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COVID-19 highlights the issue of a free press in the Visegrad 4

Until now, every crisis, including COVID-19, has brought to light divergent perceptions of security challenges in the EU. It appears that some countries took the imposition of restrictions as an opportunity to centralise their power and suppress freedom of speech.

Already before the pandemic, the state of media independence and freedom was one of the major structural differences between western and central European democracies. Now, with the implementation of emergency powers, the situation might worsen; this is bad news for the entire Union. This trend is confirmed by the latest World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders’ annual index, which measures the level of media freedom.

Although media freedom is generally decreasing, this phenomenon is very uneven. While media in the West, especially in Scandinavia, are ranked as very independent with strong law enforcement to protect journalists from attacks, on the contrary, in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region, the press is facing control by the government, hatred, and stigmatisation.

The desire to control the media

Notwithstanding the differences between different governments and their reactions to COVID-19, there are certain common traits in the Visegrad Group. First and foremost, their fragile democratic tradition, high levels of corruption, and desire to control and sometimes own the media market makes it easier for them to massage public opinion.

In the last two years, Slovakia earned unfortunate notoriety in the wake of the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée. In general, journalists in Slovakia have long been threatened and demeaned by government officials, while government-affiliated oligarchs entered the mainstream media market. In Czechia, 30% of commercial media are owned by Prime Minister Babiš. Although a very professional public television deserves respect, there is a genuine threat of control by the government, as it determines the composition of the television board. This fact, along with open hatred and verbal attacks by President Zeman towards the media, are causing critical journalists to leave the main outlets. According to the media freedom Index, Czechia dropped from the 18th to the 40th spot in the last five years.

Hungary is in an even worse situation. Public television is the mouthpiece of the government. As a reward for positively reporting on the government’s actions, and for slandering and criticising the opposition and civil society, it receives 100 billion forints (EUR 280 million) annually. The recently adopted legislation which empowered Prime Minister Orbán to rule by decree, purposely silenced parliamentary opposition. The media could substitute for the muzzled parliament, or rather the muzzled opposition. However, new legislation foresees penalties of up to 5 years in prison, especially for independent media, for “promoting false information in the context of the coronavirus”, which still leaves broad space for interpretation by the government.  According to the Index, Hungary is ranked 89th. A worse situation exists only in Bulgaria, which ended up in 111th place.

In Poland, journalists can be sentenced to a year in prison for defamation, even though the civil code offers citizens all the protection they need if they are defamed. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has secured control over public service TV broadcasting, through the direct appointment of its chief officer by the government. The state-owned television network’s propaganda is boosting the confidence of Poles in their government’s ability to master not only the pandemic, but also the upcoming presidential elections, which is of vital importance for PiS. It brings reports on Western Europe’s problems and alleged inability to cope with the crisis. The fact that Polish healthcare workers are directly prohibited by the government to speak of the dire state of Polish hospitals, remains underreported.

Freedom of speech needs EU attention, support, and recognition

The fact that legislation and the attitude of politicians during the crisis make journalists’ existence and work even more difficult is attested by the many complaints sent as a letter to the Council of Europe but also by a letter to the Commission President.

The European Commission has financially strengthened the position of independent media, especially since the murders of journalists in Malta, Slovakia, and Bulgaria. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, the MFF 2021-2027 preparations should not omit a further increase in funding for independent media, because through them, a conscious civil society can be built, resistant to propaganda and disinformation. Especially now, as many independent media will fight for survival and cannot rely on financial support from governments when it comes to the distribution of advertising from the state’s institutions. 

The media also needs permanent attention from the Union´s institutions, as in their respective countries, they often cannot rely on a judiciary system which is in the hands of the government. This was the case for the murdered journalist in Slovakia, when a special mission by the European Parliament put pressure on the police and the prosecution, leading to an independent investigation.

The media are an integral part of democracy and irreplaceable a watchdog, which provides citizens with balanced information and pushes politicians towards transparency. Therefore, all measures to support them should be taken, as even in extraordinary times, certain lines should not be crossed. We cannot afford to take damage on all fronts, especially on the front of democracy, which is already facing many challenges. Someone has aptly compared the pandemic to driving at night with no lights on. We aim to make it to the finish line alive, with as few car scratches as possible.