Fears grow of Russian interference in Central European media space

Fears grow of Russian interference in Central European media space
Slovak premier Robert Fico's cabinet is boycotting TV Markiza's discussion programmes. / TV Markiza
By Robert Anderson in Prague April 26, 2024

Two thirds of Central Europeans are concerned about Russian interference in their country’s media or public opinion, according to a new poll conducted by MEDIAN on behalf of the Prague-based Committee for Editorial Independence.

Those expressing concern ranged from 61% in Hungary to 77% in Poland, and in all countries Russia was seen as the biggest threat, when compared to China, the US, the EU and US-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros.

"As the region grapples with political shifts and Russian influence, our findings underscore the critical importance of safeguarding media independence,” Tessa Szyszkowitz, chair of the Committee for Editorial Independence, said in a statement. “The strong public support for action highlights the urgent need for a robust response from governments, civil society and international institutions."

In a recorded statement, Vera Jourova, EU Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, commented: “Russia is waging a propaganda war against the EU. We cannot let this happen.”

Russian influence over Central European public opinion has been a particular concern in Slovakia and Hungary, where both governments have often parroted the Kremlin line over its war with Ukraine. The EU has expressed concern that Russian disinformation could play a role in the European parliamentary elections in June, where radical right-wing pro-Russian parties are expected to do well.

In another worrying finding, the poll showed that in Poland and Hungary social networking sites and messaging apps are considered more free and more trustworthy than mainstream media. This could lead to citizens living in information bubbles and just relying on distorted and biased reports.

Populist leaders such as Slovakia’s Robert Fico and Czechia’s Andrej Babis often use such channels as an alternative to mainstream media, which can then help to legitimise conspiracy theories and Russian disinformation.

“The fact that Robert Fico legitimises conspiracy sites means he legitimises sites sponsored by Russia,” Beata Balogova, chief editor of Slovak independent daily Sme, told a press conference on April 25 to publicise the poll.

She demanded tougher regulatory oversight of social media platforms to curb disinformation. “Without tougher policies towards platforms we are not moving ahead,” she said.

Polish fears decline

Another key finding of the poll is the sharp decline in concern over media freedom in Poland, which dropped from 71% in 2023 to 53% in 2024 following the election of Donald Tusk’s centrist government at October’s general election.

Tusk’s cabinet, which took office in December, literally pulled the plug on the state broadcaster Polish Television, which had become a propaganda channel for the outgoing Law and Justice (PiS) government. It then controversially bankrupted the broadcaster in order to replace its leadership, thereby bypassing the media oversight body PiS had stacked with loyalists to preserve its control. However, the channel is now regarded as much more impartial in its news coverage.

This contrasts with the situation in Slovakia and Hungary, where concern over media freedom has grown. In Slovakia those concerned have risen from 62% in 2023 to 65%, while in Hungary such worries have risen from 56% to 62%.

In Czechia 51% were concerned, unchanged on last year. Public media in the Czech Republic are regarded as the freest and most trustworthy in the region.

“The contrast between Poland's declining concern and growing unease in Hungary and Slovakia is striking,” said Szyszkowitz.

In Hungary, trust in the media has been undermined not just by the use of the public media for propaganda but also by constant attacks on independent media. Trust in the public broadcasters, private broadcasters, print media and online media is consistently the worst or equal worst in the region.

“Over the course of the last 10 years in Hungary there has been substantial damage done to the legitimacy of the media in terms of trust and that damage was done deliberately,” Vaclav Stetka of Loughborough University, who analysed the poll results, told the press conference.

Marton Gergely, editor of Hungarian independent weekly HVG, agreed that this reflected the constant attacks on independent media by Viktor Orban’s semi-authoritarian government. “The trend shows the impact of the smear campaign against free media in Hungary,” he said.

The Orban regime has recently established a so-called Sovereignty Office to police independent media with foreign funding. “The Sovereignty Office was created not so much to deliver legal attacks but to deliver punchlines for the [government] media campaign,” Gergely said.

In Hungary even 44% of Fidesz voters in the sample said they were concerned over media freedom, up from 33% last year, while 94% of opposition voters said they were concerned.

Gergely warned that the Orban regime’s dominance of the media space meant it was very difficult to provide independent news to a large part of the electorate. “One third of the population is under a government media umbrella and cannot be reached,” he said.

In most countries there is most concern among younger cohorts, except Hungary, where two thirds of those aged more than 45 are most worried, compared to only 50% of 18-24 year olds. This may indicate growing apathy and cynicism among those who have grown up since 2010 under Orban’s rule.

Slovak concerns rise

Slovakia is now the country where there is most public concern about media freedom. Fico’s government is moving fast to dominate the media scene after winning the September general election.

It is preparing one bill to take firmer control over the public broadcaster, and has boycotted independent media. There have also been pressures on commercial broadcasters to tone down their political coverage.

Consequently, in the poll, only 20% of Slovak respondents say they are “not concerned” about the current state of media freedom. The government is also now seen as the biggest threat to media freedom, greater than business or media platforms.

Veronika Munk of Slovak independent daily Dennik N said what is happening in Slovakia is very reminiscent of what happened in Hungary when Orban took over in 2010. “I always have this déjà vu when I watch what is happening in Slovakia,” she told the press conference.

Balogova concurred: “What Orban did in a decade Robert Fico is trying to do in a very short time,” she said. “They are trying to persuade the public that the media has no watchdog role,” she added.

Munk said she was more “a little more optimistic” about Slovakia than Hungary because Fico does not have a constitutional majority, the government is not so dominant in the advertising market, and independent media such as Dennik N and Sme are now funded by their own readers.

“I strongly believe that the biggest protection against these populist authoritarian governments are the readers themselves,” she said. “In Slovakia the people are quite active democratic citizens.”

Support for media independence

In other findings, all countries recorded strong belief in the importance of politically independent media, ranging from 77% in Hungary to 84% in Poland. There is also strong opposition to the idea that owners of media have the right to control that media’s output, and that governments have the right to influence content of public sector media.

However, there has been a significant decline in those who believe newsrooms should be completely independent of outside interference, with 65% backing this in Czechia and only 57% in Slovakia and Hungary.

There is also a general consensus on the importance of media investment transparency and limitations on concentrations of ownership to avoid dominance by powerful and influential groups and individuals.

An overwhelming majority of respondents across all four countries believe that states should strengthen legislation to protect media independence, with figures reaching as high as 78% in Poland and 74% in Slovakia.

“The poll results show how strongly people in Visegrad countries react to threats to media freedom,” said Szyszkowitz.

There is also continuing strong support for the European Union imposing penalties on countries governments interfere with media freedom, particularly in Poland (63%) and Slovakia (61%).

“Slovakia is now becoming the single biggest test of how the EU is approaching its own values on media freedom,” Balogova said.

The poll, which was carried out with the support of the Bakala Foundation, surveyed over 4,000 respondents aged 18 and above across the V4 countries in March 2024.