Stop the press!

By bne IntelliNews November 15, 2010

Nicholas Watson in Prague -

"Freedom of expression and of the media... is an integral part of any democratic system," the European Commission felt moved to declare on November 9. Sadly, those countries that have either recently joined the EU or are hoping to don't appear to be listening to the mandarins in Brussels.

The Commission noted in its annual reports on the EU candidate countries that political pressure, threats and lawsuits against the press are now commonplace, while Reporters Without Borders (RWB) notes that the situation in the newer member states is little better. This, at a time when a free press is needed more than ever to deliver information to the markets, to create transparency in public life and to get a grip on spiralling corruption - the single worst performing indicator across the set of countries over the past decade.

In RWB's latest Press Freedom Index, a majority of the countries showed a marked worsening in press freedom in the 2010 survey from the 2009 survey and, worse, this was a continuation of the deterioration seen during the previous year. "If you look at a five-year period, which offers a good window into how the media has fared in the new EU member states, seven are performing worse today and three are the same," says Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House in New York.

One trend that emerges is a repeat of the situation seen in other areas of civil society when EU candidate countries actually become EU members; once the hard slog of reform is finished upon accession to the club, backsliding becomes the norm. Bulgaria and Romania are the prime culprits of this regression. Both Southeast European countries saw their ranking fall in the Press Freedom Index this year, after falling the previous year too, just as their efforts to root out corruption have faltered once they joined the EU in 2007. "It's a real challenge for these two countries because they have less distance to slip [than Central European countries] to find themselves re-entering the middle part of our spectrum, into the hybrid states and less-consolidated democracies [of the former Soviet Union], which means they really have to redouble their efforts to advance institutional reform," says Walker.

One of the biggest fallers on the Press Freedom Index was Latvia, which perhaps not coincidentally was also the country that suffered most from the global economic crisis. The crisis is generally seen as having pinched advertising budgets and emboldened powerful individuals and groups to insinuate themselves further into the media and move the sector in a less pluralistic direction. Latvia's liberal-leaning national daily Diena suffered a horribly murky takeover that has put its long-term survival in the balance, meaning it's possible this EU member state could end up without a bona fide daily with basic editorial independence.

Laws of the banned

New laws have also been a weapon of choice by testy governments. Lithuania in December 2009 brought in a ban on information that promotes "sexual relations" in general, and non-traditional family structures in particular (ie. it targets homosexuals). Another Baltic state, Estonia, was also mulling new laws that would force journalists to reveal their sources; five newspapers printed blank front pages in protest. And in November, Hungary's parliament passed a new set of rules called the "Media Constitution" that will regulate the country's media on a day-to-day basis. The new legislation purportedly seeks to protect press freedom, though contrary to earlier proposals it didn't make any significant changes in the rules governing right of reply and correction, which gives interviewees the right to approve anything written about them before publication. "They can request changes, though only if they are factual - though they often try to abuse this to polish up their answers," says one Budapest-based journalist. "This can lead to sterile PR-influenced journalism."

Slovakia too saw a new law in 2008 come into force that guarantees the subject of a story the right of reply, even if the facts in the story were correct. This law was introduced by the previous government of Robert Fico, who once described his media critics as "prostitutes" and successfully sued many of them for tens of thousands of euros. "The new press law certainly gave cover and comfort to anyone who wanted to strike at the press through lawsuits. The amounts awarded were often entirely disproportionate to the offense, and the courts interpreted the law according to their own lights. There was, and remains, little legal certainty in libel and defamation cases. Ironically, the terms of the press law were so complicated that only lawyers really mastered them," says Tom Nicholson, the former editor-in-chief and publisher of The Slovak Spectator, who adds that the main limit to press freedoms remains the fact that there are only four really significant advertisers in this country, which gives them inordinate power. Perhaps tiring of the rampant corruption and cronyism of Fico's government, the population voted it out of office in June.

A change of government in Ukraine at the start of this year is proving a particular concern, causing the country's ranking in the Press Freedom Index to fall 42 places. RWB felt moved to issue in September a 14-page report criticising the increase in physical attacks on journalists, growing censorship and the lack of police help in investigating violations of journalists' rights. Most worryingly, Vasyl Klymentiev, the publisher of a small newspaper that uncovered corruption and crimes carried out by police and tax authorities in the city of Kharkiv, went missing on August 11 and is feared dead - a worrying echo of the case of Georgiy Gongadze, editor of the outspoken liberal online news service Ukrainska Pravda, who was kidnapped and murdered in 2000. Three former officials of the Interior Ministry's foreign surveillance department and criminal intelligence unit were convicted of Gongadze's murder, though no-one has yet been charged with giving the order for it, even though audiotapes surfaced on which former president Leonid Kuchma and other top officials could be heard discussing the need to silence Gongadze for his reports about high-level corruption.


Even where things appear to be getting better, there still are troubling signs of political interference in the media. Poland has been moving up the Press Freedom Index since Jaroslaw Kaczynski's (former PM and twin brother of the late president Lech) conservative Law and Justice Party was ousted from power in 2007, but political interference in the media is a major issue of concern. This is particularly visible in the public broadcaster TVP, which was controlled by Kaczynski allies from mid-2006 to August 2010. TVP's coverage of the July presidential election was clearly heavily biased in favour of Kaczynski, and critics accused it of coming close to being the party's official mouthpiece. According to a report from the Stefan Batory Foundation, a think-tank based in Warsaw, between June 28 and July 2 positive coverage of Kaczynski in TVP's four leading news programmes totalled 57% of the broadcasting time devoted to him, while that for the ruling Civic Platform party candidate (and winner of the presidential contest) Bronislaw Komorowski was just 18%.

Malgorzata Halaba of Dow Jones wrote in her blog that there's a feeling among the Polish media that the Civic Platform government is also now using some specific austerity measures to discipline economists and journalists who criticize it for a lack of zeal in its reforms. The government is floating the idea of cutting tax privileges that Poland's "creative workers" - artists, scientists and journalists - have enjoyed since pre-war times. The proposed measures coincide with the government's painful realization, after three years in power, that the local media aren't faithful supporters anymore; Prime Minister Donald Tusk accused the media of hypocrisy and defending its own interests in a TV interview. "Tusk's move is smart - he successfully silenced journalists, but also curried favour with the part of Polish society that resents every kind of privileged group," Halaba wrote.

Plucked in Turkey

Turkey received a severe ticking off from the over the rising number of prosecutions against journalists. "Open and free debate has continued and expanded. However, prosecutions and convictions of journalists, writers, publishers and politicians for the expression of non-violent opinions has continued," the draft report says.

The EU also voiced concern over an ongoing tax evasion case involving Turkey's biggest media group Dogan Yayin Holding, whose newspapers and TV stations are generally hostile to Erdogan's government. Critics and opposition groups claim that the TRY4.8bn ($3.27bn) in back taxes, fines and interest payments, the company has been ordered to pay for alleged tax evasion on share transfers between companies within the group, is an unwarranted attempt at silencing a major critic of the administration. However, the Dogan group itself is not without its critics and observers note that Turkey has a long "tradition" of media groups that have considered themselves to be above the law. Indeed, while many are quick to blame Erdogan's government for continuing incidences of journalists being sacked or prosecuted, it is also fair to say that in general press freedom in Turkey has improved since his Justice and Development Party took power in late 2002.

That said, journalists continue to face censorship both by unscrupulous media barons trying to leverage advantage in a political system where patronage still counts, and from a Turkish constitution that remains little changed since it was drafted by the Turkish military following the last military coup in 1980. This constitution has enabled elements within the judiciary to pursue their own agenda, attempting prosecutions of high-profile writers such as Elif Safak and Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk - which were publicly condemned by the government - and allowing anyone who feels like it to call for internet sites such as Youtube to be blocked indefinitely.

Part of the problem lies in the wording of laws - the vagueness of which has been used to criminalise some forms of criticism of the Turkish state, state institutions, officials and even individuals. This criticism would either not be illegal in the West, or dealt with by a press complaints commission and in more extreme cases under the civil code as possible libel. Although Erdogan has forced through some constitutional changes and has promised a complete re-drafting, any changes require the support of a two-thirds majority in parliament, which his party does not have. Without support from the main political opposition, it's unclear how any further changes could be implemented, nor, indeed, is it clear if Erdogan and his government has any incentive to further challenge a status quo that currently appears to suit them.

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