Nowhere in the world there is so much freedom of the press as in Europe, but through fake news, oppression and intimidation, journalism across the continent is under pressure. Reporters without Borders (RSF) concluded this week with the publication of the annual ranking of countries with the most freedom of the press.
The Netherlands fell, for the third year in a row, a spot on the index and is now in sixth place, behind four Scandinavian countries and Costa Rica. RSF writes about the Netherlands: “The government gives the press too little access to information, intelligence services violate the privacy of journalists and populist politicians discredit the media.”
Hungary (92) and Bulgaria (112) score the worst of all EU countries. Furthermore, the steady decline in Poland (from 62 to 64) is also noticeable. It seems to be a far-of-my bed show, but in the Netherlands, press freedom can also be jeopardised, warning editors from these countries in conversation with DeccEit.
“ It happens in small steps,” says Teodora Peeva, editor in chief of the Bulgarian newspaper Sega. “It is a slow process of years,” says Veronika Munk, who leads the Hungarian news site Telex.
The experiences of the editors in chief show a remarkable number of similarities. With a similar step-by-step plan, the press in their country is silenced. “Its all very transmission,” says Péter Peto, editor in chief of Hungarys largest news site, 24.hu. “Thats why Western European countries dont know how autocratic leaders operate.”
Step 1: Trainate the work
It starts with seemingly innocent steps, says Peeva about her experiences in Bulgaria. “First you find it difficult to get information separately from the authorities, then your questions will not be answered at all.” Access to public sources or press meetings can also be denied. “Press conferences are held here in Bulgaria without the presence of press. Prime Minister Borissov has not spoken to the media in over a year.”
“ It is made extremely difficult for us to get in touch with the government,” says Telex editor-in-chief Veronika Munk. As an example, she cited the issue of Szajer, where a prominent Hungarian politician was caught at an illegal sex party in Brussels. Questioning directors about the scandal was made difficult because near the Prime Ministers office the collected press was kept at bay by agents.
Munk says it jeopardizes the information supply. That becomes painfully clear at the moment, during the coronapandemic. “The coronata askforce hasnt answered any of our questions yet, nor are we welcome in hospitals.”
Step 2: Harassment
When a journalist is really difficult, intimidation follows, the Bulgarian Teodora Peeva. “A colleague had to report to the police station recently because he had asked questions about crackdown police intervention during protests. He was interrogated there for a while without a lawyer, that was pure harassment.”
Step 3: Limit funding
Also effective: squeezing earnings. It can be done in different ways. For example, Poland is introducing a new advertising tax this year, which means that independent media companies are afraid to go down. In the meantime, investments are being made in public service broadcasting, which in Poland serves as the voice of the government.
In addition, a government can stop advertising critical media companies, thereby removing a large source of income. “Even private companies are under pressure to stop buying ads from such newspapers,” says SEGA editor Teodora Peeva. “That costs us money and makes tremendously insecure.”
Step 4: Get control over media companies
In several Central and Eastern European countries, media companies have been bought up by businessmen loyal to the ruling elite in recent years. In this way, several critical Hungarian and Bulgarian newspapers suddenly became government-minded. In Poland, a large publisher was recently purchased by state oil company PKN Orlen, according to its own words without ideological purposes. The takeover has been temporarily suspended at the courts order.
In 2016, Péter Peto was Deputy Editor of the Hungarian influential left-wing newspaper Népszabadság. It was unexpectedly lifted by the publisher after a series of corruption articles. A political decision, according to Peto, because the owner was in circles around Prime Minister Orbán.
Veronika Munk has the same experience. Until last year she worked for news site Index, which also fell into the hands of an Orbán confidant. The editor in chief was suddenly fired.
That led to protests in the streets of Budapest:
Munk then left with dozens of colleagues at Index and started news site Telex, which is largely based on donations. “There appears to be a need for independent news. Never before has there beenpaid so much for online news. That is hopeful.”
How to recover?
If it is up to the Bulgarian editor-in-chief Peeva, European subsidies will now be linked to the degree of freedom of the press in a Member State. “But the damage to the freedom of the press is not easy to repair, because it has been overlooked.”
Her advice to the Dutch press is therefore: be alert to the slightest or slightest impairment of press freedom. “And stand up against it, united as a profession.”
According to Péter Peto, this does not mean that journalists should become political activists as guardians of democracy. “Just keep doing your job: telling the truth. That is our mission, and with it you show love for your country.”