How COVID-19 influenced the media sector? Focus on Poland, Czechia, Hungary, Slovakia, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine

Prezydent Rosji Władimir Putin i premier Węgier Viktor Orban

Prezydent Rosji Władimir Putin i premier Węgier Viktor Orban [Zdjęcie via kremlin.ru]

Pandemic has not had significant consequences for the freedom of speech of CEE countries, since in most of them (apart from Ukraine) the situation had already been deteriorating before the onset of COVID-19 – writes Karolina Zbytniewska, chief editor at EURACTIV Poland.

 

The analysis was written as part of the publication „Catalyst or Destabiliser? COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Media Landscape Worldwide” by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

 

COVID-19 and the Quality of Media Publications

The fact that the number of coronavirus cases began to rise, stimulated a similar rise in the public’s demand for information. First of all, because people were simply concerned and confused, which spurred their demand for knowledge about the public health situation. For instance, in Poland the percentage of people worried was growing day-by-day and reached 75 per cent by mid-March 2020. Consequently, more people stayed at home and checked the situation online, especially the medical sections of online papers and news channels were promoted to the forefront or simply created to meet the soaring demand.

Second, when normal life stopped because of quarantine and citizens could not leave their homes, they had more time to explore this new, enforced interest as they stayed home to ward it off. Third, while staying at home, they hung on more to what was at hand – online information sources, TV, and radio – at the cost of the already fading print press.

The cumulative effect of these three reasons translated into a massive rise of online media consumption in the first month of the pandemic. For instance, readership of Poland’s top ten information websites recorded a rise of over 57 per cent in visitors. Some online papers in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) region recorded an increase of 1000 per cent in readership, generally achieving their highest ever numbers of unique visitors and page views. At the same time, people started watching TV again, which was also the global trend – coming back home and reviving the custom of families watching TV together. In the first week of quarantine, television-viewing time among audiences over four years of age increased by 24 per cent, compared to the first two weeks of March 2020, and by 23 per cent in Moscow, according to Mediascope.

The rise in online media consumption has not translated into bet- ter quality media. Quite the opposite, citizens experienced a flush of fake news and conspiracy theories that were blooming online because of the lack of institutional gatekeeping and proper editorial oversight present in established outlets. Furthermore, the access to information was restricted by governments safeguarding their monopoly to information about the pandemic, thus limiting freedom of speech – while independence of the media is the sine qua non for quality.

Often, the politicians in power were the ones responsible for spreading disinformation about the pandemic, with Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenka topping any rankings when advising Belarusians that they could avoid coronavirus by drinking vodka and going to the sauna (and afterwards contracted SARS-CoV-2 himself). At the same time, the independent media and activists in all countries reported instances of governments underestimating the pandemic along with overrating these governments’ performance. The government-friendly media – serving as a tool for public propaganda – forwarded the optimistic outlooks on state leadership. CEE citizens, even if supportive of their leaders, but still historically beset by a post-Soviet aftertaste of distrust, were reach- ing out for online media sources which, however, did not necessarily offer better quality information.

Governments are partly to blame for this unceasing distrust. “They don’t communicate transparently about the pandemic, and the way they publish official data is not the most user-friendly, to say the least” – Teczár Szilárd, from Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs says. Indeed, the access to information about the pandemic and the state of the health care system was commonly restricted for the independent media due to the centralization of public health communication. This phenomenon was not restricted to CEE countries, although the limited access to information has been particularly remarkable here. Official press conferences were moved online and according to independent journalistic accounts, authorities often censored uncomfortable questions or those asked by critical media. Limiting the access to information so that officials could not be scrutinized, served as a discriminatory measure used to reduce independent media’s capacity for reliable reporting. In Belarus, (relatively) free media outlets – mainly TUT.by and Onliner.by – added a disclaimer to their reporting of the official coronavirus statistics that they did not know the truth – Yaroslav Bekish, Belarusian civil society expert recounts.

Additionally, doctors in Poland and Hungary reported that they had been prohibited to talk to the media about the coronavirus under the threat of either dismissal or fines, especially if they pointed out the deficiencies in protective equipment for healthcare professionals. A Polish nurse was infamously discharged for reporting on the deficient working conditions and ill-preparedness of her hospital for the coronavirus epidemic. The Ministry of Health claimed it had nothing to do with such instances. In Hungary some university professors said they were forbidden to talk to the media, while some journalists – who criticized how the government was handling the pandemic – received death threats via email or social media.

Infamously, the Hungarian pro-government parliamentary majority further constrained the freedom of speech by tightening the Hungarian Criminal Code in the early stages of the state of emergency. It further limited the freedom to independently inform about the epidemic, as reporting problems could be considered as ‘incitement to fear’ punishable by imprisonment of up to 5 years. However, “no one knew what kind of opinion was regarded as a crime” – Gábor Polyák, associate professor at the University of Pécs explains. The legislation was followed by “concerted attacks and threats against independent media, accused of disinformation, although they reported on COVID-19 more responsibly than the pro-government media” – according to Reporters without Borders. In the end, no journalists were imprisoned, but several people were arrested in their homes and detained for several hours over social media posts that were critical towards Hungarian authorities. Furthermore, the police were investigating numerous cases on the basis of emergency regulations on the alleged publication of ‘fake news’ and of endangering the public. “The police are constantly monitoring the Internet”, the NGO said in a statement. As a result of these show trials, some journalists and media outlets resorted to self-censorship.

Poland has not introduced similar laws, though, under the guise of social distancing rules, two journalists from two outlets critical of the government – Gazeta Wyborcza and OKO.press – were accused of violating social distancing restrictions while covering a protest out- side Law and Justice Party (PiS) leader’s Jarosław Kaczyński’s house in Warsaw in early May 2020. They faced fines of up to 60,000 PLN (almost 15,000 EUR), which is a huge amount of money, especially for independent Polish journalists, who often find themselves in precarious situations.

The strain on finances caused by SARS-CoV-2 and withdrawal of advertisement from the media, translated into smaller budgets for journalists, especially for freelancers. In Poland, precarious working conditions, without a proper job contract, have long been the norm in independent outlets, especially in online and print media. These facts also have not translated into better media quality, with newsrooms and newspapers shrinking along with rising prices. Apart from Internet accessibility and availability of all outlets online, the relatively high prices of print media, have led more and more readers to search for information on the Internet, mainly at free websites without paywall. During the coronavirus pandemic, as already mentioned, this phenomenon was further advanced, as the possibilities of going out were restricted.

The transfer of our lives online had its positive aspect in the con- text of media quality – namely that many independent online media outlets opened access to their articles on coronavirus and public health measures, so that there would be no inequality in access to quality information and everyone could read it for free and with- out barriers. This has expanded access to quality content online. Ivan Kolpakov, the editor-in-chief at the independent Russian online newspaper Meduza (Riga-based) adds that as readers were completely overwhelmed with negative information following the outburst of the pandemic, Meduza – apart from publishing quality news – offered additional articles and videos to support readers in these hard times.

Simultaneously, and already prior to the outburst of the pandemic, more people were willing to pay for quality content. There was a further increase of this tendency during the time of lockdown, when many people realized that media was one of the sectors most acutely hit by the crisis and further weakened by illiberal governments. Therefore, they became more willing to support their favorite outlets, not only with paid subscriptions, but also with monetary donations, directly through these outlets or through crowdfunding websites.

At EURACTIV Poland media, we also noticed the rise of interest from young people who wanted to contribute their work, as they believed that free, quality media is fundamental to liberal democracy.

Alina Mosendz, freelance journalist from Ukraine, recounts that in order to counter the spread of fake news on social media and low-quality websites, many quality outlets created mythbuster stories about the coronavirus. Many outlets engaged in debunking most popular and most harmful fake news also in other CEE countries.

All in all, along with the rise of fake information in the public sphere, especially online, and with governments limiting access to public health information, audiences have become more critical. More people have started to value quality content and outlets they can trust during these hard times. This development can have serious, long-lasting positive effects on the general online media quality, as “if paid content becomes the main source of media income rather than advertising, clickability will take the second place. The consumer will pay for information that they trust” – Natalia Ligacheva, Editor-in-Chief at the Ukrainian NGO Detector Media, states.

“I believe we are approaching a moment when quality content can be properly monetized”, she adds.

COVID-19 and the Economic Situation of Media Outlets and Journalists

As public life stopped due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, all types of media, apart from print media, noted an unprecedented increase in audiences. Some believed that the media had entered its golden age. But the situation was more complicated.

The increase in audiences was not followed by corresponding increases in advertising revenues. Quite the opposite – advertisers were withdrawing commercials and sponsored materials (e. g. week- end supplements). In Russia, the majority of the media (92.2 per cent) announced that some advertisers had left. And those who continued to cooperate reduced their budgets – according to a report by the Russian Union of Journalists.8 At the same time, state budget expenditures to support official media, i. e. public propaganda, increased by 3 billion rubles for the coming year – Ksenia Larina, journalist and columnist for the independent radio Echo of Moscow (Ekho Moskvy) reports. Its chief editor Alexei Venediktov summed up the dire situation of most independent media in his telegram-channel: “We have a drop of 37 per cent in advertising in May [2020]. We have cut management salaries by 90 per cent – we received 10 per cent for 3 months. We have not touched a penny of journalists’ salaries yet, but I am afraid we will have to”. Advertising budgets started to recover in June 2020. Nonetheless, it is expected that they will only be able to cover the losses during the second half of the year.

Why did advertisers withdraw their commercials? Because, according to the reports from media and marketing employees from CEE countries, some of them lost their own revenues, like car manufacturers, soft drink producers, airlines. The largest Russian airline Aeroflot announced at the end of March 2020 that it would completely abandon all advertising indefinitely, so as not to have to fire its employees. Another reason for restricting advertisement budgets was the image issue. Namely, some advertisers – also ones in the health sector – preferred not to be associated with tough topics triggered by the pandemic, like illness, death, ill-equipped hospitals, but also layoffs and recession.

Also, other revenue sources of the media – like conferences and events – had to be cancelled. The TV sector was the least affected, while print media received the biggest blow, with some of the titles (especially lifestyle) having to close. At the same time, the number of subscriptions to print media’s online outlets rose, along with the above-mentioned donations. This did, nevertheless, not allow a return to pre-COVID-19 financial situation.

As a result, most independent outlets had to respond with austerity measures – e. g. reducing number of hours worked and reducing salaries accordingly (also to receive public support from national anti-crisis schemes for companies), with 80 per cent as a typical reduction rate. Thanks to these measures, the outlets analyzed in the CEE countries avoided mass redundancies, although a small percentage (ca.4 per cent) of contracted media workers lost their jobs. Also freelance journalists complained that they lost assignments, as boards preferred to save the jobs of the workers they had under contract.

In the context of this advertising and revenue situation, the independent media has a significant, structural competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis the government and government-related media, which are largely financed through public (state) advertising.

The competitive disadvantage of the private outlets is even higher in the media markets of the non-EU CEE countries analyzed here – i. e. in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, where the role of the media owned by oligarchs or the state is not to earn money, but to support the regime, or – as in Ukraine – the preferred political option. However, according to Natalya Ryabinska, a sociologist and associate professor at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seems to be using the full toolkit to catch up with the Ukrainian oligarchical model.

Czech media outlets expect a 30–50 per cent drop in advertising revenues – according to Aneta Zachová, chief editor at EURACTIV Slovakia. Some numbers are even higher. Respekt, one of the major print weeklies, recorded a 60–70 per cent drop in advertising revenue compared to pre-pandemic levels.

In Hungary, the situation is similarly dire, with a foreseeable 21–30 per cent slide in revenue9 for media companies in 2020, year to year – according to a survey by the Hungarian Publishers’ Association. Nevertheless, averages usually distort reality, which is also the case here. The pro-government media foundation, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) dominates the media landscape owning almost 500 titles, which results in the above-mentioned market distortion of state advertising outflow. Taking this into account, it is the independent outlets that are hardest hit by slides in advertising revenues – they expect a huge drop of 90 per cent in comparison to 2019. Teczár Szilárd points out that in Hungary “the drastic drop in advertising revenue can still be felt today. This further exacerbates the inequality between independent and government-friendly media, because while private advertising has virtually halted, state propaganda goes on unscathed”.

This disadvantage already existed prior to COVID-19, only that the pandemic has intensified the scale of the problem. For example, in Poland, freedom of independent media, critical of the government, has been limited by restricting access to public companies’ ads, pub- lic institutions’ paid announcements, but also to projects and grants administered by the government. This situation has been ongoing since the current government came to power at the end of 2015. During the pandemic, another version of this phenomenon materialized. Namely, according to reports of Gazeta Wyborcza and Press magazine, the governmental public announcements about the virus and the pandemic that were to address all Polish citizens and there- fore appear in all nation-wide print media, were indeed published in all nation-wide print daily newspapers but one – Gazeta Wyborcza, which is Poland’s biggest broadsheet daily (only two tabloids Fakt and Super Ekspress have a bigger circulation). But it is also the one most critical of the government.

COVID-19 and the Digitization of Media

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the fourth Industrial Revolution, which had already been taking place. Its main technologies are artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, robotization, and digitization permeating all spheres of our lives. Accelerated digitization has also materialized in the media market, whirling up online readership numbers, leading to a further dwindling of the sales of print media.

Virtual reality has become ever closer to actual reality, thus merg- ing our private and professional lives. Today almost 90 per cent of Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, and Slovaks have an Internet connection, and slightly less – around 80 per cent – of Russians and Belarusians, and around 60 per cent of Ukrainians. Plus, every smartphone user has constant access to the Internet. We do not only chat, email, shop, and work online. “All debates and other events organized by media went online, journalists and media outlets were very active on social media and focused on modern content formats, such as live reporting, video, and podcasts” – Aneta Zachová, chief editor at EURACTIV.cz, explains.

More and more often we treat the Internet and social media as major sources of news. In 2016, 57 per cent of Europeans used social media news aggregators and search engines as their main sources of news. Social media constituted the main source of news for a third of young people aged 18–24.

And the coronavirus pandemic has only fast-forwarded these processes, as people could make full use of their Internet connection during the lockdown. And, since the media market in Central and Eastern Europe – and worldwide – continues to move online, printed publications slowly but gradually continue to close, which translates into recurrent wage cuts and layoffs. The coronavirus pandemic has only sped up this ongoing process.

In Ukraine, social media constituted the major source for world news for 23 per cent of Ukrainians, while online media for 27 per cent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Galina Petrenko, Director at the NGO Detector Media, explains, the coronavirus completely changed this situation benefitting the first one. In August 2020, social networks constituted the main news source for 44.1 per cent of Ukrainians, almost a two-fold rise, while online media remained at 27 per cent, and TV watching levels remained the same during the pandemic as before with around 75 per cent.

In Russia, where over 100 million people use the Internet, the historic moment where online advertising outpaced television ads was in 2018 (with a large part going to the Yandex company specializing in online services, owned by oligarch Arkady Volozh). Still – as already explained – the coronavirus crisis hit online media budgets especially hard (despite peaking audiences). One of the reasons is that the Internet is the (last?) bastion of independent media, especially in Belarus and Russia. Cyberspace is still an unchartered territory for regulation and it also does not require big budgets to open and run media, in comparison to traditional outlets.

As a result of this painful pressure on online media budgets, innovation had to speed up, taking into account the demand for online information, and more and more often – for its quality. Therefore, donation campaigns and other forms of asking readers for support were started and are here to stay. Looking at Ukraine, Natalya Rybinska diagnoses a more general trend that has been visible in the whole CEE region: “people appreciated the value of verified informa- tion and of trust in these hard times. As a result, they are more ready to pay for access to quality content. Before people could not have even imagined paying for anything online, when there’s so much free content. Online piracy was absolutely overwhelming. The COVID-19 pandemic induced a change in people’s minds”.

In effect, during the coronavirus crisis subscription levels went up. Simultaneously, more and more digital media were hiding their content behind a paywall. While this had already constituted quite a normal practice in Poland before the crisis, this is not necessarily the case in all of the countries that were looked at. In Hungary, outlets started moving parts of their content behind paywalls during the coronavirus crisis. “This is a rather new and interesting development” – Teczár Szilárd comments.

Not only online media, but also bloggers used the crisis momentum to experiment with paid subscriptions. And they were often successful.

With these developments in online entrepreneurship, online media outlets, as well as information channels like YouTube and Telegram – especially in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine – are now more likely to make sustainable profits. “Beforehand, such independent online information sources existed, but usually only as startups, most of the time after having received some donations to be able to take off, hitting financial trouble once the grant ended. Now, after experimenting with fundraising and earning methods, they have grown in strength”, Natalya Rybinska explains.

Also, as life moved online and as people were spending around 7 hours a day on the Internet, traditional media outlets directed their attentive eye towards social media. They went beyond Facebook and Twitter and experimented more and more with YouTube and other social platforms, such as Telegram and Instagram, trying to compete with “influencers” – Alina Mosendz points out for the Ukrainian example. Indeed, in Russia, the Russian version of YouTube experienced an increase of 40 per cent in viewing time between January and March 2020. The number of viewers increased by a quarter. “YouTube has become the most important independent media outlet in Russia among younger audiences, but also more and more among older ones”, Ivan Kolpakov from Meduza explains.

The most outstanding example of YouTube’s rise to stardom is Yury Dud, a tremendously famous 34-year-old Russian YouTuber born in Ukraine, who talks freely with famous people – artists, celebrities, politicians, experts – about just anything, not leaving out topics that are either controversial or just human. He also makes his own documentaries that run on his YouTube channel, which has over 8 million subscribers. His film on the uncomfortable topic of Kolyma gulag camps has been watched over 22 million times.

Belarus also has its big YouTube personalities, including Sergei Tikhanovsky who announced on his YouTube channel in May 2020 that he would run in the presidential elections, which got him jailed, while his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya stood in elections instead. However, in Belarus, Telegram has become the major source of online news, especially after the above-mentioned rigged presidential elections. “Telegram channels are a bucket of everything – independent media, channels controlled by the state, personal channels, messenger, all absolutely without any rules”, Ivan Kolpakov explains. Telegram, founded by the Russian Pavel Durov, has become one of the most popular instant messaging applications in the world, especially popular beyond the EU and the West. And as Russia has Yury Dud, Belarus has NEXTA – its most important online media channel and also online media personality. NEXTA is the 22-year-old Belarusian Stepan Putilo (or Svetlov) who set up this Telegram channel, which is the largest in Belarus with over 2 million followers. This was the key media during the Belarusian protests following rigged presidential elections, posting mostly images and videos sent by people who witnessed the rallies. Putilo moved to Warsaw, where Yury Dud interviewed him in September 2020. Over 7 million viewers watched the interview.

All in all, media continue to shift online, and the coronavirus pandemic has only fast-forwarded this already ongoing process.

Because of the precipitous loss in revenue in the beginning of the pandemic, online news producers – be it online media or social media information channels – creatively looked for new sources of revenue. Paired with growing respect of the readers for trustworthy content, they might now be more empowered to achieve sustain- able revenue vital for quality and independence.

COVID-19 and Freedom of the Media

Media freedom in Belarus (153rd place out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index 2020) and Russia (149th) de facto does not exist, with the space for independent media narrowed to a minimum. The COVID-19 pandemic has not changed that.

Nevertheless, there have been changes. In Belarus, the negligent and thoughtless reaction to the coronavirus by president Alexander Lukashenko, the outright lies about the pandemic by authorities and official “media” (Belarusian propaganda), along with a simultaneous drop in satisfaction with the economic situation, made citizens decisively turn towards independent online media sources and set the fertile ground for a revolution that started after the rigged presidential elections.

Independent online media – especially NEXTA (based in Warsaw) and TUT.by (independent web holding read by some 60 per cent of Belarusians) – were the winners of this situation. They were further strengthened by Lukashenko’s arresting of bloggers, which further undermined any remaining trust for the president and weakened online competition at the same time, Yaroslav Bekish explains.

In Russia, independence of the media is constantly shrinking. It has especially deteriorated after 2014 and the beginning of the Ukrainian war – Jaroslav Šimov, deputy director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service (Svoboda) explains. All federal television and radio channels are under strict ideological control.

Almost all news agencies, Internet media and newspapers cooperate with the state in one way or another, and risk losing their licenses and funding opportunities if they do not. Political journalism is practically non-existent – independent experts can only be heard in the media outside of the Kremlin’s control, which include Russian bureaus of foreign media (Svoboda, Voice of America, Russian Air Force Service, Deutsche Welle), independent online publications (Medusa, MBH media), and individual Internet channels, Ksenia Larina, journalist and columnist for Ekho Moskvy, says.

According to Jaroslav Šimov, the pandemic served as an excuse for adding even more pressure on the media. Plus, it was difficult for independent media to write about the pandemic situation. But the Internet – i. e. online media, social networks such as Telegram and Messenger as well as YouTube – have become the bastion of the free press that has grown even more popular during the pandemic, as in Belarus. Even in Russia, the Internet is practically uncontrollable, it offers an alternative reality – independent opinion polls, free commenting, a huge potential for criticism – and the Kremlin is incapable of taming this wave.

Ukraine (96th place in the World Press Freedom Index 2020) fares much better than Belarus and Russia in terms of media freedom, which has been evolving, especially since the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014, although there is still much room for improvement. Strong oligarchization of the media landscape, underpaid public broadcaster, attacks on the media – here journalists will particularly be thinking of the killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in 2016 and the fatal beating of investigative reporter Vadym Komarov in 2019.

However, the coronavirus did not serve as a pretext for authorities to pressure independent journalists. The financial crisis resulting from the pandemic translated into media and journalistic entrepreneurs in social networks searching for new revenue sources, which in the end will guarantee them more financial independence, while for the media, financial autonomy is fundamental for their independence and/or existence. This positive effect is further triggered by the already mentioned rise in readers looking for reliable content, who, as a result, have become more willing to pay for quality information.

While Ukraine has been making progress on the path towards media freedom, Hungary (89th in the World Press Freedom Index 2020) has taken the opposite path. The situation of the media there is deteriorating, especially since 2018 when KESMA (Central European Press and Media Foundation), the pro-government media foundation, took control of around 500 private media outlets. Titles that are in the hands of Fidesz’s cronies are not the real media. “Their priority is to be loyal and serve the government’s interests. And they are proud of it” – Gábor Polyák explains.

The coronavirus pandemic was exploited as an attempt to take further control of the media market, by introducing a vague law allegedly aimed at countering fake news, which in the end was used to investigate against people publishing posts critical of government. It served as a warning not only to journalists, but to anyone who wanted to express their criticism of how the government is tackling the pandemic, and translated into self-censorship by nurses, doctors, academics and also journalists.

What is more, access to information was limited for independent outlets: Questions asked at governmental online press conferences were rarely asked by independent media. Likewise, the economic impact of COVID-19 asymmetrically hit the independent press, which had already been the victim of unfair competition prior to the pandemic. But “the single most important development concerning the freedom of the media in the last couple of months (or even years) was the resignation of the journalists of Index.hu, thus by far the largest independent news site, because of external pressure from businessmen close to the government. I wouldn’t say this was a direct consequence of the coronavirus crisis, they were planning to destroy Index anyway, but the bad financial situation of Index in this crisis certainly helped them and could have sped up the process”, according to Szilárd Teczár. After the marginalization of Index, another editor-in-chief was dismissed in another medium – this time in the liberal weekly 168 Óra. But there is also a silver lining. Especially that journalists who had been working at Index.hu until recently, now founded a new medium – Telex, financed largely by crowdfunding. The content of the portal is free for the time being, but in the future, it will be available only to subscribers. Editor-in- chief, Veronika Munk, said that the editorial team has managed to raise enough funds for several months of work.

In Poland (62nd place in the World Press Freedom Index 2020, down from 18th in 2015) the state of media freedom and pluralism has deteriorated since the PiS party came to power in 2015. Passive censorship resulting from channeling funds to government-friendly outlets, recurring attacks on critical media by ruling politicians and public media, transforming public media into an outright government propaganda tool – this had already been the situation of Polish media prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Thus, Polish authorities did not need the pandemic to gain an advantage over the press. But they have. Along with the public “media”, governing party politicians intensified attacks on critical media out- lets (often pointing out their foreign ownership-structure if there is one), sometimes limiting access to information by not answering questions submitted for online press conferences by unapologetic journalists (the present government has reduced the number of press conferences and focused on announcements since it came to power). They published paid announcements about anti-COVID-19 measures in all national dailies apart from Gazeta Wyborcza, the media outlet most critical of the government, but at the same time the daily broadsheet with the largest circulation.

Now the government plans the repolonization/deconcentration of the media, which is allegedly mostly in foreign hands, with German “hands” being presented as particularly unwelcome. These plans are not a consequence of COVID-19, as they had already been announced well ahead. The government has long been critical of influential titles by the German-Swiss-American Ringier Axel Springer group that owns Polish Newsweek, a weekly newspaper especially critical of the Polish government, and the Fakt tabloid, as well as TVN television owned by American Discovery, Inc. According to findings of The Economist, the biggest Polish state oil and fuel company Orlen is now negotiating the purchase of the Polish conglomerate of 20 regional newspapers published by Polska Press, currently owned by the German company Verlagsgruppe Passau. This staged takeover, if it takes place, will further expand PiS’ grip on much of Poland’s media market. Understandably, The Economist gave this article the headline: The Hungarian model.

Democracies like the Czech Republic (40th place in the World Press Freedom Index 2020) and Slovakia (33rd place in the World Press Freedom Index 2020) also face the challenge of increasing oligarchization of their media markets, which had already been evolving before the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis translated into hindered access to public information, but journalists who were consulted did not indicate that this was as a major problem. The situation presents itself as much brighter than in other countries analyzed, although it should be followed closely to prevent downfalls similar to those in other Visegrad Group’s partner countries.

All in all, although the COVID-19 pandemic is used by governments to hinder access to public information (all governments), to intensify smear campaigns against unfriendly media (Poland), to further develop financial asymmetry in the media markets between pro-government and independent media (most analyzed countries), and introducing laws hindering free speech under the guise of preventing incitement of social fear (Hungary) or jailing bloggers without legal basis (Belarus), the major changes characterizing today’s media landscapes have already been in place before the pandemic. Therefore, the answer is that the pandemic has not had significant consequences for the freedom of speech of CEE states, as in most of them (apart from Ukraine) the situation had already been deteriorating before the onset of COVID-19.

 

Karolina Zbytniewska / Editor-in-chief at EURACTIV Poland / Expert in European affairs