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Europe

Smut and Scandal Pose Challenge to Eastern European Media

The ten new members may be upholding a basic tenet of the EU -- freedom of the press. But as racy tabloids dominate eastern Europe's media landscape, keeping journalistic standards from slipping is proving difficult.

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Polish tabloid "Fakt" is the new face of the press in eastern Europe.

A day after ten new nations in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean joined the European Union on May 1 after years of negotiation and close scrutiny of their commitment to democracy, human rights organization Reporters Without Borders issued a positive report card on their media record.

Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia "respected press freedom," the group said in its annual report last week. "No journalist in the region was murdered in 2003 because of their work," it added.

The praise underlines the efforts that the ten have made in the past years to fulfill the clearly defined requirements needed to enter the EU, of which freedom of the press and media top the list.

But, despite the achievement, the new EU members face new challenges--if not exactly to press freedom, then to journalistic quality and a diverse press landscape.

A clutch of tabloids and sensation-seeking glossies has exploded on the market in several eastern European countries in recent months, threatening to edge out the mainstream dailies reputed for their serious and well-researched reporting.

Taking Poland by storm

Nowhere is the phenomenon more apparent than in Poland, the largest of the new EU members. Six months ago, German publisher Axel Springer, which publishes Europe's largest-selling tabloid Bild, launched a new mass-circulation daily called Fakt in Poland.

Although Fakt's editor in chief Gregorz Jankowski said at the time that the tabloid would not echo Bild's successful combination of "sensation, blood and sperm," that's exactly what the Polish daily has been doing. Its first issue splashed a picture of Polish-German boxing world champion Dariusz Michalczewski with his bare-chested girlfriend on its front page.

Zeitung Fakt Springer Presse in Polen

Fakt in Warsaw

With aggressive and populist reporting, short and biased articles -- such as playing on fears that neighboring Germany might buy up Polish land -- and a cut-throat price of 30 cents, the tabloid has created a niche for itself.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the new trend.

"My friends say they're not satisfied with the quality and the younger people smirk about this paper," Polish student Dobrawa Szymlik told Deutsche Welle. "It's simply too flat in its presentation and it's a sensational paper," she added.

Szymlik may still hesitate to pick up Fakt, but figures suggest that there are more than enough people eager to read about smut and scandal in the country, where only 60 percent of the Poland's 38 million regularly reads a daily paper. Seven months after its launch, Fakt is selling around 300,000 copies daily and has become a well-established figure on the Polish media landscape.

Sensationalism on the upswing in Prague

The trend towards tabloid journalism is also on the rise in other former communist eastern European nations such as the Czech Republic.

Peter Uhl, a columnist for the Prague newspaper Pravo, said he's been observing the phenomenon for a couple of years. "The problem in the Czech Republic as well as in Slovakia is, above all, the fact that the serious media is going in the same direction as the yellow press," Uhl said. "With such stiff competition, they (the serious press) want to attract the masses with their reporting in their dailies, on radio or their television stations."

Uhl conceded that even Pravo was gradually switching to more sensational reporting because it was writing for the same audience that is being wooed by the tabloids. The freedom and diversity of expression is threatened because of the increasing trend to simplify issues, the Czech journalist explained. One needs to do more than just putting together a large photograph and a dramatic headline to uncover scandals, fraud and corruption, Uhl added.

A matter of economics?

Some believe that vested economic interests may be at play behind the rise of the yellow press in eastern Europe.

"The Czechs would like to have more serious information. But there's the problem with western influence -- the fact that these tabloids often belong to people from the West," said Czech-born Anna Vondracek, who has worked for Radio Prague and today studies in France. "This strong influence is often criticized and is possibly also responsible for the sinking interest in politics," she said.

Barbara Thomaß, an expert on eastern Europe at the University of Bochum in Germany, is certain that tabloid journalism is the kind that's currently doing well commercially.

"That's simply the normal capitalistic market," she said.

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