Media freedom "in danger" in Eastern Europe: Survey
Some of those polled in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, want press freedoms to be better protected.
According to a study, more than half of respondents in four former communist Eastern European countries think media freedom is threatened, with strong majorities preferring government or EU steps to defend it.
The findings, based on responses from respondents in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, are presented in what is billed as the largest opinion poll on the subject performed in the "Visegrád countries". They will be included in the European Commission's consultation process for a press freedom statute that is currently being drafted.
The law, pushed by the commission's vice-president for values and openness, Věra Jourová, is intended to protect media plurality and independence in the face of growing worries about ownership and potential government intervention.
In what organizers hope will be a wake-up call, 52% expressed concern about media freedom, with the highest figure, 63%, recorded in Poland, whose rightwing nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) government is accused of aggressively targeting independent media with costly lawsuits while meddling in public broadcasting.
Across the four nations, 71% favored government protection measures, while 59% supported giving the EU broader powers to protect media liberties.
Misha Glenny, a British broadcaster and chair of the Committee for Editorial Independence, which commissioned the study alongside the Czech committee of the International Press Institute, warned the EU against overlooking Poland's transgressions due to its support of the western sanction campaign on Russia, as opposed to Hungary, which has refused to send arms to Ukraine and refused to send weapons or cut energy supplies from Russia.
“What you’ve seen since Ukraine is that the European Commission and some European Union governments have decided that they are targeting [prime minister Viktor] Orbán and Hungary because of their recalcitrant position and they are giving Poland a free pass on some of the rule of law issues,” he said.
Hungary, where Orban's far-right Fidesz government won a fourth consecutive term last month, had the greatest proportion of respondents – 47% – who believe their country's media is not free. Only 30% thought it was free, compared to 47% in the Czech Republic, which has the greatest level of support for media freedom.
According to Václav Štětka, a media specialist at Loughborough University, support for media freedom among Fidesz supporters is much lower than among other categories.
“Fidesz voters are a completely different tribe,” he said. “30% of them support media owners being in charge of content. That figure isn’t replicated anywhere else.”
Veronika Munk, the director of content at Telex, an independent Hungarian news site founded after a pro-government billionaire took over the outlet where she previously worked, said Hungary's fall in media independence acted as a warning to others.
“Hungary shows how quickly things can change,” she said. “In the Reporters Without Borders index for 2006, Hungary was 10th out of about 160 countries. We are now 92nd."
It is worth noting that Orban has had a tense relationship with the EU, which claim Fidesz has eroded Hungary's democratic institutions.
During campaigning, the opposition's catch-phrase was "Orban or Europe", and yet Orban won. Hungary's opposition believed that Hungary needed to join Poland, the UK, and others in sending aid to Ukraine.
Orban is well-known for his cordial relationship with Vladimir Putin. He refused to provide Ukraine with arms. He is the only EU leader who has publicly criticized President Zelensky.