The independent media NGO IREX has published its annual Media Sustainability Index report for Europe and Eurasia, analyzing 21 countries. The results of the study are sobering, although there are some bright spots.
The IREX study observes “some encouraging developments,” but at the same time, the international NGO states that: “in other cases what appear to be improvements in scores are likely to be only short-term blips on an otherwise downward or flat trend.”
The 2015 edition of the study shows that the business side of media in the region is still weak. Recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008 has been hard, and the rise of online advertising has undermined prices charged by print and broadcast media. All of this has posed a threat to editorial independence.
As online media has blossomed, it has attracted the attention of shadowy owners with agendas to push. On the other hand, increased efforts on the part of media outlets to measure audience size and learn who their audiences are promise to help level the playing field. And on another positive note, in several countries, media freedom seems to be more highly valued by citizens.
This year’s Media Sustainability Index is the 14th of its kind by IREX, a group based in Washington DC, whose programs seek to improve the quality of education, strengthen independent media, and foster pluralistic civil society development.
The MSI is an in-depth study of media health in the world, and was developed by IREX to provide a complete picture of the development of sustainable, independent media. The report analyzes the degree to which journalists in Europe and Eurasia are emerging as objective professionals, whether media firms can sustain robust news operations, and whether civil society supports the fourth estate.
MSI country scores
IREX rates media health using MSI country scores, which range from 0 to 4. The organization classifies all countries, depending on their scores, into four broader categories: "Unsustainable, Anti-Free Press" (0-1); "Unsustainable Mixed System" (1-2); "Near Sustainability" (2-3); "Sustainable" (3-4).
On average, in the current Europe/Eurasia report, the overall MSI country scores improved slightly – they were up 0.04 points.
Seven countries – Albania, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Romania and Ukraine – saw their scores rise by more than 0.1 points. The scores of three countries – Tajikistan, Georgia and Kosovo – decreased by more than 0.1 points. Eleven countries’ scores remained more or less the same (Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, Croatia, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan).
Media management and financing woes
IREX observes that media business and management indicators have deteriorated across the region. From a high in 2006/2007, the indicators have fallen annually ever since. Even countries in the EU, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, are not immune to this trend, the report says. Over the past several years in Eastern Europe, media outlets have had difficulty in sustaining their operations financially, and this has played an important role in diminishing the independence and quality of reporting.
“Overall the issue seems to be that media have been weakened by a poor economy and been preyed upon by political money, or political pressure has weakened the economic environment in which media operate, thus making it easier for political money to distort the market and put independent media at a strong disadvantage.”
On the positive side, the report says progress has been made in ownership transparency in several countries in recent years.
Cautious optimism for Ukraine
Particular emphasis was put on developments in Ukraine. IREX found that government influence in the media market and politicized ownership have hindered media sustainability:
“Oligarchs now control the most important source of news for Ukrainians and are not as interested in the ability to make money from these assets (let alone provide quality journalism) as they are of making use of their messaging power for their own benefit.”
Despite these problems, Ukraine’s country score improved by 0.29. The cautiously phrased outlook reads:
“Short-term stabilization in Ukraine gives hope that the situation there could improve to the point that in a short amount of time the achievements witnessed in the middle of the last decade can be reclaimed.”