For democracy to work, the media must be free

Supporting and protecting independent media has never been more important. For citizens to make an informed choice between different policy options, they must indeed know the precise facts on which to base their choices.

The Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine have highlighted the crucial role of the media, both as purveyors of unbiased information and as a bulwark against fake news and propaganda.

While in recent years several countries in emerging Europe have adopted, intensified or are considering measures to improve the safety and working conditions of journalists, progress has not been uniform across the region, with some countries even backsliding.

That propaganda, disinformation and fake news have the potential to polarize public opinion, promote violent extremism and hate speech and ultimately undermine democracies and reduce trust in processes democratic, this is not news. It’s definitely not fake news, it’s happening.

Nor can any of these things be said to be a new phenomenon. Propaganda has been around almost as long as the human race, but the scale of the problem has certainly never been greater, and it is a problem that Russia’s war against Ukraine – which, remember, Russia doesn’t even want us to call it a war – again worked out.

The Council of Europe recently published data suggesting that two-thirds of EU citizens say they have received fake news at least once a week – and it’s fake news they can recognize.

If fake news that they cannot recognize was included, the percentage would be even higher.

Equally serious are the statistics which suggest that more than 80% of EU citizens say they see fake news both as a problem for their country and for democracy in general.

András Arató, director and CEO of independent Hungarian radio station Klubrádió, is someone who is more aware of pressure on the media and its impact on democracy in general than many others in the region. Emerging Europe.

Hungary is a negative example of how quickly media freedom, even in an EU member state, can be eroded. In Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index for 2006, Hungary was 10th out of more than 160 countries. In the latest edition, he is 92nd.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s regime forced Klubrádió, who was often critical of the Hungarian government, off the air last year. Klubrádió had been in Orbán’s sights for years – after the 2010 legislative elections, the station nearly went bankrupt as companies stopped advertising on it, fearing political consequences. It continues to broadcast, as an internet station.

“What do you do if you want to establish an autocracy and a dictatorship? First, you want to control the information. What do you need to control the information? Your first step must be to take the power away from the media,” he says.

Government propaganda

Arató was one of many media professionals and academics who took part in a discussion of propaganda and fake news at the Emerging Europe Summit and Awards, held in Brussels in June.

Another was Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, associate professor of strategic communication and European studies at Lund University in Sweden. It highlights a common problem across emerging Europe: the purveyors of fake news and propaganda are often state actors.

“On the one hand, we have this kind of government propaganda, while on the other, we have a certain reluctance of citizens to engage in the news,” she says.

“There is a decreasing interest from ordinary people to read news about economics, politics, etc. Overall, as a trend, people refuse to engage in current affairs because it makes them sad, depressed or because it upsets families, it causes conflict.

Segesten says these two tendencies create an environment where propaganda or falsehoods have “a breeding ground to thrive.”

According to Teresa Ribeiro, media freedom representative at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the OSCE region is experiencing a sharp decline in media freedom.

“It’s clearly a trend of autocratic governments increasingly using disinformation to shape international and domestic opinion in their favour,” she says.

To counter this, she says, we need to use the right instruments.

“Let’s not forget that freedom of expression protects propaganda and disinformation, but when the propaganda is for war or the propaganda promotes religious, racial or national hatred, then we must act.

“But we have to be very careful about the huge challenges ahead of us. What I see every day are new laws that presumably aim to tackle misinformation and fake news, but that can lead to silencing critical voices. We have to be very careful when dealing with this problematic issue.

A wake up call

Zuzana Papazoski, resident senior director for Eastern Europe at the National Democratic Institute, adds that the war in Ukraine has been a wake-up call for many.

“More attention should be paid to monitoring propaganda,” she argues, also pointing to the fact that women and minorities are often the main victims of online violence.

“Greater attention should be paid to tackling online violence against women, especially around elections, as well as gender misinformation and the different tactics used to scare women,” she says.

The European Union is currently preparing a draft law on freedom of the press, led by the vice-president of the commission in charge of values ​​and transparency, Věra Jourová. It is designed to preserve media pluralism and independence amid growing concerns about ownership and potential government interference.

For András Arató, finance is key. “We must find ways to fund independent media in countries where media freedom does not exist,” he suggests.

For Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, digital and media education is the “fundamental springboard” for knowing how to distinguish what is wrong from what is correct.

“[Digital and media literacy] can encourage critical engagement with current events,” she says.

Whether the answer to the problems facing Europe’s emerging media landscape is finance or education – or both, a clear conclusion from the Brussels discussion is that supporting and protecting independent media has never been more important. .

If free and accurate information is not available to everyone, democracy cannot work.

Andras Arato, Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, Zuzana Papazoski, Teresa Ribeiro and Yegor Gordeev spoke with Craig Turp of Emerging Europe at the Future of Emerging Europe Summit & Awards in Brussels in June. You can watch the full discussion below.

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