Central Europe’s authoritarian populists have taken lessons from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin by turning state broadcasters into propaganda mouthpieces, spreading disinformation, and using friendly private or state-owned companies to build sycophantic media empires, a conference organised by the Aspen Central Europe platform heard this week.
State broadcasters in Hungary and Poland are already government mouthpieces, and their Czech and Slovak peers have also come under pressure in recent years.
Throughout Central and Eastern Europe public broadcasters are much more state-directed than their counterparts in Western Europe. Only Czechia and Lithuania have fully independent public service media, according to a study by the Center for Media, Data and Society published in September.
“Polish state TV [TVP] is pure propaganda,” Brygida Grysiak, deputy editor in chief of private news channel TVN24, told the conference ‘The future of a free press in Central and Eastern Europe’ held in Prague on November 8.
“We [TVN] are the only truly independent one now,” she said, pointing out that TVN24 also has the highest ratings of any news channel. “The more the government attacks us the higher the ratings we have.”
“We also had problems with previous governments too,” she pointed out, “but we had never had access to public information or access to press conferences restricted, or been called traitors.”
TVN, owned by the US Warner Brothers Discovery, almost lost its licence last year and only had it renewed in September, one working day before it was due to expire, following pressure from the US government. Grysiak said Jaroslaw Kaczysnki, Poland’s de facto ruler, had even admitted that the only reason TVN was not closed down was because it was US-owned.
“If they could shut us down they could do it with everyone," Grysiak said.
Poland’s ranking has sunk in the Reporters with Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index to 66th, down from 18th in 2015.
“Public broadcasters are the canary in the goldmine,” said Jamie Fly, CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the US Congress. “If you see public broadcasters being co-opted you can almost predict what comes next.”
“The scary thing for me is how quickly this has changed,” he said. “We are heading directly to what Putin has done in Russia.”
Stuffing the media boards
Petr Dvorak, director-general of Czech Television (CT), said for former premier Andrej Babis “public service media became his competitor and target”.
While premier, the populist billionaire, who has his own press and radio empire, regularly attacked the state-owned broadcaster and refused to give its reporters answers to questions or appear on its shows.
Deputies from his ANO party and opposition extremist parties tried to cut or even abolish the licence fee (CT’s main source of revenue), publicised “lying audits” of the broadcaster in the Czech parliament, and regularly made crude verbal attacks on its journalists.
After the laws curbing CT failed to pass in the parliament, ANO and the extremist parties “stuffed the media councils [boards]” with nominees “tasked with destabilising Czech Television”, including by making slanderous attacks on Dvorak himself.
The attacks led to warnings by international journalist organisations.
The new centre-right government elected in October has submitted a reform to give the more independent upper house a voice in electing the public broadcasters’ boards, which should prevent political parties terrorising the public broadcasters.
The Czech ranking in the Global Press Freedom index collapsed from 13 to 40 between 2014 and 2019, but then recovered to 20 in 2021.
“You often have to fight a long-term battle to preserve your independence,” Dvorak said. “The bad news is how unstable the media position in Central Europe can be,” he concluded.
However, his deputy editor in chief, Martin Reznicek, pointed out how Czech politicians continue to deliberately underfund the very well respected public broadcaster, a pattern common to the region. “CEE broadcasters are still fighting for their very existence,” he said.
Governments of all stripes have failed to increase CT’s licence fee for 14 years, and the broadcasting law is “obsolete” (it was originally passed in 1991). “It comes from a different century,” he said.
Disinformation super spreaders
A second tactic used by populist political leaders is to promote disinformation outlets, which have become a regular source of news for many Central Europeans. Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orban or Poland's ruling Law and Justice party can create their own fake news through state-controlled or friendly media and state-funded advertising campaigns, while opposition leaders such as Slovakia's Robert Fico are regular spreaders of disinformation through social media.
Czech President Milos Zeman has regularly appeared on fringe TV channels such as partly Chinese-owned TV Barrandov, and given interviews to news site Parlamentni Listy, which often in the past acted as a super spreader of Russian-inspired disinformation.
“Strengthening more marginal disinformation media was an important part of [Zeman’s] agenda,” Dvorak said.
Babis regularly attacks the media for lying and even took out full-page advertisements in his own newspapers in September telling voters to ignore it and watch his social media show instead.
The spread of fake news by disinformation sites creates confusion and promotes lack of trust in independent media.
“Noise has become the new censorship,” said Natalia Antelava, co-founder of Coda Story, a New York-based online crisis reporting news platform. “For journalists to get through the wall of noise is more and more difficult. Unless we can break through this noise we are in deep trouble.”
An IPI report entitled “Media Capture in the Czech Republic” in March commended the new government's planned reforms but said much still needed to be done to both strengthen the public service media and fight disinformation.
“The new government has a crucial challenge ahead of it to promote the sustainability and pluralism of media and to weaken the influence of disinformation sources. A priority task is to revise media legislation to strengthen the independence of public service media and weaken the influence of politicians over content,” the IPI report concluded.
Building fake independent media
The third main tactic used by rightwing populists such as Kaczynski, Orban, as well as more centrist populists such as Babis is to build up their own friendly private-owned media empires to spread their message and give a false impression of media diversity and independence.
“You can be much more subtle by using friendly oligarchs to buy media in the public space,” said Fly.
Babis bought his own empire in a Czech media scene that has now become dominated by domestic tycoons. Some of these oligarchs curried favour with Babis through their media, maximising his reach.
“Czech businessmen soon discovered that owning media is not very interesting from a business point of view but was interesting from an influence perspective,” said Dvorak.
“Media capture in the Czech Republic differs fundamentally from countries like Hungary. Rather than a state-led media takeover, the Czech Republic witnessed the acquisition of many of the country’s largest private media outlets by a handful of oligarchs for whom media could be used to promote their wider business interests,” the IPI report stressed.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party used the state-owned refiner Orlen to buy up the dominant Polska Press chain of regional dailies in 2020. “They have taken over the local media landscape in Poland,” said Grysiak. She added that state advertising and adverts from state-owned companied were also channelled to friendly media.
Orban perfects the model
Hungary has gone even further down this road, with more than 500 media outlets gathered in one foundation to co-ordinate their output, and independent media blocked from receiving information. Hungary’s press freedom ranking has collapsed from 10th in 2006 to 85th.
“The biggest problem is access to information,” said Marton Karpati, CEO and founder of Telex.hu, a news website created by journalists from Index.hu when it was taken over by a government-friendly oligarch. “We have no invitations to press conferences, no answers from government politicians, no interviews with government politicians.”
Getting independent news out to citizens is also challenging. Budapest residents will search out independent news online, but rural voters tend to rely much more on state-run or oligarch-dominated media. “It is really hard to reach people outside Budapest with non-government news,” Karpati said.
All state advertising is also restricted to friendly media. “The biggest advertiser is the state and this money does not go to independent sites, which distorts the market very much,” he said.
At the same time “[private companies] are afraid they will not get money from the state if they advertise in media like us”.
Finding a profitable business model in such authoritarian environments is a huge challenge, but it is also difficult in freer political systems and markets such as Slovakia and Czechia.
Matus Kostolyni, editor-in-chief of Slovak daily Dennik N, said his newspaper has been able to establish itself and expand through the support of readers who were enthused by the "great story" of the way it was founded by Sme journalists who quit when their former paper was taken over in 2014 by the controversial Penta financial group. "We were lucky to have the story behind us. It was why people started to read us," said Kostolyni.
Moreover, resistance from the remaining Sme journalists eventually forced Penta to exit in 2021. "Sme survived pressure from the oligarchs. They pulled out of the paper because the paper was against them. It was a happy ending. We have two quality papers out of one."
However, for most media securing funding is a constant struggle that is only getting harder.
“The biggest challenge for Czech private media is that we have not found a profitable model,” said Andrea Prochazkova, deputy editor in chief of Respekt, the biggest weekly news magazine, which is owned by Czech-born tycoon Zdenek Bakala.
She pointed out that there is no tradition of paying for online news in Czechia, and that private news media have to compete not only with CT’s online site, but also a news site funded by the country’s leading browser, Seznam. The current cost of living crisis is leading to rising costs and cancelled subscriptions, Prachazkova said.
“It is much harder to persuade readers to pay for news,” she said. "Everyone in Czech private media is seeing falling numbers.”