VISEGRAD: Will the sun shine on Visegrad TV?

VISEGRAD: Will the sun shine on Visegrad TV?
Newly in Warsaw's grip, Poland's state TV station has proposed a regional channel to its Visegrad peers. / Photo: CC
By Tim Gosling in Prague September 8, 2016

The head of Polish public TV reiterated this week a plan for the four Visegrad states to club together to create an English-language news channel. TV4 would challenge the likes of the BBC, France 24 and Deutsche Welle, said TVP CEO Jacek Kurski at the Krynica economic forum in southern Poland.

However, an outlet to "promote joint V4 values" sounds more like Russia's rabble rousing RT, and would likely only expose to a wider audience the disparities between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. That is, if they don't baulk at the bill beforehand and realise the potential audience numbers are probably insignificant.

The suggestion from the Polish media chief was first reported in early May at a meeting of board members from public media in Visegrad. At the time, Kurski – installed in January by the Polish government as part of a controversial move to put the country's state outlets under direct control (and then almost sacked in August) – stated that the four nations have common interests and share the same point of view on many political issues, according to Wirtualne Media.

Although the Visegrad Four (V4) insist that they form a unified group, the track record shows little consistency, to say the least. National interests always trump those of the group, prompting wildly contrasting stances on a range of issues. Although they share similar levels of development, heavy dependence on regional heavyweight Germany and general Euroscepticism, the quartet rarely finds agreement on specific issues, save their opposition to the EU's migrant quotas.

That suggests any attempt to run a state-sponsored editorial line would be tricky. Indeed, it's tempting to imagine that once the contentious issues had been dumped on the studio floor, TV4 would be left with nothing to report on at all, save for a spot of general EU bashing and the dangers of immigration.

Reflecting the splits, it was no coincidence that while the prime ministers of Hungary and Poland – the 'illiberal axis' – were full of praise for the idea, those from Czechia and Slovakia appeared considerably less enthusiastic.

"Given the reforms to come in the EU, we want to raise a new quality of communication. This is an excellent plan to make it happen," said Polish PM Szydlo. The channel could be up and running within two years, she forecast.

The godfather of Central European 'conservative populism' also sounds keen. It's a pity Visegrad didn't make the move to set up an English-language news service years ago, proclaimed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. It would have saved the countries from the ills of "post-communist media".

The revolution will be televised

Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski – Poland's real leader – put on a remarkable double act at Krynica, in a stage appearance replete with giggles and multiple mutual complements that the Financial Times claimed illustrates an ongoing "bromance". The pair pledged to wage a "cultural counter-revolution" together to radically reform a post-Brexit EU.

However, there is an elephant in the room whenever they meet, namely Russia, which would presumably be left off the editorial schedule of TV4. Kaczyznski's antipathy to all things Russian has no greater opposite than Orban's efforts to chummy up with President Putin.

Gazprom's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is also likely to prove taboo, splitting as it does Czechia from the group. But it's not just the specifics that could prove problematic for TV4 editors.

Orban and Kaczynski also pledged during their very public tete-a-tete to fight immigrants who "eliminate historical identities" and the "smell" of global capital. That sounds not so much like the commonly-held V4 objection to having immigration policy "dictated" by Brussels as it does a jump far to the right that's unlikely to go down well with the (nominally at least) centre-left parties that rule in Czechia and Slovakia.

Slovak PM Robert Fico illustrates the contrast best perhaps, after shifting this year from his earlier approach condemning Islam's presence in his country in all its forms. Suffering major scares both at the polls and the hospital, Fico has clearly lost his populist mojo.

Meanwhile, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka drew glares from Orban and Szydlo in June as he told a V4 press conference that rather than migrants and Brussels, it is populism and nationalism that pose the gravest threat to Europe. Despite the pledges of unity, the fundamental splits are becoming clearer, and Orban and Kaczynski egg one another on.

The idea of TV4 also exposes the differing approaches to state power amongst the Visegrad governments. On the one side, Hungary and Poland have pushed to take a grip of institutions across the board, including the media.

Earlier this year, Kaczynski's ruling Law & Justice (PiS) party implemented new legislation putting state media under the yoke of the government and stipulating a line extolling Catholic values, to suit his country's large religious electorate. That might fly in parts of Slovakia and Hungary – where Orban has pushed a similar agenda – but would likely rankle in Czechia, long one of the least religious countries in the world.

"The key lesson that both Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski (the leader and ideological father of PiS) learned from their previous terms in power (1998-2002 and 2005-07 respectively) was that cultural shifts were insufficient," Evghenia Sleptsova of Oxford Economics wrote in a report published on September 6. "In order to be successful, they needed to be accompanied by a capture of key institutions to eliminate checks and balances, particularly in the judiciary and the media, which is precisely what both did when coming back to power."

Ten months after Orban was elected for the second time in 2010, he moved to clamp down on the media by amending laws and imposing strict regulation on all outlets. The legislation was eased after EU intervention, "but 'soft censorship' persists," according to Sleptsova.

A new media regulator was set up, headed by a Fidesz stalwart. Public television channels were staffed with pro-Fidesz journalists, while more recently Budapest made efforts to wage heavy taxes on foreign media. Backroom deals via personal contacts and the granting of state contracts are, meanwhile, the main modus operandi, claim critics.

Kacynski moved much more quickly when he returned to power in late 2015. Within three months of taking office, PiS unveiled a new media law that subordinates state media outlets directly to the government. Management at all channels was replaced by PiS loyalists and many reporters sacked. A new National Media Board oversees the process of making state outlets into "national media" that follow "traditional, patriotic and Christian values".

Increasingly on the other side of the Visegrad equation, the leading parties in Czechia and Slovakia, without a single-party mandate, walk a far less belligerent line. Oxford Economics shows in the chart before that unlike Hungary and Poland, media freedom in the other two Visegrad states is either fully liberalized or partly so. Indeed, that is why so much of the sector is now under the yoke of a variety of oligarchs and politicians.

Budget broadcasting

There are more prosaic factors also standing in the way of Visegrad TV. The likes of the BBC are backed by worldwide reputations and links; RT and its ilk are backed by huge state budgets. The Russian outlet says it cost the Kremlin RUB21bn (€291mn) last year, although there are claims that the real figure is much higher. The World Service arm of the British broadcaster, funded by licence payers via the state, had a similar budget.

When it was being set up in the mid 2000s, RT launched a huge recruitment drive for the native-speaking editorial staff needed to operate a station broadcasting in English professionally, at least presentation-wise. The key was compensation. Even amongst the eye-watering salaries available in Moscow at the time, RT offered big money. Qatari state-owned Al Jazeera has a similar reputation for generous pay packages. Quite where Visegrad TV would find that sort of cash is unclear. Wages in the region are small compared with those in the UK and US, as well as for expats in Russia and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, when it comes to joint projects, petty bickering has long blighted progress across Central and Eastern Europe as insecure developing states jostle for status. That would likely make a decision on a home base for Visegrad TV a significant bump in the road.

On top of the questions about who pays and who hosts it, is who would watch it. The Visegrad diaspora is fairly limited compared with many others, and it's surely debateable just how big an international audience there is thirsting for coverage of world events from a Central European perspective, let alone a spotlight on the region's news. RT claims to have a daily audience of 35mn; that looks optimistic compared with the BBC's weekly draw of 348mn for all its services.  

Yet as the state funding model shows, the political edge – rather than commercial success – is the clear leading edge. RT was set up as a means to combat what the Kremlin insists is anti-Russian bias in US and Western European media. That remit has only grown as tension has blossomed in recent years, while in the West the channel is seen as a weapon in a propaganda war. Al Jazeera clearly has a role as an outlet for a Middle Eastern region also in the crosshairs of geopolitical struggle.

Quite where the motivation stems from for Visegrad to pump huge volumes of cash into a TV channel is unclear, apart from the efforts of populists like Orban and Kaczynski to promote themselves as international statesmen.