profiled the areas needing urgent (but consensual) changes in legislation, and opened opportunities for more appropriate solutions. Since the government coalition collapsed before introducing the legal grounds for the abrupt political takeover of HRT, the public broadcaster has been operating without any management in charge.

In Ukraine, the most recent experience has accelerated the process of transformation of a “state-run” PSM into a “public service” one. The process of forming a new, united  and modern PSM out of different state-run outlets (separate radio, TV, regional broadcasters, film producers) is finally underway and should be legally rounded up by January 2017.

These processes do not bear fruit overnight. We are still dealing with a weak and endangered species. But some of these developments are certainly encouraging – maybe even a promise of a better future.

The article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom on 3 November 2016.