Under pressure

Media autonomy in CEE

How do political interventions work in the troubled world of central eastern European journalism, arts and academia? Can professionals avoid self-censorship, or how do they decide what circumstances not to put up with? Watch our Budapest debates.

The first part of the 31st European Meeting of Cultural Journals – entitled ‘Watch your mouth! Journalism now and tomorrow’ – was livestreamed from Budapest on Saturday 14 November. The discussion focused on the pressing issues facing independent publishing in central eastern Europe.

In the first of the two panel sessions – ‘Where do you see yourself in ten years?’ journalism students from Budapest’s ELTE Média (the Department of Media Studies at Loránd Eötvös University) and Corvinus University discussed their professional future in a country where independent journalism has been systematically undermined.

Framing the student panel’s prospects within the past ten years of Orbán-induced changes, moderator Dóra Laborczi – a journalist at Nők Lapja – acknowledged the contradictions between ideologies and the harsh realities facing a new generation of journalists.

Flóra Dóra Csatári spoke of her experience as a journalist at Telex.hu, the independent media company formed after political pressure on Index.hu, formerly Hungary’s premier independent news outlet, prompted its staff to walk out in July. The precarity that Csatári faces in her new profession is counteracted by the support she receives from senior journalists, she said. ELTE journalism student Dávid Malatinszky, who writes and photographs for Magyar Hang, commented on his similar experiences of positive mentorship when reporting from Bosnian refugee camps.

The panel recognized the additional strain on journalists depending on their gender. Kamilla Strausz presented research reflecting the imbalance of media references to men in the sector, referred to as ‘journalists’, and women, distinguished as ‘female journalists’. In Hungary, women are much more likely to be headlined for receiving personal threats than for their professional roles. The panel reflected on the stark contrast between high levels of women studying journalism and far fewer ultimately working in public affairs or reporting on domestic politics.

Anna Szilágyi talked about having found a calling but being discouraged by threats; she said that she feared that she could be forced to leave journalism out of concern for her family’s safety. She wondered whether doing journalism even made any sense in the face of editorial restrictions in pro-government media, or limitations on independent journalism resulting from a lack of sources and resources.

Nevertheless, despite realizing the many challenges to their professions, the panel presented an optimistic and determined stance among the younger generation of journalists in Hungary.

In the second panel – ‘How to deal with political pressure’ – practising journalists, academics and cultural practitioners from the region discussed individual and institutional responses to political interference.

Journalist András Földes, a long-time reporter at Index.hu and co-founder of Telex.hu, described political pressure in Hungary as a gradual accumulation of personal and economic factors. The sacking of Index.hu editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull in July marked the point at which editorial independence, as guaranteed in the company’s statute, finally became impossible. Földes stressed that Index.hu was not politically partisan and wouldn’t have wanted to identify as opposition media even under the Orbán administration. The fact that their readers came from across the political spectrum was due to Index’s neutrality, he said. This had been its best protection and remains the credo of Telex.

Lukáš Fila, CEO of the Slovakian newspaper Denník N., reported a similar experience – albeit in a political system in which, despite the combination of an illiberal government and oligarchic interests, has in the last decade been less centralized. In 2014, Slovakian conglomerate Penta acquired the majority ownership of the newspaper SME, prompting a walk-out of its editorial board. For Fila, then SME’s deputy editor-in-chief, political pressure had come in degrees. The decision to leave was taken by individuals and not as a collective initiative, as they wouldn’t have wanted to wait until things got worse. Only when they realized they were in the majority did the dissenting editors resolve to start up Denník N.

Hungary’s internationally renowned theatre scene is another area of the cultural sector to be facing political pressure. Although cronyism has been eroding artistic independence for a decade, the pandemic has offered the Orbán government new ways to undermine the sector. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian independent theatres have been abandoned by the state, while the only funds available are made conditional upon political deference.

Anna Lengyel, director of the Panodráma ensemble, was one of the organizers of the 2019 December demonstration of theatres, which brought thousands of people onto the streets in protest at these developments. But she was also highly critical of citizens who place personal convenience before political freedom. There is no direct repression in the country, Lengyel said; the worst that can happen is that one loses one’s job. And while the EU cannot be expected to offer salvation, it should at least ensure that the funds it provides to governments such as Orbán’s are fully accounted for.

In the 2018 elections in Slovenia, Janez Janša won the largest share of the vote after a campaign based on xenophobia and Islamophobia. Since becoming prime minister this year, Janša and his governing rightwing coalition have used the pandemic to repress NGOs, the independent cultural sector and the media. Slovenian academia largely is acquiescent, said the philosopher and media observer Boris Vezjak; outspoken critics such as himself are ostracized and subject to hate speech.

But developments are not all bad. On the contrary: in five years Denník N has gained 60,000 digital subscribers, enough to make the 100 person-strong operation self-sufficient – an extraordinary success, given Slovakia’s small market. With huge political improvements since the murder of Ján Kuciak in 2018, political pressure seems to have weakened in Slovakia. Denník N has recently set up a sister outlet in the Czech Republic, Deník N, whose subscriptions are rising steadily. In Hungary, Telex is considering following suit after a hugely popular donation campaign. But whether profitability alone will decide its future remains to be seen. 

Published 6 December 2020
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Eurozine

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