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Opinion: Autocrats' stranglehold on the media

Wagener Volker Kommentarbild App
Volker Wagener
April 25, 2018

Freedom of the press is seriously under threat in Eastern Europe. Europeans like to see themselves as torchbearers of democratic values, but DW's Volker Wagener says the reality tells a different story.

Anti-government protests in Budapest, with a man holding up a sign saying "Stop Orban!"
Image: Reuters/B. Szabo

Recently, we received a letter from Hungary. A former top official at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry wrote to Deutsche Welle explaining how he and thousands of others had lost their jobs over the last several years. He said he would like to provide background on his resignation and the mass firing of unwanted state bureaucrats and journalists in Viktor Orban's Hungary. He asked whether Deutsche Welle would publish such an article. Yes, we would, was the answer. The reason he asked was that he could never publish it in his home country, for no one would be willing to print something like that. And if they dared do so, they would be looking at a very bleak future.

Read more: World Press Freedom Index 2018: Europe turning into crisis region for journalists

The letter from Budapest and the release of the 2018 World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders go hand in hand: Hungary, once an exemplary Eastern European country, fell 50 spots on this year's list, all the way down to number 73. And things don't look much better in other parts of Eastern and southeastern Europe – in fact, they look even worse.

Read more: Freedom of the press in Turkey: a slippery slope; Interview Özgür Mumcu

Bulgaria: Europe's worst is currently European Council president

Meanwhile, people are dying in pursuit of the truth – for example, in Malta and Slovakia. Or, to put it another way, people are willing to commit murder to make sure unpleasant truths about political and criminal entanglements never see the light of day. In short, the eastern sector of Europe's former ideological and political divide has once again become a crisis zone for reporters. And people say that such abuses only take place in Africa and Asia!

DW journalist, Volker Wagener.
DW's Volker Wagener

Nothing illustrates the problem more glaringly than Bulgaria. The country which currently holds the presidency of the European Council ranks 111 out of 178 countries. It has the worst ranking of any European country. Ranked at 15, we Germans should be wary of lecturing others. Although the ranking may provide a modicum of justification for our self-image as best in class, it is certainly no reason to chide our eastern neighbors.   

The EU has a problem. French President Emmanuel Macron wants to create a two-tier economic Europe, but these different standards already exist in the media. Of all places, it is in the more elitist Visegrad countries that freedom of the press is being most aggressively attacked.

The poor rankings of those countries, which like to see themselves as being at the heart of Europe, are scandalous: Hungary is ranked at number 73, Poland at 58, Slovakia at 27 and the Czech Republic at 24.   

Outside voices gaining importance

Last week, a willing Hungarian media accomplice of the Orban government published a "black list." Coming in at number one, as the most undesirable foreign correspondent in Hungary, was DW reporter Keno Verseck. The list signals two things. Firstly, it illustrates the reality of a Hungarian media landscape as envisioned by Orban and according to his concept of "illiberal democracy" – and consequently, the country's media landscape must also become illiberal.

Secondly, it sends a signal that should be questioned in Brussels, as well as in Berlin and Paris. The good old foreign broadcast services look set to experience a digital-age renaissance. When autocracies like PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary use their monopoly on the media to disseminate the "one and only truth," citizens yearn for alternatives, and foreign services broadcasters can provide them from the outside. It is no coincidence that Berlin has become a center for groups of foreign journalists from Eastern Europe – people we used to call dissidents.

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