Recently, the editorial staff of the independent Hungarian news portal Index, the country’s most widely read portal, raised a special alarm: On an external website accessible only to the editorial staff but not to the management and which uses a traffic light system to indicate Index’s independence status, the pointer moved from green (“independent”) to yellow (“in danger”). This was triggered by the management’s consideration of breaking up the editorial department and distributing its staff among many small outsourced companies, which would allow much greater intervention in the content orientation of the portal. A few weeks later, the portal’s editor-in-chief was fired. As a result, more than 70 journalists and staff resigned, accusing the government of interference.
The alarm signal of the Index editorial office caused a great stir in Hungary and internationally. After all, the portal is the last large and broadly effective medium in Hungary that is completely independent and meticulously fulfils the function of the press as the fourth estate — to the great annoyance of the Orbán regime.
There have been many cases in the past decade in Hungary in which Orbán has brought influential independent media into line or had them shut down, sometimes in a devious and sometimes in a brutal way. If this were to happen with Index, there would only be a few, much smaller independent media left in the country that could not do what Index does. Then one could rightly speak of the end of press freedom in Hungary.
Journalists seen as enemies, secret agents or traitors
The fact that the Index pointer jumped from green to yellow at the end of June is also symbolic of the developments in the entire region of Central and South-East Europe. In recent years, the situation of the independent media and for independent journalists has deteriorated in most countries in the region, in some cases dramatically as in Bulgaria, Montenegro, Serbia or Hungary. In some countries, such as Poland, Romania or Slovenia, an increasing political polarization of the media can be observed.
Many politicians in the region, often enough also heads of government and heads of state, have created a climate of hatred against journalists, presenting them as enemies, secret agents or national traitors of the region. At a press conference, Czech President Miloš Zeman once jokingly suggested to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that that they should simply “liquidate” the journalists present. Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Janša tweets his anger at critical media and journalists almost daily. The Slovak ex-head of government Robert Fico calls journalists hyenas, idiots or prostitutes.
Violence against journalists has increased significantly in some countries or has remained at a consistently high level. The murder of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová has become known worldwide. Less known is the case of the Montenegrin investigative reporter Olivera Lakić, who was shot in the leg by an unknown person two years ago as a kind of last warning. The Montenegrin authorities have not yet solved the case — and probably do not want to.
Corrupt elites take over media
There are many reasons for the problematic situation of press freedom in many countries in Central and South-East Europe. The assumption that EU integration of the region would automatically lead to more rule of law and democracy has not proved true. Instead, authoritarian, nationalistic and also corrupt political elites, for whom independent journalism is a real existential threat, are growing stronger.
The media markets in Central and South-East Europe are predominantly very small. Poverty, still widespread in some cases, and the demographic crisis are also reflected in limited opportunities for advertising revenues. Moreover, the media are often dependent on state advertising which politicians use as a means of exerting pressure.
However, the international concern should not hide the fact that in recent years, large international media companies, including especially German ones, have increasingly withdrawn from the region due to the poor profit prospects, thus facilitating the takeover of media by local oligarchs or politically bound businessmen. Hungary is a prime example of this. Western media groups therefore bear a heavy share of the responsibility for the decline of press freedom in the region.
Keno Verseck is a journalist with a special focus on Central and South-East Europe. He was a correspondent in Bulgaria and Hungary from 1991 to 2000. Since then, he has traveled regularly to the region for research.