Friday

14th May 2021

European broadcasters face political 'counter-reformation'

  • Cultural production and quality journalism are declining due to political and commercial interference, the report said (Photo: UNMIK)

Broadcasting across Europe, particularly in the east but also in Italy, is undergoing a "counter-reformation" - a backsliding towards overt political control after the post-Cold War period, when leaders relaxed their grip on TV and radio, warns a new report.

In a survey of the European broadcasting landscape presented in Brussels on Wednesday (18 March), the Open Society Institute found that many public broadcasters are heading into the economic crisis deeply underfunded and unable to meet public service requirements, while political elites are returning to appointing partisan allies to key positions, secure in the knowledge that no penalties from the EU await them for doing so.

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"Professionals are being replaced by loyal mediocrities," the document says, adding that the politicisation and lack of funds are undermining quality cultural content and critical journalism.

"Local realities ... are disappearing again; lost in the bland excesses of reality television formats; lost in the sickly sweet programmes that distract; lost in the news that never investigates and never takes a stand; lost in the routine political control by self-interested cliques," the report adds.

"You could call it a sort of 'counter-reformation'," said Mark Thompson of the Open Society Foundation Media Programme when presenting the report. "Why refrain from exercising political control over these very important institutions when there are no penalties?"

The European Commission comes in for criticism for not holding new EU member states to account after promises concerning media freedom were made ahead of accession.

"The commission has notably failed to keep the new states to their compacts for the media that they made as a condition of entry," the report says, adding: "There is still time for the EU to learn that on the next round, Croatia, Macedonia and other candidates must be held more rigorously to account for the media."

"In the early 2000s, when [central and eastern European] countries were pursuing accession to the EU, ...elites showed signs of willingness to refrain from influencing public broadcasters so overtly. Today, by contrast, they openly strive to restore tight control, usually by appointing loyal people to the governing bodies."

The re-politicisation of public service media is clearest in Poland, Romania and Slovakia, the report says, but is also evident in Lithuania and elsewhere.

Describing Polish television Telewizja Polska as a "cockpit of political infighting for a decade," the report says that the members of TVP's supervisory board are drawn from party ranks and lack professional experience. Individuals appointed have included the owner of a hippodrome that was a close associate of the mayor of Warsaw and a former prime minister's mother's herbalist.

According to a parliamentary commission, Romania's SRTV and SRR do not ensure political and social pluralism and the free expression of ideas and opinions, while the director-general of its board is one Alexandru Sassu, a politician with the Social Democrats, the junior partner in the ruling grand coalition.

In the Czech Republic, politicians argue that the CT council should be nominated and controlled by the parties in the parliament, while the report accuses the Slovak government of interfering grossly in both the appointment of STV's director-general and the appointment of its governing structures.

Private broadcasters 'no rosier'

Editorial independence in the commercial sector is no rosier, the report says. In Poland, "the owners of private media behave no differently from politicians, using their assets as a weapon to pursue their business interests."

In Macedonia, "broadcasting continues to be treated by private owners as a tool for pursuing personal or business interests," with proprietors also using their media operations to service their political connections.

Despite the political interference in Romanian public TV, the report says that at least it "provides better reporting," while their private counterparts are "tabloid in character," with a focus on scandal and sensationalism.

But eastern Europe - both EU member states and beyond - is not alone in the report's gallery of rogues. The situation of broadcasting in Italy is also condemned as "a dark farce."

Already the owner of 90 percent of Italy's commercial broadcasters, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as premier influences the public broadcaster RAI as well. Under his third premiership, according to the report, "the appointment of its board followed the usual political logic, with the result that strategic decisions reflected political affiliation."

"Italian deputies have ...grown accustomed to see their control over RAI as a natural prerogative," the document continues.

'Utter crisis'

Aidan White, general-secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, said that European institutions needed to get serious about the "utter crisis in the media."

"The future of the media must be at the core of the new commission's agenda, at the core of the new parliament's agenda."

"There needs to be a European strategy for the media," Mr White added, saying that he would like to see a top-level taskforce perform an intensive review of the European media landscape, "looking at questions of content, politicisation, relations with the public and the question of funding."

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