By Aurora Herrera

“Backslide”. This seems to be the word most used to describe what’s happening to public broadcasting and independent media in parts of central Europe.

Governments of countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are creating repressive laws, capturing media organisations and strangling media outlets by pulling advertising, resulting in what has been described as the ‘chilling’ of free speech.

The situation in these countries is particularly shocking from the perspective of the European Union as there are media regulations in place that all members are expected to abide by.

Media pluralism has been a particular issue of interest in Europe since the 1980s. According to the research of media lawyer and communication scholar Jedrzej Skryzpczak; starting from the 1980s, the  European Union observed issues of media concentration as a potential threat to freedom of expression and media freedom.

1990  – The European Parliament issued a resolution on media takeovers and mergers after a demand directed to the European Commission to devise unique media regulation. This was found difficult due to the specific role and responsibilities of the media in sovereign and democratic European countries.

1992 – These legislative differences resulted in the Commission adopting the Green Paper, ‘Pluralism and media concentration in the internal market an assessment of the need for community action’.

1994 – The European Parliament adopted the resolution on pluralism and media concentration. The necessity of establishing independent authorities for media-related matters was noted.

1995– The consultation process ended with the opinion of the Economic and Social Committee stating that the upper limit of monomedia market share should be  30% and multimedia concentration market share at 10%.

1997– Reservations expressed that these limits should not be applicable to broadcasters exceeding limits in just one country.

2002 – The European  Parliament  adopted the  resolution  on media  concentration  obliging the  European  Commission to  take  action with  regard  to media capital concentration in the digital era. It was emphasised that “the development of new technology and of new communications and information services should respect and guarantee the maintenance of media pluralism, cultural diversity and democratic values”.

2007– The European Commission adopted a working document entitled  “Media pluralism  in the  Member  States of  the  European Union” which was intended to devise a report concerning the media market in the EU, to verify  media  pluralism and to  develop  guidelines for  states  which, according to the above criteria, would not comply with the standards.

It should be noted that the general declaration of media pluralism was included in Article 11.2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

However, due to no detailed  regulations regarding  the  media sector,  the  legal basis  for its control was Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and, in particular, the Regulation of the Council of the European Communities No 4064/89 of 21 December 1989 on the control of concentrations between undertakings.

Source: Media ownership regulation in Europe – a threat or opportunity for freedom of speech? Credit: Jedrzej Skryzpczak/Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań


In 2016, conservative Polish President Andrzej Duda signed laws which allowed his government’s treasury minister the ability to remove directors of public television and radio outlets and hire new organisation heads. In a 2016 BBC article, it was written that the “EU Commission suspects Poland may be jeopardising EU values.”

In that same article, Malgorzata Sadurska, a Polish presidential spokeswoman, said that President Duda had signed the laws because he wanted the public media to be “impartial, objective and reliable”. This statement was based on his party’s rhetoric that “journalists on public service channels are biased against [the Law and Justice Party] in their coverage.

Within the Polish constitution of 1997 the media is guaranteed freedom of the press. The constitution also prohibits both preventive censorship and licensing requirements. Further safeguards to press freedom exist in the Polish Press Law of 1984, the Broadcasting Act of 1992 as well as within the mandate of the National Broadcasting council Krajowa Rada Radiofonii i Telewizji (KRRRiT), which aims to “safeguard the freedom of speech, the right to information, and the public interest in radio and television broadcasting”.

Telewizja Polska S.A.(TVP S.A) is the only public TV broadcaster in Poland. It is the largest Polish television network, with 13 national and 16 regional channels. In addition to the public broadcaster, there are more than 200 commercial media outlets.

Normally, this proliferation of media organisations should assuage concern over media pluralism. On the contrary, all outlets are fielding pressures from the government.

In an article published by Foreign Policy (FP), editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza Adam Michnik expressed grave concerns about the state of the media in Poland as well as his own safety.

“Anything could happen,” he said. “They could send militia to Wyborcza’s office. I might find drugs in my apartment, and the next day the police could come to search my home.”

A 2015 reform allowed the Polish government to appoint the heads of public broadcasters, sparking fears they could be turned into mouthpieces for the governing party. Credit: Deutsche Welle/Youtube

The FP article goes on to say that “As PiS took control of public companies and the courts over the past few years, it was also gutting public broadcasting, firing hundreds of journalists at Poland’s public television and radio networks, and installing staunch party loyalists.”

As for the private media outlets PiS finds at fault, “Since it started to take control of Polish state companies, one of PiS’s moves has been to cancel advertising purchases from these companies for media outlets that questioned the party’s policies.”

The FP article quotes data from British research company Kantar Media. According to this data, during the first seven months of 2017, Gazeta Wyborcza received roughly $520,000 in advertising revenue from state companies and various Polish ministries. For the same period in 2018, the amount fell to about $55,000. As ad revenue dropped, publications that supported the government received large increases, including a 700 percent jump in state company ad purchasing at the conservative magazine Do Rzeczybetween 2015 and 2016.

Legal attacks are also a major concern for Polish media. Jaroslaw Kurski, the deputy editor of GazetaWyborcza noted over 30 legal proceedings filed against the paper. “They are trying to provoke a chilling effect,” he said. “We are flooded by dozens of appeals. Our legal services have a lot of trouble handling all this.

In addition to this dire situation is the intention to “repolonise” Polish media, a move that further consolidates power in the hands of the state.

According to a report published on Euronews, Jaroslaw Gowin, Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister was quoted as saying, “A self-respecting nation and a self-respecting people cannot allow most of the media to be in foreign hands, and this is a task our government faces if we remain in power in the next term”.

A report by Freedom House entitled “The Assault on Press Freedom in Poland,” emphasises the connection between the attacks on public broadcasting to the decline of a truly democratic nation.

PiS’s changes to the media landscape are alarming. In the short term, they mean that public television is feeding voters the party line every night.

Author of the report, Annebelle Chapman writes, “With respect to Poland’s endurance as a democracy, PiS’s changes to the media landscape are alarming. In the short term, they mean that public television is feeding voters the party line every night. This creates a bias that goes against the very idea of a “public broadcaster.”

Chapman goes on to point out the importance of the public broadcaster in the run up to elections.

“The 2019 legislative elections and their aftermath will be crucial to determining whether Poland remains a democracy in more than name. In the longer term, PiS’s politicisation of the public media could leave these institutions permanently scarred, setting a precedent for future administrations to sack the incumbent officials and replace them with loyalists of their own. This is not in the interest of Polish viewers or of Poland’s continued development as a democracy based on political pluralism, open debate, and compromise.”

On the 30th anniversary of Gazeta Wyborcza’s first edition – first published in 1989 – Kurski co-wrote an editorial in which he reflected sentiments that echo national and international alarm over Poland’s situation. “There is a proverb in Poland—don’t worry when it’s bad because it’s going to get better. Worry when it’s good because it might get worse. Unfortunately, we were not worried enough.”


The situation in Hungary is even bleaker than that of Poland. In fact, Hungary is credited as the country that revamped media capture across Europe.

Media capture is a process by which governments, oligarchs, commercial interests capture the media industry through ownership. These organisations then lose editorial independence and therefore the ability to effectively represent the interests of the public and hold power to account.

In December 2018, thousands of Hungarians demonstrated in front of the headquarters of MTVA, the public service broadcaster, demanding its independence.

Earlier this year, Sven Giegold, a member of the European Parliament (MEP), commissioned a report on the level of independence of Hungarian media. The report produced by media monitor Mérték revealed that almost 78% of the media are pro-government.

Giegold’s comments echoed those of Jaroslaw Kurski, the deputy editor of GazetaWyborcza. He said, “Hungary is a particularly frightening example of what happens when you simply watch for too long instead of insisting on respecting the fundamental value [of press freedom].” “

He went on to speak about the responsibility of the EU saying that, “[They] must finally make the protection of press freedom a priority and take action against state media concentration.”

However, the actions of leaders in Poland and Hungary emphasise how difficult it can be for the EU to act when governments transgress their own laws and international commitments.

one of his first actions was to pass a law strengthening state regulation of the media industry.

When Orbán came to power in 2010, one of his first actions was to pass a law strengthening state regulation of the media industry. This move definitively changed the media landscape within the country by weakening the independence of public broadcasters and transferring power to the hands of the newly created Media Council, a new body controlled by government-appointed members who could flex their powers unreservedly.

According to an article in VOA News, the law passed by Orbán  was described as, “the way the press had been treated during Hungary’s Communist era and under other totalitarian regimes.”

The European Federation of Journalists quotes an interview with the German public broadcaster, ARD, where a former journalist of the Hungarian press agency, Janos Karpati, talked about the language regulations for refugee reports. He said, “You have to choose the term ‘illegal migrants’ – even if it’s obviously about people fleeing life-threatening situations.”

The new Media Council has the power to decide whether a publication has the broken rules of “balanced and ‘moral’ reporting,” the perimeters of which is completely defined by them. If they do find a media organisation in breach of this law, they can issue fines of more than $100,000 from print and internet media and close to $1 million for broadcasters.

This law unmistakably chills the media landscape, which can result in self-censorship and the breakdown of media freedoms.

Like President Duda, Orbán and members of his party Fidez, have also strangled media organisations by drying up advertising revenue and redistributing it to party supporters.

A December 2018 report by BBC Newsnight exploring “What’s behind Hungary’s protests?” Credit: BBC Newsnight/Youtube

In an article by Harlan Mandel, the CEO of the New-York based Media Investment Development Fund, the author commented on this move by President Duda saying, “Unsurprisingly, this made media companies vulnerable to takeover. The ruling party’s allies quickly bought one media outlet after another, often using generous loans from state-controlled banks to do so. As a final step, late last year the oligarchs established Central European Press and Media Foundation, and donated all their media outlets – some 476– to this single controlling organisation.”

Hungary has fallen 31 places in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index since 2013.  They are now ranked 87/180.

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is also dealing with similar issues. Whilst it is not facing authoritarian-like laws, both the President Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babišhave already executed plans to erode the public broadcasting service and suffocate Czech media.

Days after Zeman came to power, Tomio Okamura, leader of the pro-Putin and anti-Islam populist Freedom and Direct Democracy party, made the call to nationalise public media. Babišand other rich businessmen have also bought up several print, broadcasting and online media outlets.

In an article by Transitions Online, Okamura is quoted as saying, “If anyone has problems with financing, it is Czech Radio and Czech Television,” Okamura said. “And we want to change that. We want to abolish the license fees (paid to the public media by every household by law), and nationalise (the public media).”

The report also explains that public media could be at risk on the Parliamentary level. According to Czech law, every other year the lower house of Parliament elects one-third of the members of the supervisory boards, whom then serve six years.

Yet this board can also be dismantled by the parliament if the lower house rejects the public broadcaster’s annual budget or annual operations twice in a row. This is of particular concern following the 2017 election, which produced a majority in the lower house.

Added to this threat, media outlets are being bought up by the Prime Minister. An article by the Christian Science Monitor states that the Prime Minister owns 21 publications, a radio station, and two TV channels. Not uncoincidentally, the Reuters Institute Digital News Reportreported that public trust in the news fell 33% in the last year.

The report goes on to say that, “this move has marked the near-completion of the process of print media takeover by domestic businessmen – a notable change from several years ago when foreign investors dominated the market.” 


Unfortunately, public media in other Central European countries are also suffering from political pressure – even those considered to represent more consolidated democracies. A report by the Centre for Media Plurality and Freedom raised alarm over the influence of political control on media, their lack of political autonomy, as well as concentration of media ownership in Austria.

 The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) wrote about a rift between Alexander Wrabetz, director-general of the public broadcaster ORF and journalists. According to the article, Wrabetz sent a memo to journalists and presenters in the organisation’s TV and radio services warning them not to tweet or post on Facebook messages that criticise politicians. This included refraining from commenting on politics on their private social media feeds.

Several ORF presenters responded on Twitter including Radio Home Affairs Correspondent Stefan Kapacher who said on the Ganz offen gesagt podcast that, “This is like a muzzle for us”.

Nightmare becoming reality

At a time when the core values of public media are more needed than ever, they are being taken apart.

Simultaneously, the “chill factor” facing independent news media is manifesting not just through libel and defamation suits, but through softer forms of intimidation resulting in imposed as well as self-censorship – the death knell for independent journalism.

These threats to public media across the region, coupled with a rise in violence towards journalists, is of serious concern for the Public Media Alliance. We call for meaningful action by governments to ensure the independence of public media organisations and ensure access to impartial and quality journalism that holds power to account and underpins effective democracy.


Header Image: Cracow, Poland – January 9, 2016: The demonstration of the Committee of the Defence of the Democracy KOD for free media /wolne media/ and democracy against PIS government. Cracow , Poland. Credit: wjarek/iStock