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Assault on media freedom poses another test of EU’s resolve

EU eastern tensions

Assault on media freedom poses another test of EU’s resolve

Brussels urged to act as Poland and Hungary tighten curbs on independent journalism

Thousands protest in Budapest against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and in support of Klubradio, the country’s sole opposition radio station with a national network © Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images

Media freedom is under renewed assault in central Europe and the attack is brazen to judge from the slender pretexts given for the tightening chokehold.

Klubradio, a station loved by Budapest liberals, was taken off air on Sunday after falling foul of Hungary’s politically appointed media regulator. Its offence? Missing deadlines to report the ratio of its schedule devoted to Hungarian music output, and occasionally not playing enough of it. These were minor infractions for which it had already paid a small fine and which other radio stations have got away with.

In Poland, the ultra-conservative Law and Justice government is proposing a new tax on the advertising revenues of the independently-owned media sector, which is stronger than in Hungary. The levy is a “solidarity payment” to help cover the public costs of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a government spokesman. But solidarity is not being demanded of other sectors with much deeper pockets.

PKN Orlen, Poland’s state-controlled oil refining company, said in December that it would buy Polska Press, which owns 20 out of Poland’s 24 regional papers and 120 other local weeklies, from a German media group. The fuel company said the unlikely purchase would enable it to “create a flexible, personalised and comprehensive offer delivering greater customer satisfaction”, boosting sales at its petrol stations.

“It is a lie,” says Magdalena Adamowicz, a member of the European Parliament for Poland’s centre right opposition. “This is simply the nationalisation of the media. Such a concentration of ownership poses a real threat to free and fair elections.”

Media pluralism has been under attack for some time in parts of central Europe. Orban’s Hungary has blazed a trail, making public broadcasters into mouthpieces, starving independent media of advertising resources and then asserting control either directly or via acquisitions by business cronies. The onslaught appears to have intensified during the pandemic.

A stand with newspapers and magazines in the centre of Krakow, Poland © Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“What we’ve been seeing is a progressive dismantling of media freedoms,” says Laurens Hueting of the European Centre for Press & Media Freedom, an NGO which monitors threats to independent journalism. “At times it is a frantic backsliding. At other times it is slower. But the direction is clear. And at the moment it is frantic.”

The threat to media freedom poses another serious test to the EU, which has struggled to muster the political will and deploy the right tools to defend the rule of law against authoritarian rule. Media freedom is harder to define and defend than judicial independence. EU authorities have been reluctant to intervene in such a political sensitive area.

The EU turned a blind-eye to the stifling of independent journalism in Hungary, says Hueting, and now there are rural parts of the country where people have no access to independent media at all. No wonder Orban’s methodology has become a template which other illiberal governments are adapting to their own circumstances.

Poland, for example, lacks the kind of oligarch who last year took a large stake in Index, Hungary’s leading independent news website, and then ousted its editor, causing most of the journalists to quit. Hence Orlen’s swoop on the regional press, says Adamowicz. A tax on ad revenues would further weaken independent media, making them cheaper takeover targets. Protests against the tax prompted Warsaw to review the proposal on Tuesday.

The European Commission is more alert to attacks on media freedom and more willing to call them out than it was in the past, says Hueting. But he wants Brussels to take a more systematic approach: use its competition and internal market rules to ensure illiberal governments do not discriminate through state advertising budgets or regulation; introduce EU-wide legislation clamping down on vexatious defamation suits against journalists, especially those lodged in multiple countries; and provide more EU funding for investigative and cross-border reporting.

Adamowicz, the widow of the mayor of Gdansk whose murder in 2019 drew the world’s attention to Poland’s polarised politics and noxious public media, also wants EU-wide rules on tech platform liability for hate speech to stop the vilification of independent journalists.

Promoting media pluralism requires action on many fronts. But the lack of a silver bullet is no reason for inaction, says Hueting. “It is a good time to be alarmist about media freedom.”

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