Survey: 52% Of Central Europeans Concerned About Lack Of Media Freedoms

In recent years, media freedom has become a point of concern for several countries in Central Europe. This has to do with trends in these regions where governments, increasingly populist in nature, seek more oversight over the media landscape and the journalists that operate within it. Such oversight includes more control of the media, promoting pro-state views, and filtering out opinions deemed critical to the governing entities. This has prompted questions on how to address media freedoms in such environments, as well as how to protect journalists, who have increasingly become targets of harassment campaigns due to their reporting.

A recent survey headed by the Committee for Editorial Independence, in conjunction with the Czech National Committee of the International Press Institute and the Bakala Foundation, sought to discover public attitudes towards media freedom and independence in Central Europe, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (B.I.R.N.) reports. The survey focused on Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia and indicated that a majority (52%) of people “believe the state of media freedom has worsened over the last five years” and that a majority (also 52%) “expressed concern about the current state of media freedom, with the Poles the most concerned and the Czechs the least.” In Poland and Hungary, “Respondents who are voters of the ruling parties – PiS and Fidesz, respectively – perceive the media in their country to be much freer than opposition voters do,” the results show. This latter point has to do with pro-government constituents seeing much more coverage of the parties and candidates they elect, while those from the opposition see less of their representatives.

These concerns regarding media freedoms are related to the environments which journalists operate in. A report by the International Press Institute (I.P.I.), along with partner organizations, indicates that journalists are operating in increasingly challenging environments. These challenges include, but are not limited to, physical attacks, prosecution, media capture, restrictions on news reporting, harassment, and surveillance, trends reflected in the four countries above. For instance, the report explains that coverage of the migrant crisis along the Poland/Belarus border was restricted. It is part of broader trends to create given perceptions and images of a topic to present it in a particular way to a broader audience. Media capture is also listed as an area of concern for Poland and Hungary, where state-friendly media and entities are more likely to operate freely compared to opposition media and entities.

These developments have been going on for many years. In 2020, Hungarian media outlets were already facing breakups, with journalists being fired, according to German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle. These trends were also growing in Poland, Serbia, and Slovenia, in part due to “politicians in the region [creating] a climate of hatred against journalists, presenting them as enemies, secret agents, or national traitors of the region” as allies of the state became more involved with the media. Combined with the factors listed above, independent journalism and media have not fared well in the current environment. It is no longer shocking to read reports about journalists being harassed or state-affiliated entities pressuring independent media groups to take an expected line when reporting if they do not want to face consequences.

Despite the current situation, people in Central European countries believe that independent journalism is important. But while the “vast majority” of respondents to the B.I.R.N. survey (80%) agreed that having an independent media is “absolutely important,” there is less consensus “on the key ingredients that go into” that independent media. Plans to address these trends, including a proposed Media Freedom Act “to ensure the integrity and independence of the E.U. media market” in member states, are underway, B.I.R.N. reports.

Other plans, as outlined in the I.P.I. report, include mandating the protection of media workers, promoting “measures against abusive lawsuits and criminalization of journalism,” and guaranteeing more media transparency and ownership. In March 2022, the Council of Europe also provided similar recommendations focusing on media freedoms, journalism safety, and media transparency. These are some of several possible “key ingredients” needed to enact stronger measures ensuring a fair media landscape and safer journalism.

The proposals and recommendations listed above are important, but it is also critical to implement them as soon as possible. Europe’s current state has highlighted the growing concerns, with a need to access reliable news regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine without journalists fearing harassment or accusations of conspiracy for reporting on current events. The sooner governments in Europe can establish any of these measures, the sooner media freedom concerns can be addressed.