Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, German publishers looking for lucrative new markets have headed to eastern Europe. Today, their growing dominance in the region is raising some eyebrows.
WAZ also publishes in Bulgaria
Last week, the Berlin-based German publisher Axel Springer Verlag launched a new newspaper in Hungary entitled Reggel, or “Morning.” It joined more than twenty
other Springer-owned titles already on the market there and hit the newsstands just one year after Fakt, another Springer newspaper, was first published in Poland. The latter has since gone on to become that country’s largest circulation daily.
Springer’s slew of new titles are part of its ongoing effort to expand into eastern Europe, and they have helped to gain the publisher a position of considerable prominence in the post-communist media world. However, Springer’s situation is not unique.
Starting in the early 1990’s, many powerhouse German publishers, including the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ) and the Passauer Neue Presse (PNP), led the charge east, seeking lucrative alternatives to the saturated market at home. And they were soon joined by others around Europe.
But more than a decade later -- at a time when the growth of media monopolies is a cause of concern around the world -- some are starting to wonder if the concentration
of eastern European media outlets in just a few, particularly German, hands poses a serious threat to editorial independence and media pluralism in the region.
Warm welcome gives way to suspicion
At first, German publishers were welcomed with open arms. The struggling post-socialist economies and fledgling press desperately needed an influx of cash, and it was widely hoped that foreign media giants would -- along with their money -- bring a western-style tradition of journalistic excellence.
“Journalists were initially delighted,” Oliver Money Kyrle, a division director at the International Federation for Journalists, told DW-WORLD. “They assumed journalistic standards would be imported from the West and that they would be granted more freedom because the publications they worked for would no longer be owned by people with a particular political interest.”
But as time passed, eastern Europe’s media became concentrated in foreign hands -- a situation that eventually awakened concern among industry insiders and watchdog groups alike. With foreign, mostly German, owners taking over up to 83 percent of daily newspapers in some Eastern European countries (not to mention significant gains in the television and magazine sector), concerns increased.
Romanian’s experience causes alarm
The WAZ HQ in Essen.
The recent experience of journalists at a WAZ newspaper in Romania only confirmed some critic’s worst fears. Last month, journalists from the Romania Libera newspaper turned up at their parent company’s headquarters in Essen to protest what they claimed was editorial interference. They accused WAZ management of giving direct orders to cut political coverage and passing out a daily list of what not to criticize.
Gossip hounds suggested that the close ties between Bodo Hombach, the head of WAZ, and the leaders of Romania’s current Social Democratic government, of which the paper is very critical, were to blame. Bodo Zapp, a WAZ spokesman, however, said the changes were simply the result of an effort to “modernize the paper” and reverse falling circulation figures by moving towards more lifestyle and tabloid-style coverage.
A threat to media pluralism and quality journalism?
In two separate reports, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the South Eastern European Network for the Professionalization of the Media (SEENPM) -- in partnership with the Peace Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies -- have documented the size of the monopolies and to what extent, if any, they pose a threat.
In the end, the experts came out divided. The media landscapes in various countries are very different, they said, adding that it's therefore hard to generalize and assume that what has happened in one country could necessarily happen in another.
Experts: Romanian situation not the norm
A local resident woman picks up a magazine in a newspaper shop in Budapest.
Mihaly Galik, the author of the Hungarian portion of the SEENPM report told DW-WORLD that he doesn’t believe that the type of editorial interference the Romanian journalists claimed they experienced would likely happen in Hungary. Likewise, Beata Klimkiewicz, author of the Polish chapter of the report, said such a situation was unlikely in Poland.
Jozsef Bayer, the managing director of the Hungarian Springer Group concurred, and told DW-WORLD that, in fact, the new Reggel newspaper represented a significant contribution to independent media in Hungary, pointing to a situation unique to Hungary: the fact that many of the large daily papers are owned and operated by major political parties.
“We are independent economically, and we can give our journalists and editors the chance to provide fair and balanced reports,” he said.
Meanwhile, Money Kyrle, who oversaw the compilation of the IFJ report, thinks the fact that many publishers -- foreign or not -- have a monopoly should be cause for worry, even if there’s not yet considerable evidence that they have abused that dominant position.
“The point is, if they ever decided to interfere with editorial independence, there is very, very little anyone could do to stop them,” Money Kyrle said. “Let’s be honest, if WAZ wanted to, they could decide the next government of Bulgaria or Macedonia.”
Foreigners accused of “dumbing down” media
Nonetheless, all agreed that the growing media monopolies did pose some problems, if not because owners with overt political objectives would try to interfere with editorial independence, then because the monopolies could reduce the variety of publications available and -- possibly -- the quality of journalism.
Media critics around the world cite the growing trend towards so-called “infotainment” as a problem, and Eastern Europe is no exception. Fakt, the new Springer-backed Polish newspaper, is modeled on the tabloid-style German newspaper Bild.
But that’s not to say that foreign owners are to blame for importing a style of journalism otherwise completely foreign to the region, as many homegrown publishers also fund similar publications. The question is, are foreign owners motivated to invest in “quality” journalism for the public good, or do they see their publications in eastern Europe as purely commercial, moneymaking ventures?
Money Kyrle thinks it might be more a case of the latter.
“Our impression is that serious journalism is not a priority for foreign owners,” he said. “There is a question of publishers wanting to tone down professional standards due to commercial concerns. So maybe they don’t have an outright political objective and it’s more a question of the bottom line.”
Mihaly Galik, in Hungary, partly agrees, but does not necessarily lay the blame with foreign owners. “Regardless of whether an owner is foreign or not, you have to wonder if publishers think it is worth it to invest in labor intensive, costly quality journalism these days,” he said. “Some make the argument that non-Hungarians are less motivated to make an effort, but that is very hard to prove -- I haven’t seen any evidence that in Hungary, at least, domestic publishers are doing a better job.”