Media Freedom in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia: letter to MEPs ahead of March 10 debate

Press-ECPMF

09 March 2021

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Dear Members of the European Parliament,

Article 11 of the European Union’s Charter on Fundamental Rights is under threat as media freedom and media pluralism deteriorates alarmingly in Hungary and Poland.

Over the past decade, Fidesz has perfected the process of state capture of media. Through the misuse of legislative, regulatory and administrative tools it has muzzled critical media while building a vast array of government cheerleaders that dominate the national media landscape.

The failure of the EU to act has emboldened the Hungarian government and now Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government is cherry-picking elements of the Hungarian model to fit the Polish system.

The model of media capture is a subtle, complex and direct threat to the public’s right to know. It is carried out through indirect means or formally independent bodies, providing governments with plausible deniability when accused of dismantling of media freedom.

Yet the effects are clear. Independent journalism is under unprecedented threat as the two governments distort and reshape the media market to their advantage, with damaging implications for both media freedom and democracy in Europe.

Similar developments are also apparent in Slovenia where the SDS government is attacking public service media and stoking hostility towards critical journalists whilst backed up by a media operation with significant investments from Fidesz linked companies.

The EU has sat on the sidelines for too long. Repeated inaction to stop the undermining of media freedom and pluralism first in Hungary, and then in Poland, has allowed this model of media capture to grow and spread to other Member States. The cost of further inaction is simply too high. It is time for the European Commission to act.

 

In particular we call upon the commission to

  • Open investigations into the two complaints brought against the Hungarian government by Mertek Media Monitor, former MEP Benedek Javor and Klubradió for breach of EU state aid rules
    •  Complaint No. 53108 from 2019 on the abuse and discriminatory application of state advertising to starve independent outlets and reward pro-government outlets in breach of EU Article 107 TFEU
    •  Complaint 45463 from 2016 on the anti-competitive mode of funding the public broadcaster which acts as a state broadcaster.
  • Investigate the measures taken against Budapest’s Klubrádió, and to examine if the ruling not to renew the broadcast licence broke EU law on non-discrimination and proportionality.
  • Investigate the use of Poland’s state-controlled oil company, PKN Orlen, to purchase private media and to monitor its impact on media pluralism and editorial independence
  • Strengthen powers of the European Commission to protect media pluralism and independence, whether through strengthening the Rule of Law mechanism or the European Democracy Action Plan
  • Support the development of an anti-SLAPP directive to protect media against abusive lawsuits such as those used in Poland against Gazeta Wyborcza and other independent media outlets.
  • Ensure that EU recovery funds are not abused by governments to further their capture of media by unduly rewarding their supporters at the expense of independent media

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For further information see

ANALYSIS: ‘The Hungary model’: How Poland copied illiberal tactics for weakening independent media

MFRR REPORT: Erosion of Media Freedom Gathers Pace in Poland

LETTER: Commissioner Vestager: European Commission must urgently address media market distortion in Hungary

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Signatures

Association of European Journalists (AEJ-Belgium)

ARTICLE 19

Committee to Protect Journalists

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom

European Federation of Journalists

Free Press Unlimited

Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights

Index on Censorship

International Media Support

International Press Institute

Mertek Media Monitor

OBC Transeuropa

PEN International

Reporters Without Borders

Slovene Association of Journalists

Society of Journalists (Warsaw)

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)

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ANNEX

Summary of Recent Developments in Poland and Hungary damaging media pluralism

 

In Poland

– Independent media organised a news blackout in protest against a new tax on advertising revenue that would strike independent media harshest.

– In December, the state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen took over German-owned Polska Press, giving it indirect control over 20 regional dailies, 120 weekly magazines and 500 online portals across the country and access to an estimated 7.4 million readers in the run up to 2023 local elections

– In November, PKN Orlen purchased the newspaper distribution company Ruch, a network of 1,300 newspaper kiosks

– Government allies have launched a stream of vexatious lawsuits against independent and investigative media, including over 50 against liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza

– State advertising funds have been withdrawn from independent media, further draining revenue, and redirected to finance a bubble of pro-government media.

– In 2020 Gazeta Wyborcza was the only newspaper to be entirely excluded from the government’s Covid-19 public health campaign, denying the newspaper revenue and its hundreds of thousands of readers access to important health information

– Meanwhile plans for the ‘repolonisation’ and ‘deconcentration’ of media in the name of creating grater pluralism are, in reality, covers for the dismantling of independent media companies which can then bought by pro-government business allies or state enterprises.

– Without assertive action, we are likely to see the wholesale withdrawal of independent investors (including foreign investors) in Polish media, as has taken place in Hungary, as a direct result of discriminatory government practice

 

In Hungary

– Last month the government-controlled Media Council blocked the broadcast license renewal of the country’s last independent radio station in Budapest, Klubrádió, following a ten-year campaign to silence it. The media regulator responsible for the decision is populated solely by Fidesz party appointees and has a track record of decisions that discriminate against independent media

– In August, there were mass resignations from the largest independent online news portal, Index.hu, following the firing of the editor-in-chief, who had raised the alarm its independence was under threat from external pressure and Fidesz-linked investors

– In April, Hungary introduced a law criminalizing disinformation enabling the jailing of journalists for up to five years. Given that all critical media are regularly labelled sources of ‘disinformation’ by the government, the chilling effect on journalism was immediate

– Over the past decade, through its abuse of state advertising and media regulatory decisions to create a level of media pluralism in which 80% of the market for political and public affairs news is ‘financed by sources decided by the ruling party’

 

In Slovenia

– Since returning to power, the country’s Prime Minister has used Twitter to launch a litany of attacks on multiple journalists and media outlets, discrediting, demeaning and denigrating critical reporters and dismissing challenging reporting as “fake news”. The PM has also launched multiple attacks on the country’s public broadcaster Radiotelevizija Slovenija, even accusing it of trying to “overthrow” his government, enabling a worrying rise in online harassment of media

– In November 2020, the Slovenian Government Communication Office (UKOM) announced it had suspended the financing of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) over a contract dispute. Press freedom groups criticised the suspension as politically motivated and part of a wider effort to undermine and stigmatise the country’s public service media

– In late February 2021, UKOM announced that it had suspended STA’s financing for the second time in three months, a move the Slovenian Journalists’ Association described as yet another attempt by UKOM and its director Uroš Urbanija to destabilize the agency through financial pressure

– In July 2020, the Ministry of Culture proposed draft amendments that would significantly alter three media laws, initially giving only five days for a public consultation. If passed, the amendments would financially weaken the public broadcaster and allow far greater government control over the management of the STA, sparking concerns the changes would pave the way for increased political interference

– In October 2020, the third largest media company in Slovenia, Planet TV, was sold to Hungarian pro-government media company TV2 Media, in a deal that intensified concern over its future independence as well as the increasing influence of the Fidesz party in the Slovenian media market

This statement is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), an Europe-wide mechanism, which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries. This project provides legal and practical support, public advocacy and information to protect journalists and media workers. The MFRR is organised by an consortium led by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) with ARTICLE 19, the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Institute for Applied Informatics at the University of Leipzig (InfAI), International Press Institute (IPI) and CCI/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT). The project is co-funded by the European Commission. www.mfrr.eu

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