Press freedom is essential to democracy, allowing open debate and shining light on abuses of power. Media in Central Europe have had to contend with declining diversity in the sector, the capture of independent outlets, and the omnipresence of propaganda. Yet some outlets in these countries have proved remarkably resilient, continuing to produce quality reporting despite increased pressure from governments. With sufficient support from readers and the international community, they could form the backbone of an emerging, pluralistic media landscape.
Central European journalism is far from dead. Those who do not believe it need only look at the winners and nominees of the European Press Prize – an award that has become an increasingly significant indicator of journalistic quality in Europe. In 2020, the best opinion piece came from Slovakia’s largest daily, SME. Beata Balogová, a journalist who participated in the 1989 student protests against the country’s unfree socialist regime, described how three decades into democracy, Slovaks again found themselves at the crossroads between freedom and “un-freedom”. Her piece called for resistance against politicians who are “hijacking the future” and justifying their destructive measures on the grounds of “protecting the identity of the nation against enemies, enemies they cooked up using the recipes of successful autocrats”.
In the same year, Spięcie, a joint project between five independent newsrooms in Poland, was lauded by the prize’s judges for its efforts to tackle polarisation in Polish society. The participating magazines – situated at different points on the political spectrum, from moderate conservative to progressive left-wing – together selected a series of topics to cover. However, instead of publishing the articles written by their own staff, they published each other’s pieces to confront readers with new, perhaps unfamiliar perspectives to help them burst their filter bubbles. The region’s media outlets are also well represented among recent nominations, including Republica.ro for highlighting the ingrained tendency for victim blaming (whether in cases of sexual harassment, traffic accidents, or natural disasters) in Romanian society in 2017, Hungarian outlet Direkt36 for describing how German industry shelters Viktor Orbán’s regime from Western criticism in 2021, and the Czech website A2larm for analysing what Black Lives Matter means for the Roma minority, the same year.
Powerful journalism in the region is not limited to the prize’s shortlists, however. In 2018 in Slovakia, Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová were murdered in retribution for their investigative reporting on criminal organisations, published on the online news portal Aktuality.sk. The Bulgarian investigative outlet Bivol, the trilingual Baltic investigative website Re:Baltica, and cross-border projects like the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network are well known by journalists across Europe. The Oscar-nominated Romanian documentary film Collective depicts how journalist Catalin Tolontan and his team at the sports paper Gazeta Sporturilor launched an investigation to uncover how corruption and incompetence led to the deaths of dozens following a fire at a Bucharest nightclub. The hard-hitting report led to the resignation of the health minister – a striking example of how meticulous journalism can make a real impact. While the documentary ends with the sobering conclusion that good journalism alone cannot bring much-needed change to societies, the work of these reporters sends a clear signal to politicians that they cannot expect to get away with everything.
A climate of capture
While there is clearly no shortage of quality journalism, Central Europe’s political and economic environment over the past decades has made it increasingly hard for these outlets to find sustainable revenue streams. Many have struggled to obtain sufficient resources to fund the painstaking research required for their reporting, as well as suitably far-reaching distribution channels for their findings. A previous article for the Green European Journal describes how the media landscape in the EU’s new Eastern member states became increasingly colourful as they began to open up, starting in the early 1990s. Journalists were finally allowed to write more freely, and in new formats that were previously unknown to them. Most media outlets ended up in the hands of large foreign conglomerates. In countries that were geographically closer to the “West” (such as the Visegrad countries: Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary), this meant up to 80 per cent of the market. They were rightly criticised for prioritising profit over journalistic quality, yet today there is some nostalgia for the time of foreign ownership. In Hungary, many journalists argue that foreign companies provided financial stability and effectively sheltered newsrooms from political pressure.
Central Europe’s independent media should not be abandoned.
The new millennium brought a number of unfavourable developments due to the lack of post-EU-accession rule of law requirements, an economic crisis, and media market changes triggered by the rapid spread of internet access. In line with the global trend, news media revenues plummeted, advertisers migrated to Google and Facebook, and many previously profitable outlets found their finances in the red. Foreign owners lost interest in the media they had bought over the previous decade (particularly in smaller countries; less so in the relatively large and more robust Polish market). Almost simultaneously, a new breed of authoritarian populist politicians began to show an increased appetite for media control. This led to the emergence of media capture, whereby vested interests applied just enough pressure on independent media to prevent them from doing their jobs properly, while stopping short of overtly violating their rights.
Instead of jailing journalists or sending hit squads to the newsrooms, governments seeking to tighten their grip introduced higher taxes or disproportionate quality control requirements that diverted journalists from their core tasks. In the meantime, interest groups manipulated the advertising market to assert influence over coverage, or simply bought their way into media outlets. In the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš (businessman and prime minister since 2017) became the biggest media owner after he acquired several leading outlets from foreign owners. The Slovak SME found itself temporarily in the hands of the Penta financial group, a company whose corruption scandals the outlet had often reported on. In Slovenia, investors associated with Hungary’s authoritarian populist government started buying stakes in news outlets to help fellow populist Janez Janša spread his message. In Hungary, the entire local and regional press was bought from its former (predominantly German) owners and turned into government mouthpieces. The Polish government has expressed similar aspirations for the “re-Polonisation” of its media landscape.
Advertising is often allocated in a biased way. In Bulgaria and Hungary, the state has become a dominant player in the advertising market, which allows it to financially reward favourable coverage and punish those who are critical. In this context, muckrakers, investigative outlets, or those who simply want to contribute to an unfettered public discourse often find themselves struggling to make ends meet.
Tapping into readers
While the context in which the region’s independent media operate is far from healthy, a large proportion of outlets have managed to survive, while some of the journalists who lost their jobs managed to launch new – although usually smaller – projects. There are also some hopeful signs for the future. Quality journalism may well be more resistant than some commentators first thought, and readers could display more willingness than anticipated to support the survival of reliable news outlets. A January 2021 report found that a growing number of newsrooms are looking at reader-generated revenues as a means to sustain their future operations. This focus on reader support could be an option in the Eastern EU member states as well. The Reuters Digital News Report for 2020 found that the proportion of people who paid for news increased during the pandemic: in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, 10 per cent of respondents said they pay for some form of online news content, with figures at 20 per cent in Poland and 16 per cent in Romania.
Reader-generated revenues generally take one of three forms: subscriptions (readers pay for access), donations (readers pay to keep the outlet freely available), and memberships (readers have a more active, participatory role). There have already been some sporadic examples of successful reader-supported projects. In Slovakia, a group of journalists who were angered by Penta’s takeover of SME decided to launch the news outlet Denník N (meaning the independent daily). Their launch was supported with an initial donation by a local IT company, but their subscription model turned out to be so successful that in a short period of time they had accumulated enough revenue to repay the starting capital. While Denník N was viewed as a possible role model for the region, most other outlets have been less successful in tapping into their readers’ potential. In most countries, membership projects are still in their formative phase and subscriptions have so far failed to achieve comparable success. Donations are more common but come with significant disadvantages: their flows are unpredictable and the amounts a crowdfunding campaign generate are rarely sufficient to sustain a newsroom of more than a handful of journalists. Still, many investigative outlets and left-wing, progressive opinion sites would have found it impossible to survive otherwise.
Media at a turning point
The pandemic has been a turning point. The health crisis has made audiences more aware of the vulnerability of independent newsrooms. With the collapse of the advertising market and the closing of newsstands, more and more media outlets asked their readers for support. Moreover, the public health emergency and the immediate threat it posed to the health of their loved ones created a renewed appreciation for outlets working to uncover the truth rather than amplifying the government’s manipulated data.
In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán took a step that caused widespread shock. It removed the editor-in-chief of the country’s largest newsroom, Index.hu – the only remaining independent news outlet that was still consumed by conservatives, liberals, Orbán fans, and government critics alike – and planted its people in the management team. This triggered the resignation en masse of almost the entire newsroom staff. The newly unemployed journalists responded by launching a crowdfunding campaign that brought them approximately 40,000 paying supporters. In a country where completely reader-driven online journalism seemed hitherto almost impossible, it allowed them to launch Telex.hu, an outlet that successfully managed to employ all of the former staff members wishing to continue their work. Thus far, this support has proved sufficient to allow the platform to operate without advertising and make its content freely available.
The health crisis has made audiences more aware of the vulnerability of independent newsrooms.
Poland’s populist leadership has been keen to copy many of Hungary’s moves in its attack on the rule of law, civil society, and independent media. A key tactic is turning the public service media (a form of taxpayer- financed independent media) into some form of ideological, government-controlled outlet, which is often labelled “propaganda” by its critics. In early 2020, Dariusz Rosiak, a popular host of the public service radio Trójka, was laid off, reportedly in response to his participation in programmes broadcast by the government- critical TVN channel and his frequent criticism of Donald Trump. As a result, several of his former colleagues walked out and decided to crowdfund their own media. The campaign greatly exceeded its founders’ expectations, and Nowy Świat now has a monthly budget of almost 700,000 zloty (150,000 euros).
These cases demonstrate that donations can sustain media outlets. They have allowed journalists with a proven track record, ousted from their newsrooms in a takeover, to continue doing quality journalism. But it is hard to generalise from these experiences, as the unprecedented support they received was triggered by the audiences’ loss of a valued source of information. It is also hard to anticipate how long this model can last, as donation-driven journalism has a relatively short history, and the evidence so far suggests that crowdfunding donors quickly lose interest. They can be generous when a new project is launched but are less likely to contribute to its continued survival. Subscription – when access is conditional on payment – is widely seen as a more viable model, currently used by renowned outlets like Slovenia’s Mladina and Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, among others. But these subscription models are difficult to introduce. In the short term, locking content hurts the pages’ search rankings, readership, and advertising revenues. In addition, subscriptions (or “paywalls” as they are sometimes, less appealingly, called) risk keeping valuable content locked away from audiences. At a time when certain countries in the EU have governments or other interest groups investing increased amounts of money and energy into spreading disinformation or propaganda, making factual news only available to those who pay for it is a very dangerous strategy. Politically motivated content (both from captured public service providers and politically aligned private media) then risks becoming the default source of information for anyone who is not willing, motivated, or even capable of buying an unbiased alternative. It risks creating an unbridgeable gap – not just between rich and poor, but also between the “experts” whose job, social standing, or keen interest in politics allows them to seek out the best possible information about developments in public life, and citizens with limited expertise or networks, who may have other interests and duties that make it difficult to identify valuable information hidden behind paywalls. In such a situation democracy suffers. If voters have easy access to manipulated information only, making informed decisions on election day (or knowing where one’s real interests lie) is almost impossible.
[…] making factual news only available to those who pay for it is a very dangerous strategy
A more appealing model adopted by Hungarian video channel Partizán, among others, is the reliance on “freemium” content. The outlet produces talk shows, in-depth interviews, documentaries, and investigations. While the majority of their content can be accessed for free on video- sharing platforms or listened to as podcasts, paying contributors gain access to a range of extras, such as uncut versions of the videos. In some countries, governments have stepped in to mitigate the losses suffered by newsrooms as a result of Covid-19. A good example is the Latvian Media Support Fund, which aimed to help broadcasters as well as print and online publications at a time of immense financial pressure. But in many countries, this kind of support is (or would be) unavailable to critical outlets, given the governments’ open hostility towards them.
Unrelated to the pandemic, the EU provides a certain level of support for investigative journalism that many outlets make good use of, and in previous years a range of private philanthropies provided financial support to outlets carrying out valuable work on the ground. In December 2020, the European Commission presented the European Democracy Action Plan as well as the Media and Audiovisual Action Plan. These were accompanied by the promise to take further steps to improve media pluralism, notably by securing the transparency of state advertising and helping news media apply for financial support. A related recommendation in 2021 aims to improve the safety of journalists, given that the harassment of, and attacks on, journalists (particularly women) has become another serious problem. These are steps in the right direction, but they may not be enough when newsrooms are constantly shrinking and journalists, especially those outside capital cities, are struggling to do their jobs.
When it comes to the skillset of journalists, many of the independent media outlets in Central Europe, as in Eastern Europe more broadly, are well prepared to help their respective countries overcome the “crisis of democracy”. They are masters of the craft of journalism and enjoy the trust of their readers; they manage to effectively draw attention to governance-related problems and are continually uncovering wrongdoing related to the political and economic elites. Nevertheless, they need the help of European policy-makers, foundations, and responsible citizens to continue to do their jobs, maintain the quality of their reporting, and increase their impact. Support is also crucial to keep the profession appealing to talent from new generations, who currently think twice before accepting an underpaid job at a news outlet with a limited outlook for the future. If this support arrives in time, these journalists, well versed in securing reliable information and fighting off propaganda, can form the backbone of a new, much stronger media landscape. One in which vital information remains accessible to everyone. Newsrooms are especially vulnerable to being locked inside filter bubbles, the fragmentation of audiences, and the volatilities of the media market. A growing willingness to pay for quality content is a promising sign – it shows that more and more people appreciate quality news production and the pluralism of information. Yet, Central Europe’s independent media should not be abandoned and left to confront all of the malign forces in their respective countries on their own. Considering the financial difficulties of Western media outlets, it is clear that self-sufficiency and certainty about the future remains a long way off for Central Europe’s independent media.