Saving Independent Media:

How the EU can defend the free press in Central Europe

By John Armstrong | Aug. 20, 2020

Print media and increasingly today, social media, are the conveyor belts of information from the world to the reading masses. It is the pivotal role of the media as the “fourth estate” that undergirds the superstructure of liberal democracy the globe over, providing citizens with accurate information and shedding light on the worst of government abuses. Unfortunately, trust in the media is bottoming out right when journalistic freedom around the world is declining. This is the result of a confluence of factors such as massive conglomerations gobbling up smaller outlets, the disappearance of small and local newspapers, and the autocrats who bulldoze over and intimidate the journalists critical of their regime.

The decline in press freedom is a global phenomenon and most frightening is the realization that democracies are increasingly vulnerable to the attack on independent journalism. Freedom House reports that 19% of countries labeled as free in their Freedom in the World report experienced a decline in their press freedom scores this past decade. There is a trend of democratic deficiency in media freedom in Europe, where journalistic protections are deteriorating while concentration of media ownership is rising drastically. The democratic backsliding on independent media is most apparent in Central and Eastern Europe compared with their Western neighbors.

Hungary is one of those European countries with the highest risk of losing journalistic independence due to substantial democratic backsliding into autocracy, a result of government interference in domestic journalism. The country level report of the Media Pluralism Monitor 2020 (MPM2020) for Hungary concludes that both market plurality and political independence are at high risk. This is due to pro-government companies acquiring larger slices of the media market through monopolistic mergers and the untoward connections between news outlet moguls and government officials. Freedom House estimates that in Hungary, almost 80% of the media is now concentrated in the hands of pro-government owners. It is increasingly difficult to criticize the ruling party in Hungary because news outlets can be subjected to heavy fines related to content restriction violations within the country, which has created an atmosphere of journalistic intimidation. The result is a perverse reversal of state capture where private enterprises closely associated with Fidesz and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are allowed to dominate the media landscape with giant conglomerates in exchange for positive coverage of the government.

The latest demonstration of this kind of crony capitalism within Hungary was the firing of news-outlet Index’s editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull, after a pro-government media executive became co-owner of the major advertising company partnered with Index. The firing of Dull is just the latest event in a long list of attacks on the press that include the firing of another editor-in-chief of newspaper Origo in 2014 and the shutdown of opposition outlet Nepszabadsag in 2016 after releasing reports that revealed government corruption. In 2018, the media authority in Hungary approved the mega-merger of over 400 media companies under the umbrella of KESMA, whose chairman was a former Fidesz lawmaker and whose board members have intimate personal ties to Orbán himself. All of this points to a media environment that heavily slants toward the government and provides anti-democratic advantages to the ruling party over domestic opposition forces in electoral competitions.

The landscape of press freedom within Hungary has shifted into autocracy, while the European Union continues to dance around this difficult political battle. In 2018, the European Parliament approved a proposal to initiate Article 7 proceedings against Hungary within the European Council but the rule of unanimity within the body gives any single member state de-facto veto power against a measure. The unanimity principle is likely to be the blocking point because of the illiberal alliance between Hungary and Poland, whose leaders could prevent sanction measures from passing in the Council. Opponents of the Orbán government have suggested that the EU could sidestep the political fight about democratic values by using competition law to break up the intense concentration of media in Hungary, but the Commission is reluctant to go down this road of mixing politics with the enforcement of competition policy within the single market.

However, this is exactly the moment for the EU to leverage the tools it has to enforce the basic principle that it is a union of values and not just markets. These values include freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, as stipulated in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. If the Union is comfortable leveraging the politics of Article 2 to enforce fiscal rules in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis, it should be equally committed to upholding the principles of democracy through its competition law. Commission Vice President Vera Jourová, whose portfolio includes upholding values and transparency for the union, lets reporters know that she is “very concerned” about the situation in Hungary. Yet, she is unwilling to commit to upholding those principles using the tools at the disposal of the Commission to enforce the economic principles of the single market against unfair competition practices. Of course, this is another political battle that the EU would like to excuse itself from and would open itself to feeding narratives about how the Union is run by anti-democratic elites imposing their will from on high.

Alternatively, the EU can take a lesson from progressives across the Atlantic about how it can sponsor independent media where it is most desperately needed in countries like Hungary and Poland. The U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders revealed a policy outline in an op-ed for the Columbia Journalism Review promoting media independence and freedom, which the Commission could take pointers from. One helpful innovation to combat media consolidation would be to create regulations that provide the opportunity for media outlet employees to buy employee stock ownership plans before any future mergers can take place. Such a proposal would give employees increased power in their workplace and greater autonomy to dictate the direction of their news coverage and prevent the spread of oligopolistic mergers like KESMA. Additionally, the EU could introduce a round of value added taxes on revenue from government ad purchases to produce a fund for independent news startups that would 1. Disrupt the circular flow of money from the Hungarian government to favored news outlets and 2. Foster the growth of media that is not tied to ad revenue, which can be captured by government allies through large conglomerates.

These policy suggestions are not without their controversies and are liable to be another (if smaller) political battle for the Commission. National governments could sidestep these regulations by creating new laws but this would only add to the growing evidence that these countries are truly out of step with the values that the Union purports to be based on. Eventually the Union will be forced to take action or reveal that the EU was only ever just a very large farmers market.

John Armstrong is a second year graduate student in the M.A. German and European Studies program at Georgetown University. His research interests include national security, autocracy, and democratic theory.

A blog from Georgetown University European Horizons

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