Media freedom is ‘in danger’, survey in four central European countries finds

Respondents in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia want measures to protect press freedom

More than half of people in four former communist central European counties fear media freedom is in danger, with significant majorities wanting government or EU measures to protect it, according to a survey.

The findings, from respondents in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are revealed in what is purportedly the biggest opinion study on the issue conducted in the “Visegrád countries”. They will form part of the consultation process for a press freedom bill under preparation by the European Commission.

The bill, spearheaded by the commission’s vice-president for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, is being designed to safeguard media pluralism and independence amid rising concerns about ownership and potential government interference.

In what organisers hope will provide a spur to action, 52% voiced concern about media freedom – with the highest figure, 63%, recorded in Poland, whose rightwing nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) government stands accused of aggressively targeting independent media with expensive lawsuits while meddling in public broadcasting.

Seventy-one per cent throughout the four countries backed government safeguarding legislation while 59% supported granting the EU more powers to protect media liberties.

Misha Glenny, a British broadcaster and chair of the Committee for Editorial Independence – which commissioned the study along with the Czech committee of the International Press Institute – warned the EU against overlooking Poland’s transgressions as a reward for its role in enacting western policy in Russia’s war against Ukraine, particularly when compared with Hungary, which has refused to send weapons or cut energy supplies from Russia.

“What you’ve seen since Ukraine is that the European Commission and some European Union governments have decided that they are targeting [prime minister Viktor] Orbán and Hungary because of their recalcitrant position and they are giving Poland a free pass on some of the rule of law issues,” he said.

The study of 4,069 people was conducted over a 16-day period in February, before Russia’s invasion.

Hungary, where Orban’s far-right Fidesz government this month won a fourth consecutive term, revealed the highest number of respondents – 47% – who think their country’s media is not free. Only 30% assessed it as free, compared with 47% in the Czech Republic, where support for media independence is highest.

Orban’s government has come under scrutiny over opaque ownership acquisitions that have seen about 500 separate media outlets placed under an umbrella foundation, Kesma, and interference in public broadcasting that critics say has reduced television and radio stations to propaganda channels, often voicing pro-Russian war narratives.

Support for media freedom among Fidesz backers is significantly lower than among other groups, said Václav Štětka, a media specialist at Loughborough university.

“Fidesz voters are a completely different tribe,” he said. “Thirty per cent of them support media owners being in charge of content. That figure isn’t replicated anywhere else.”

Veronika Munk, the director of content at Telex, an independent Hungarian news site established after a pro-government businessman took over the outlet where she previously worked, said the decline of media freedom in Hungary served as a warning to others.

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“Hungary shows how quickly things can change,” she said. “In the Reporters Without Borders index for 2006, Hungary was 10th out of about 160 countries. We are now 92nd.”

Asked if she feared things deteriorating further, she said: “That possibility is always there. Our website is funded by readers’ donations. One of my concerns is if the government decides to cut this economic link, which they could with a new law because they have two-thirds of the seats in parliament.”

• The headline of this article was amended on 2 May 2022 to refer correctly to central European countries, not eastern European ones.


Robert Tait in Prague

The GuardianTramp

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