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Media for the People: Protecting Public Service Media from Political Interference

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The fourth NEWSOCRACY Conference, was hosted by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) on 12 December 2019 in Budapest, Hungary. ECPMF organised the conference in collaboration with the Budapest Center for Independent Journalism (CIJ). Different from previous conferences, this one was bold in many ways; from the location where it was held, to the theme it tackled and the background of its attendees. The speakers certainly did not beat about the bush in expressing the challenges being faced by public service media (PSM) across the European Union (EU), but they also presented solutions. It is no wonder it attracted a diverse audience of nearly a hundred participants from across Europe: from Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Belgium, and beyond. Speakers were drawn from academia, politics, leadership, partner organisations and the media.

Location

The location was particularly apt to tackle how to protect PSM. In a recent report by seven European and international media organisations, including the ECPMF, they denounced Hungary’s government for having, “systematically dismantled media independence, freedom and pluralism, distorted the media market and divided the journalistic community.”

It became clear during the conference that PSM, which is supposed to be for all Hungarians, is instead being used as a mouthpiece of the government. The Vice-Mayor of Budapest, Gábor Kerpel-Fronius, who joined the conference, in the stead of the Mayor, described the media landscape in Hungary as the government “doing two-fold communications: one for domestic purposes, and the other for [the] international level”

“We [Kerpel-Fronius and his centrist opposition party, Momentum Mozgalom] don’t want to create a new counter-propaganda but a balanced media and information system in Budapest.” He was speaking at a podium session, in an interview conducted by Dóra Diseri, a journalist at the Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe (n-ost).

Theme

The focus this year was: Protecting Public Service Media from Political Interference. Speakers around Europe, including from, Austria, Czech Republic and Serbia demonstrated that symptoms of political interference can be found across the region. Interventions from Poland and Bulgaria, gave insights in EU member states, where the situation is sometimes even worse. Pál Dániel Rényi, a Hungarian political journalist at 444.hu, in his presentation gave several examples of political interference in Hungarian PSM.

And Barbara Trionfi, Director of the International Press Institute (IPI) presented the results of the recent advocacy mission, mentioned above, to show how the media pluralism situation, state advertising and other key findings relate to the landscape of PSM in Hungary, which was described as having been turned into a propaganda machine. Darija Fabijanic from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung presented the Foundation’s new book, A Pillar of Democracy on Shaky Ground – Public Service Media in South East Europe.

Atilla Mong, a former public radio journalist in Hungary before Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010, moderated a highly engaging session on the political infiltration of public service media in Europe, pondering the domino effect. In her contribution, Rubina Möhring, as part of the panel, president of Reporters without Borders Austria, based on her experience in Austria and across the EU emphasised,

the EU has to speak with one voice – there is need for new rules to be developed for independent media.”

Protection of Public Service Media against Political Interference - A Task for Whom?

There was shock and reflection in the audience on whose task it really is to protect public service media against political interference, after the Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Ramona Strugariu shared that, “there was an inter-group on wine… but none on media freedom.” To which institution should we therefore look toward for leadership when the EU fails to speak with one voice about protecting PSM, and does not seem to have media freedom as a clear priority? What can we do? Who will protect PSM?

Alternatives that were offered were considerations for education and training so as to ensure there was an enhancement of media literacy. There was unanimous agreement that there is need to train children in schools, as well as adults, to understand the significance of PSM for democracy. This was stated as being the right of every EU citizen to access PSM, and therefore, the need for an EU body to monitor and regulate PSM within the Union.

Martin Hoffman, EIJC, moderated the session on German Public Service Media with Dr Jan Schulte-Kellinghaus, programme director of RBB (ARD) on how they are financed, how they stay independent and the checks and balances that they employ. Schulte-Kellinghaus:

The way we are financed guarantees our independence; we are financed household fees, which is checked by an independent commission, and not the government."

Conclusions – Summing up impressions from the NEWSOCRACY Conference

In conclusion, we asked, has public service media been wholly captured? And to this the answer was partly yes, especially for some countries in Europe. "Why is this trend [of decline] so strong everywhere?" To know what kind of protection works, we need "profound and coherent analysis", Danish media expert Jacob Mollerup said. The worrying trend is the lack of political will to ensure media is free. Ilcho Cvetanoski; Research Fellow at the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT), presenting a dossier on media capture in Europe, pointed out that, “there is lack of political will to protect and promote independence and professionalism in Public Service Media, which leaves media exposed to capture.”

Nevertheless, we must strive to ensure PSM is free and independent and discussants agreed that one effective way of achieving this is to ensure independence in financing. Through licence fees, PSM will not be left exposed to the state but will be independent to design its own content and serve, all citizens. Be it to inform them, educate them and entertain them as are fundamental roles of media in any given society. MEP Stelios Kouloglu was eager to remind of the imperative of PSM, in his presentation, as he said:

“We need Public Service Media to promote culture, democracy, and to inform the public on social justices like corruption.”

Finally, if you don’t share it on social media, it didn’t happen, so here is the ECPMF twitter thread on the conference, under the hashtag - #NEWSOCRACY19:

The event was supported by the European Commission, Free State of Saxony, City of Leipzig and the Goethe Institut Budapest.

Pictures @Andreas Lamm/ECPMF.