The state of media freedom in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia is increasingly getting worse. Independent news outlets are rarer and limited, and the governments directly threaten journalists. Media freedom is suffering. According to the “2020 World Press Freedom Index” of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Hungary and Poland are in the “orange zone” of the ranking, symbolizing an alarming situation in terms of press freedom. Slovenia is still in the yellow zone, in the 32nd position on a global scale. Warsaw is 62nd (three positions lower than last year), while Hungary (two positions lower than in 2019) does worse than Hong Kong and it places itself in the 89th position in the RSF’s ranking. What is the situation of press freedom in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia today? How are the three cases similar? What is the European Union doing about it?
The governmental pressure on the media is disturbing in all three countries. Where the template is always the same. And it encompasses systematic attacks on the “lying press”, the “enemy of the people” or the “disgraceful journalists” that spread “fake news”. Putting their loyalists and friends within the high ranks of the public- and private-owned media, pressuring independent news producers and analysts, undermining press freedom is alarmingly a substantial feature of the governments of Budapest, Warsaw, and Ljubljana. Top officials in the countries openly and publicly accuse and bully individual journalists, eroding the dignity of the press. Media scrutiny and pressure of dissenting elements who criticize the government, is a fundamental practice of the three countries’ media policy.
At the beginning of March 2021, in Hungary, it has been decided that the opposition-leaning Klubrádió will not have its license renewed by the state. The license expired in mid-February, and its possible non-renewal had been in the air for some weeks. Klubrádió is one of the last independent radio stations in Hungary. With no more space on the radio frequencies, the station will only be able to broadcast online. The dossier “Hungary” and the controversial policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on many subjects – from migrants to the rule of law, from justice to individual rights – have been on the table of the European Commission for many years. The clear authoritarian drifts – hidden behind concepts of Hungarian “patriotism” and “traditionalism” – shake the EU and its liberal democratic values. Orbán is shutting down every independent voice in the country.
As for Poland, the government is deciding to impose a tax on the advertising revenues of media with the excuse of raising money to tackle Covid-19. Critics point out that the pandemic is just the last excuse to weaken the independent media and trying to uniform the narrative as the government – namely, the national conservative PiS – would like. The tax is only the latest of the many infringements of media freedom in Poland. From the purchase of regional media by the State-controlled refiner PKN Orlen to the accusations by PiS of foreign media companies allegedly having too much power in Poland. Some critics point out that since 2015, the year of PiS’ access to power, the state TVP has become a tool of government’s propaganda. The growing pressure on the Polish justice system by the government is also having dire implications for the situation of the press.
The Slovenian case is also increasingly worrying since journalists are subjected to open and direct threats from the head of the executive and leader of the Slovenian Democratic Party Janez Janša. The Prime Minister has spoken out for the dismissal of Bojan Veselinović, head of the Slovenian Press Agency. The decision of the government to suspend the state funding to the STA exposed him to several criticisms. In an open letter last autumn, more than twenty Slovenian editors reported that they were exposed to manipulation from government officials. This should be a cause of concern. It is unlikely that there will be a substantial improvement of media freedom in Slovenia anytime soon. In July this year, Janša will take over the Presidency of the Council of the EU for six months. This might make it even more difficult to proceed against his aggressive stance towards independent journalism.
What can the EU do vis-à-vis the alarming media freedom restrictions and governmental pressures in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia? Although EU-Institutions are quite familiar with the dossiers of the three countries mentioned, the risk of self-censorship of many media cannot be cured. The so-called self-censorship of many journalists derives from a systemic lack of trust in the country’s government. And if the EU puts sanctions on governments threatening the independence of the media, things are not likely to change for the media themselves. The heavy climate towards both public and private media in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia, might potentially induce journalists themselves to turn a blind eye towards the government’s repressions or repercussions. Public media in Hungary and Poland are in the government’s hands and they are attacking private media, while in Slovenia the attacks are towards public and private media alike.
In early March 2021, the European Parliament announced that it would discuss threats to the media and journalists in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. Several NGOs and associations on freedom of the media and the press have turned to the EU to take action against the deteriorating state of media freedom in the three countries. In Hungary, for example, several controllers have already been sent over the years. However, the EU’s response as a whole to Orbán has been lukewarm, to say the least, and certainly not close to the enforcement of the values of liberal democracy and rule of law. The recent departure of Orbán’s Fidesz MEPs from the EEP Group is a clear signal of the growing incompatibility within the European institutions between those who respect the rule of law – and media freedom – and those who do not.
But amending the codes of a political party family at the European level does not imply significant improvements at home in terms of free press and media independence. Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) explicitly states that the EU can suspend the voting rights of a country that does not respect the values of the entire European bloc. Free press and media independence – which means freedom of expression – is one of those. No such move has been taken against either Hungary or Poland or Slovenia. By the way, the suspension of voting rights is unlikely as Poland would veto any such move against Hungary and vice versa. Through the words of Věra Jourová – the European Commissioner responsible for policies on values and transparency – the EU condemned the systemic and growing control of the media.
Except for appeals and condemnations, substantial attempts to find answers to worrying trends, because of their threats to media independence, have not been made. Failures to enforce the rule of law could be a defeat for the EU. It means not only accepting that there are first- and second-class European citizens. But also, that the state can control the media, and thus a large part of the flow of information to citizens. Not only in the concerned countries but also at the European level, liberal and democratic forces must commit themselves on two fronts of press freedom in their countries. On the one hand, they must unequivocally support media independence, whether it be in the public or private domain. On the other hand, they must systematically denounce the violations of press freedom in any EU state.
Liberal parties in their respective countries should speak out for more pluralism and launch inquiries, work side by side with NGOs to keep freedom of expression alive, and use social media to build consensus around the cause of freedom of expression, which is everyone’s freedom. Unfortunately, the similarities of the three concerned governments do not only concern the hostile attitude towards the press and the independence of the media. Their aggressive attitude towards their critics is part of a populist and illiberal template, that many parties in the EU – some of them still in the EEP – adopted during the last decade.
Marginally the Slovenian, but surely the Hungarian and Polish governments are reactionary on various social issues, underestimated the Covid-19 pandemic, are inclined to spread conspiracy theories, prompt the hard-line against migrants, target certain social groups and minorities. The populist template used by the three governments imposes them to look for popular consensus in the creation of the press as an enemy in the eyes of public opinion. A way to do that is also to silence dissenting voices through various techniques – the non-renovation of the concessions, the tax on the advertising revenues, the insinuation of fake news. The gradual extinction of the voices of those who dare to dissent is not tolerable in the European Union.