Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation [INTERVIEW]

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„The COVID crisis is a new excuse to reduce rule of law, democracy, and press freedom. In Europe unfortunately there are states which restricted press freedoms because of the pandemic, they are especially: Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria” – says Pavol Szalai from the Reporters Without Borders. [Canva]

„There is not a better proof of how important quality journalism and trustworthy information are, than the current coronavirus crisis. We can see much disinformation about the virus or about the vaccines. In this situation we really need quality information which cannot exist without press freedom”, says Pavol Szalai* from Reporters Without Borders.

 

The interview with Pavol Szalai is also available as a podcast on our website, SpotifySoundcloudApple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.

 

Aleksandra Kuśnierkiewicz, EURACTIV.pl: According to the Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières; RSF) report, press freedom is deteriorating across the globe. Worsening for some not free states combines with a negative trend among free states, including across Europe. Can you expand on these overall findings and tell us more about how it connects with the state of democracy in those countries?

Pavol Szalai: Unfortunately, many countries used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on media freedom. Overall, in 130 countries out of 180 we evaluate, governments totally or partially impeded reporting.

This is really serious, because it is actually a question of life and death. There is not a better proof of how important quality journalism and trustworthy information are, than the current coronavirus crisis. We can see much disinformation about the virus or about the vaccines.

In this situation we really need press freedom, and we need quality information which cannot exist without press freedom. As RSF, we believe that journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation. However, ¾ of the world’s population have suffered from a restricted press freedom during the coronavirus pandemic.

You are highlighting that the pandemic has affected the press freedom across the world. Are we seeing more of the same tactics used in the past, but adopted to this new reality, or there are more nuanced efforts to undermine press freedom? What tactics are being utilised in states with generally more freedom, such as the European countries? Are they different in comparison to the tactics used in the rest of the world?

I think that the methods to reduce press freedom have been getting even more sophisticated. In Russia, for example, the journalists have been claiming for a long time that the number of people infected with COVID-19 was much higher than the official numbers reported by Moscow. Finally, the authorities admitted that independent journalists were right.

In Egypt, only official information from the health authorities on the coronavirus crisis can be disseminated. In China, there are still people in prisons, who alerted about the virus and discussed it in some of the independent media. So, the methods are getting more sophisticated and the COVID crisis is a new excuse to reduce rule of law, democracy, and press freedom. 

In Europe unfortunately there are states among these 130 which restricted press freedoms because of the pandemic, especially Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Hungary has become a real countermodel of press freedom in Europe, which today inspires other governments, like the one in Poland or in Slovenia. Unfortunately, the EU has been struggling to defend this fundamental value in Hungary and in other countries.

So, you are saying that governments are using COVID-19 pandemic as the justification for cracking down on press freedoms?

Yes, exactly. Hungary is the primary example. Today it is very difficult or actually impossible for the independent media to go to hospitals and talk to doctors to do reports from there. 30 media have recently asked the government for permission to do reporting in the interest of public health and to access the information about the coronavirus crisis.

Victor Orban has refused and said that they would be just spreading fake news. This is a very dangerous accusation, because last spring Hungary passed a legislation criminalising spreading fake news. We believe it has had a chilling effect on journalists’ reporting on the COVID crisis.

Let’s take a closer look at the Eastern European region. You mentioned Hungary and how its squeeze on media freedom has become a model for the countries in the region in many ways. What concerns you most about the development, in particular in Hungary, but also more broadly in this part of the world?

In Hungary, journalists usually are not physically attacked or imprisoned. The methods of the regime of Victor Orban are more sophisticated. They work with the effect of self-censorship and special legislations is passed to impede investigating journalists, like the new legislation on drones for example.

The most obvious cases of violation of press freedom in Hungary during the past year were the cases of the website index.hu and the case of Klubrádió which is an independent radio in Budapest. In these cases, you can really see how the Hungarian regime takes control of private media or silences them. 

The webiste index.hu was infiltrated with oligarchs close to the government and this was followed by the resignation of most of the journalists. In the second case, the media council, which was abused by the government, decided that Klubrádió could not continue to broadcast for a very banal, administrative pretext. This decision has had severe consequences for press freedom in Hungary.

In these cases the European Union was not really vocal about press freedom violations and has not taken strong measures to defend the distribution of the advertisement and the independence of the regulatory institutions or to politically condemn the actions against media freedom.

Unlike in Hungary, Polish private media have not yet been captured by the government, which is why they remain the prime target of the government’s attacks, especially the ones with foreign owners. After a year when the public TV not only remained a propaganda tool of the government, but also the communication channel of the presidential campaign, after the state fuel company Orlen took over the major regional and local media companies, after the attacks on the journalists covering protests – why has Polish ranking position gone down only by two places – from 62nd to 64th?

The place of Poland in the Freedom Press Index is bad right now. It is the deep second half of the European countries. It’s worse than the position of Slovakia or The Czech Republic. The situation, according to our index, has further worsened.

The problems of public media in Poland are very serious already, as we could see during the presidential campaign, when they lacked independence. We could also see censorship in the public radio. 

The project of „repolonisation” of the media is really something that is targeted at the private media and it is really the Hungarian method. We have criticised this plan and although the government has finally not proposed the special legislation, we can see that this plan of „repolonisation” is being put in place through fiscal and commercial means.

By fiscal I mean the draft bill to install the special tax on advertising, which is exactly something that was passed a long time ago in Hungary. The commercial means are of course the acquisition of private media by state or government-controlled groups and the prime example here is the acquisition of Polska Press by Orlen. 

This is also the trend that we can see in Hungary, where the government does not control the private media directly, but there are these intermediaries who do the dirty job for the government. It looks like everything is legal and it is just a market economy, but in fact it is contrary to press freedom. I mean the negative trends in Poland which started some time ago have continued and Poland’s position got worse. It is a very bad position for an EU member state. 

So, when it comes to the situation in Poland, do you think that the protests and the harsh criticism, coming from the media, the experts, the EU or the US will cause the government to withdraw from the plan to further weaken the media? What can we expect now?

The Polish government has not stopped its war against the free media, it has just changed its weapons. The pressure of international organisations and NGOs has been important and will continue to be very vocal about Poland. We will continue to complain to the European institutions, but it is also very important to see that the Polish media themselves were opposed to the new advertisement tax, including the media bought by Orlen.

That was really a sign of hope that Polish media sent out to the world. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel when they mobilised and came out with the common first page of the newspapers against the draft bill.

Of course, there are other institutions which can resist the attempts of the government to reduce media freedom, like the senate which is not governed by the ruling majority and ombudsman Adam Bodnar, even though his position and his office are at risk.

The Europeans are quite critical of the EU not doing enough to address the situation in Hungary. Do you think there is something more that the European institutions could be doing to help press freedom in the EU member states, such as Hungary or Poland?

I think that the EU should do everything possible to avoid the situation in which we have a new Hungary, with a new regime that reduces press freedom in such a sophisticated and extensive way.

The EU first should look into a state aid distributed to the detriment of the independent media in Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. One of the reasons for that state aid is that it is actually often financed by the EU funds. The EU Commission should check if the media regulatory institutions are independent. The EU should also pass banning legislation against abusive, judicial procedures called “SLAPPS”.

These procedures are very common in Poland or in Bulgaria. They have been targeted at “Gazeta Wyborcza” for example and aimed to drain journalists financially and psychologically through complaints for deformation. 

This is very important for the EU to pass a strong legislation regulating social networks. This is not because it is important to regulate everything, but because today the social networks do not have the obligation to promote trustworthy information.

As long as they do not have this obligation, it will be dangerous for our public debate, our lives as the coronavirus crisis shows and for the media producing trustworthy and quality information, because they cannot compete in such conditions with the social networks. 

We appreciate the proposal of the EU Commision of the Digital Services Act, but it can be improved by including this legal obligation to promote trustworthy information. Moreover, if this obligation is not there and if the legislation is not strong enough, then we will have national governments adopting national legislations, and in the case of the governments with authoritarian instincts there is a risk that the legislation will reduce freedom of expression on the social network. This is the case of Poland actually, where the government has announced that it is willing to pass such political regulation. 

The EU commission has announced a new media freedom act we appreciate. We are looking forward to look at the details of this proposal, which is supposed to also concern the public media. It is very important for the EU institutions to step up their action and finally, after the long-time overdue, start defending the fundamental value of press freedom and the rights of the European citizens in Poland, Hungary and other countries. 

It sounds like the EU has really powerful tools, but they are not being fully utilised yet. At the end I would like you to tell us more about the situation in the Balkan region. When it comes to the states like Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia, what are the challenges there? There are notes that an environment of intimidation and harassment inhibits journalists’ everyday work. Could you please elaborate on that?

Contrary to Central Europe, in the Balkan countries, a physical threat toward journalists exists. They are attacked physically quite often, and the authorities fail to prosecute the perpetrators and sometimes even prosecute journalists themselves. So, the problem of impunity of crimes committed against journalists is a big issue in all of these three countries. 

In Serbia, there were two major cases where one journalist has been murdered and another one has been attacked. The case of the one who was murdered in 1999 is still not closed and the perpetrators are still not definitely condemned.

In Montenegro for example, a journalist Jovo Martinovic is prosecuted as if he was a drug trafficker, but we believe that the prosecution is political. Montenegro, which is ranked second to last in the EU Balkans zone, cannot enter the EU and prosecute Martinovic at the same time.

In Bosnia, which is a transit country for migrants, the authorities have not done everything to protect journalists covering this important issue. For example, a journalist Vanja Stokić was threatened on social networks with death threats, but the perpetrator was not prosecuted, and the journalist is still threatened. 

The situation of the Balkan countries is very difficult, and they have to do a lot to punish crimes against journalists, protect their journalists and their public media, before they enter the EU.

 

*Pavol Szalai is the Head of EU/Balkans Desk at Reporters Without Borders

 

[Edited by Mikołaj Stępień and Paulina Borowska]

 

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