It’s been a bad few months to be a journalist. The world was outraged by the Israeli rocket attack in Gaza that destroyed the building that was home to UAE-backed Al Jazeera and the international news organisation AP.
That was not just an attack on the free press by Israel that clearly has a policy of trying to silence reporting by Gaza-based journalists; it was a literal missile strike on press freedoms.
Then a few days later the Belarusian authorities closed down TUT.by, a leading opposition news website in Belarus that has bravely been reporting on the brutal treatment of hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrating against the incumbent Belarus' president Alexander Lukashenko after he stole the presidential election last August 9.
Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya appealed for help on Twitter, saying: “Action needed now! The repressions against leading news portal @tutby are a clear attempt to destroy the remains of independent media in Belarus, which bravely covers the brutal reality and the situation on the ground.”
Hundreds of journalists in Belarus have been arrested, harassed and their publications squashed, blocked and now are simply being closed down. The entire foreign press corps was stripped of its accreditation last autumn, while Lukashenko flew in a technical team from Russia’s RT broadcaster to restart state-run TV after the entire staff walked out on strike a few weeks into the protests.
Things are not much better in Russia, where the state long since has dominated the television business by owning all of the top five stations. The biggest privately owned station, STS, is an entertainment channel and told bne IntelliNews in off-the-record remarks a few years ago that it simply wouldn't broadcast political content, as “it’s not worth it.”
Russia’s English language broadcaster RT comes in for a lot of criticism as it regularly is pressed into service in crisis times to purposely muddy the waters and make a story so confused that blame is hard to attribute. I personally have been asked to appear on the channel and then disinvited when I was screened by a producer and found to hold the “wrong views”. On another occasion when I did appear on the evening news and was told I would be on for 5 mins talking about the German-Russian vaccine data row, I was cut off after about 30 seconds when I began to talk about the suspected doctoring of Sputnik vaccine data in the scientific reporting.
The Russian state TV news shows are infinitely worse, as they deliberately broadcast disinformation when the situation calls for it. After ignoring him for years, a comprehensive smear campaign was launched against Navalny after he returned to Russia in January.
But again, this can be set against the US Fox news, which is no less biased and also blatantly guilty of political bias, disinformation and muddying the waters when the agenda calls for it – a point not lost on the Kremlin.
The newspaper business in Russia is much more vibrant and independent, with many titles openly criticising the government, but the screws have been turning there too. The first big foray into curbing print press freedoms began with a law that capped foreign ownership of media in Russia to 20% which was introduced in October 2014 and that, among other things, forced the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal to sell their shares in Vedomosti, a runaway success investment and the most respected newspaper in the country.
Since then, Vedomosti has been under constant attack and was taken over last year by structures associated with the Kremlin as the paper continued to be openly critical of the Kremlin. The staff walked out and set up a rival news outlet called VTimes that has been trying to get on its financial feet this year.
Then two weeks ago in short order both VTimes.ru and Meduza.io, another highly acclaimed independent online news service that is also holding the government to account, were branded “foreign agents” by the Russian authorities.
The label means they have to start their stories with a disclaimer declaring they are a foreign funded organisation in a font twice as big as their normal font. Both have received grants from abroad, but Meduza mostly funds itself through advertising from companies interested in its liberal 13mn-strong middle-class audience but which took to the hills once the publication was designated a foreign agent.
And the rule that the publication has to preface all its published reporting and comment with the foreign agent disclaimer also applies to Twitter. As the disclaimer is over 200 characters long there is almost no space for any message, effectively taking Meduza off the channel where it had millions of followers.
Hungary and Poland have seen similar stories. In Hungary the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban controls a swathe of media that have been buying up other media outlets or making life hard for privately owned outlets.
EU Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova lamented the plight of Hungary’s media on World Press Freedom Day on May 3, saying there wasn't much in Hungary and that better EU tools are needed to protect media freedom as a "pillar of democracy" rather than just a player in the national economy.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, Hungary's media landscape has changed dramatically since 2010, when the ruling radical right-wing government took power. Orban began to build up a media conglomerate systematically, which came to fruition in 2018.
A handful of media owners affiliated or sympathetic to Fidesz transferred the ownership rights of their media holdings to the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) in November 2018. More than a dozen media companies joined the foundation, without any form of compensation for the owners. An antitrust investigation was blocked by the government.
KESMA outlets operate with vast financial resources from state ads, while independent media is struggling to live off the market. The conglomerate also co-ordinates the message of its publications to benefit the government.
Jourova complained that existing EU rules were useless to prevent the attack on Hungarian media. The rules were designed to deal with antitrust problems and “Hungary is just too small” for the rules to be applicable. She is now in consultations to come up with a new Media Freedoms bill next year to address the issue.
The reaction to all these stories has been very different. The US White House has not condemned the Israeli air strike on the AP offices but said in a statement on the day that it was “concerned” – not even “gravely concerned”, which was the standard response to Viktor Yanukovych’s escalations of violence during the EuroMaidan demonstrations in Kyiv in 2014 – and was “seeking more information” from the Israeli authorities, while AP journalists were live-streaming the missiles smashing into their building from an adjacent rooftop.
It is widely expected that no action will be taken against the Israeli government at all for its blatant policy of trying to shut down reporting by Arab reporters on the tragic human cost of the Israeli retaliations to the Hamas rocket attacks (which are odious) on Tel Aviv and its environs.
The EU is grappling with Hungary and Poland in its own distinct way – by making more rules – but is largely powerless to act, or at least it will take a year to prepare the new rules that Orban has shown he will happily ignore.
But the crackdown on the press in Belarus is pretty much black and white and will be roundly condemned by all Western governments – and rightly so, as it is flagrant repression.
“This morning in Belarus has started with massive repressions against independent media. Siloviki are in the office of @tutby, the State Control Committee of Belarus has opened a criminal case against the website. The regime tries to ban the truth about its crimes.”
The decision to close TUT.by crosses a line that either says that Lukashenko is emboldened by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support, or that he is scared, or both.
“Today's blocking of @tutby is the largest crackdown on independent media not only for the last year, but probably for the last 15-20 years. The regime has never dared to do this before. The site had always been the last stronghold of independent journalism in #Belarus,” Franak Viacorka, an independent journalist in Minsk, said in a tweet.
The situation in Russia is a little subtler, but not a lot. The Kremlin has not outlawed a free press, and it retains very little control over online media, but it has thrown more and more obstacles in its way, making it increasingly difficult to operate.
My friends in the Russian press tell me they have been self-censoring for a long time and at the liberal, but business orientated RBC newspaper the editorial meetings used to include a discussion of what they could get away with before they “got the call” from the Kremlin if they went too far. That paper was also taken over and gutted of its independence over a year ago.
And the repression of alternative opinion has clearly gone up a level, likely triggered by anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s decision to return home. By jailing him, the Kremlin caused so much reputational damage it no longer matters what it does, so it has taken the opportunity to crush Navalny's organisation completely and has now moved on to crushing the main opposition media outlets too. The logic in Belarus is identical.
In the latest development Duma deputies have just passed a bill that effectively makes investigative reporting using the leaked databases that have been so effective in the hands of the likes of Bellingcat illegal.
But there is a clear double standard here. The Kremlin must be watching the Israeli rocket attacks on the AP building and wondering where the difference is between its attempts to curb embarrassing “anti-state” reporting and what the Israelis are doing – with the tacit, albeit reluctant, acceptance of the White House.
Maybe the story that best highlights the contradictory attitudes is in Ukraine, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has attacked Viktor Medvedchuk, one of the leaders For Life pro-Russian Party, the second-biggest in the Rada after Zelenskiy own Servant of the People (SOTP).
Medvedchuk was sanctioned early this year and was charged with treason last week, but part of the moves against him was to close his three TV stations that had a pro-Russia line. Unlike Navalny, Medvedchuk is a legitimate opposition leader representing the pro-Russian voter and his party holds 44 seats in the 425-seat parliament. The shuttering of these popular channels passed with none of Ukraine’s Western partners questioning the legitimacy of closing down broadcasters with a clear minority as a target audience.
The freedom of the press is under attack in both the West and the East, but how that is organised is very different. In the East (and central Europe) the elite simply take control of the press.
In the West it is controlled by businessmen with political agendas, or are flat out state-controlled media such as Radio Free Liberty or the BBC. The difference is a few firebreaks are installed so there are no direct connections to the government and a semi-credible claim of independence can be made. Privately owned truly independent media that have to compete with huge state-backed organisations with massive resources and that give all their content away for free make it almost impossible to run a truly independent commercially funded media organisation.