Sun, Dec 03, 2017 - Page 7 News List

How money and politics are killing the independent media

After the left-leaning ‘Nepszabadsag’ paper was shut down overnight in Hungary, many fear liberal outlets in Europe and the rest of the world are at risk

By Andrew MacDowall and Bibi van der Zee  /  The Guardian

When staff at Hungary’s left-leaning Nepszabadsag newspaper packed up their possessions one Friday night a year ago, they thought they were just moving across town.

As it happened, they were moving out altogether. Within hours, the paper had been shut down, literally overnight. Within weeks, ownership of the other publications in the group had been transferred to a new holding company linked to Lorinc Meszaros, an oligarch ally of populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and mayor of Orban’s hometown.

“It was an ambush,” deputy editor Marton Gergely said. “All the circumstances spoke against economic reasons for closing the newspaper down suddenly. We felt betrayed, lied about, cynically played. There were journalists close to retirement worried about their pensions. There were photographers, technical staff, and not all of them were opposed to Orban.”

Nepszabadsag, which had suffered a decline in circulation and heavy losses according to claims from the owners, was no isolated instance.

Across central and eastern Europe — and indeed in other parts of the world — political and economic forces are combining to put independent media under unbearable pressure.

The combination of falling newspaper circulations and ad revenues has shattered the business model and left newspapers weakened and vulnerable to both political and corporate pressure. Some fear that as a result, the ideal of journalistic independence is being critically compromised.

In Poland, for example, liberal outlets claim that they are now unfairly treated by the center-right government, which they say uses economic means to gain political ends.

“Since autumn 2015, there has been a drastic reduction — sometimes a complete ban — of subscription to some newspapers by public institutions, targeted mostly against two weeklies, Polityka, Newsweek and Gazeta Wyborcza, which criticise the ruling party,” Gazeta Wyborcza deputy editor-in-chief Piotr Stasiski said.

“There has been a total withdrawal of state-owned companies’ ads from critical media. These have been transferred to many [pro-government] media outlets. This has led to a loss of advertising and circulation revenue,” he said.

This is a common complaint across the region, said media investment expert Luka Oreskovic.

“From Poland and Hungary and all the way to the chronic state-sponsored pressures on media in the western Balkans — governmental action in the form of withholding public sector advertising, conducting repeated tax raids via state tax authorities, and restricting freedom of speech through the introduction of repressive and restrictive media legislation has had a negative impact on the quality of public discourse,” he said.

“These are powerful tools for curtailing media freedom and independence, as they can have — and have had — a tremendous impact on the financial health of stand-alone media outlets,” Oreskovic added.

“The economic volatility of media is an enormous challenge for journalism,” said former French Secretary of State for European Affairs Harlem Desir, who is now the Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

“It is more difficult to find resources to finance independent and qualitative journalism. Furthermore, media ownership concentration is speeding up. This endangers pluralism and it also means that in some areas, local media are simply disappearing,” he said.

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