Oligarchs and government control: Pressure on media mounts in V4 countries as the EU watches
Pressuring journalists not to speak ill of those in power has become commonplace in the Visegrad countries. While the governments take over or sue newspapers and TV stations, the opposition is reluctant to discuss the issue on the international stage and the EU lacks tools to intervene.
Press freedom in V4 countries is declining. In the World Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters Without Borders Hungary occupies the lowest position from the group (71st place in 2017), with Poland not far ahead (54th place). Czech Republic and Slovakia occupy 23rd and 17th place respectively, a small downturn compared to 2015 when they were placed as 12th and 21st respectively. In 2009, before Orban’s rise to power, Hungary was listed as 26th in the ranking. Poland suffered a rapid plunge in 2016, moving from 18th to 47th place.
According to the Media Pluralism Monitor, the media’s dependence on political influence and the concentration of property in the media are the biggest problems in all the V4 countries. Additionally, serious threats to freedom of speech have been identified In Poland and in Hungary.
Poland, Hungary and Slovakia: Politicians Want to Control the Media
In Poland and in Hungary public media are controlled by the government. Submitting public media to governmental control was one of Orban’s first moves after winning the elections in 2010. The National Media and Infocommunications Authority and the Media Council, institutions responsible for granting concessions, were subjected to political decisions despite the European Commission’s and the European Parliament’s criticism.
After winning the elections in 2015, the PiS government, followed Fidesz’s example and limited competences of the constitutional body supervising the media and the public media’s boards of directors. Over 140 journalists lost their jobs as a result.
Robert Fico chose a different way to put pressure on the media. He recently called journalists ‘dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes’ and sued several media outlets for defamation of the government and of himself. However, he assured that there would be no sanctions for journalists who ‘attack the government’ and ‘make bad use of their freedom’. In 2014 journalists’ access to the Parliament building was restricted by Pavol Paška, a member of the ruling party and the Speaker of the Parliament.
Hungary and the Czech Republic: Oligarchs’ Conflicts of Interest
Accumulation of capital in the media is another major problem in the V4 countries. In Hungary and in the Czech Republic the media are owned by oligarchs. In Slovakia the political connections of media owners are beginning to raise eyebrows as well.
In 2016, the Czech parliament passed a bill aiming to address the issue of the ownership of private media outlets by politicians. As a result, the then deputy prime minister Andrej Babiš resigned from running a media company comprising two biggest newspapers in the Czech Republic.
In the Spring of 2017 recordings of deputy prime minister Babiš’s conversation with an editor were leaked, in which he exerted pressure on the newspaper’s line in order to harm his coalition member, ČSSD.The ensuing scandal led to Babiš’s dismissal.
Since Autumn 2016 some of the most important nationwide media in Hungary (1 political daily – Népszabadság, 1 business daily – Világgazdaság, the sports daily – Nemzeti Sport, some 8 of 18 regional newspapers, thematic periodicals) have belonged to Mediaworks, a company run by Orban’s Austrian ally Heinrich Pecina. Now the owner is Lőrinc Mészáros, a close friend and business partner of Orbán.
Orban’s supporters are buying local media as well. Former Hollywood producer, casino owner and ‘Government Commissioner in charge of the Hungarian film industry’ Andy Vajna bought one of the two national commercial television stations, tv2 with the help of a loan provided by a state-owned international trade bank, even though the investment had nothing to do with international trade.
The Polish government has announced a reform to battle the concentration of capital in the media to take place in Autumn 2017. While the idea itself is not controversial, the reform is certain to target the biggest companies such as Agora, which produces content critical of the government and German-owned Polska Press, publisher of the biggest regional dailies.
V4 Countries Want to Handle the Media on Their Own
The difficult situation of the media and violations of democratic liberties in the V4 countries do not go unnoticed by the European Union. The European Parliament held four debates: two on Hungary, and one on Poland and the Czech Republic each.
The majority of V4 MEPs and political leaders (especially from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary) say that issues connected with the media should be dealt with internally by the countries in question and not in the EP and reject the EU’s concerns.
During the debate in the EP of January 2016 Beata Szydło said that “the changes we are beginning to implement are an attempt at making public media in Poland apolitical and unbiased once again”. The opposition views the matter differently, but while it criticizes the government’s reforms, it does not deem the EU the proper place for resolving the issues of the Polish media.
Hungarian MEPs are divided – the democratic opposition calls for a bigger oversight of Orban’s actions while Fidesz and the right-wing Jobbik don’t want the EU to intrude into Hungary’s affairs.
Some Slovakian MEPs take a different stance – they criticize the situation in Hungary and propose to implement an EU law that would protect the freedom and independence of the media and prevent the concentration of capital.
As for now, the EU has no legal tools to regulate media law in member states. However, the European Commission has announced regulations concerning this matter.
Media reforms are just one of Hungarian and Polish governments’ actions that raise concerns with the EP and the Commission. Changes in the Constitutional Court in Poland or restrictions on non-governmental organizations in Hungary have met with critique from the EU. Yet in spite of being threatened with the Article 7 infringement procedure for breach of the rules of respect for freedom, democracy, equality and law, the Polish and Hungarian governments do not change their course.
Written by Magdalena Wnuk
Contribution: Jaroslav Bilek, Lenka Galetova, Barbora Belovicka, Emese Keyha
This text was created within the joint project of four organizations: Czech Kohovolit.eu, Slovakian Demagog.sk, Hungarian Atlatszo.hu and Polish MamPrawoWiedziec.pl. The project “Closer to V4 Policy” is funded by the Visegrad Fund. English editing: Helena Teleżyńska.