Part 6 of the summary of Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019: In Whom We Trust. Scroll down for the links to other parts of the summary.

How to Defend the Free Media?


Christian Davies, The Guardian

Gergely Dudás, Independent Media Expert, former

Irina Nedeva, Association of European journalists

Moderator: Bartosz Wieliński, Gazeta Wyborcza

Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019 || IN WHOM WE TRUST || April 4-5, 2019 Gdańsk, Poland || Photo by Dawid Linkowski, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The panel started with a brief description of the current situation of the media in the panelists’ countries:

Hungary: since the early 1990s the public media have become the communication departments of the government. After the financial crisis (2008-2009) the public media were turned into pro-government propaganda machines and, recently, approximately 500 media outlets owned by around a dozen government related oligarchs have been centralized into one organization after 2 years of very intense buyout process. Currently, neither public nor private media are free or independent in Hungary; in the last 2-3 years no research was published without an beforehand audit.

Poland: the private media are still independent but the public media have been completely turned into Russian-style propaganda machines. Private media were once described by the Polish Prime Minister as “opponents” and there have been attempts to buy them out by pro-governmental companies.

Bulgaria: one can observe a paradox of private and commercial media being politically correct because of political connections and dependency on government of their owners in sectors other than media, i.e. business. At the same time some of the public media became “pockets of the autonomy” due to legal constraints ensuring that they can be lead only by politically neutral leaders. However other public media are usually not able to freely criticise leading party. All media publish more or less the same content, even if the owners are different. The interdependence of the content, especially visible in nasty smear campaigns targeting small parties and small independent outlets, eg. investigative journalists, persuading people that oppositionists are “Soros’ sweets” or foreign agents. All that deteriorates people’s trust towards the media.

Great Britain: limits of media responsibility rather than governmental pressure. the situation is much brighter and abnormalities one can observe are more from the field of soft corruption as well as intellectual or professional corruption. But those mechanisms are also creating unhealthy dependencies among the media and power leading sometimes to “joint-narrative” between the media and the government, in fact turning the media into propaganda machines.

Christian Davies from The Guardian built up on that, with an example from Poland of how consciously media can use hostile narratives to impact reality: one year ago, a popular right-wing online portal published a letter accusing an Auschwitz Museum employee of a non-professional behaviour. This letter caused a lot of negative impact and attacks on the Museum from the online community, but it turned out to be completely false. And despite that it is still on the website, without any disclaimer, still causing harm and falsening reality.

Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019 || IN WHOM WE TRUST || April 4-5, 2019 Gdańsk, Poland || CC BY-NC-SA Photo by Dawid Linkowski

Another example of how the media can rot from the inside: when, in the early 1990s,  Boris Johnson became The Telegraph correspondent from Brussels (after being thrown out from another newspaper for making up a quote), he started embroidering, or even making up news from Brussels. It was interesting and people were eager to read it, putting pressure on other editors who eventually surrendered to the need of keeping up with the popularity. In consequence, this situation developed into creating misunderstandings and ignorance regarding the European Union among British readers. Despite revealing this scandal, Boris Johnson became a politician and a columnist in The Telegraph to deliver his political statements which transformed the respectable newspaper into a political tool. Long term, such intellectual corruption has similarly corrosive effects on society as less subtle methods we can observe currently in some of the CEE media.


How to deal with the huge amount of hate speech from the journalists point of view?

Despite even the commercial media in Hungary have been always somehow biased, it is also a question of moral choices of particular media houses. For Gergely, the definition of hate speech significantly shifted during the last few years because, sadly, some level of aggression became a “new normality” in media and in the government actions.

In Bulgaria hate speech has also been normalised, again with active participation of politicians, regularly spreading hate against minority groups. Even if activists try to react against it (eg. by suing politicians who disseminate lies), it gets through to the public, impacts people and re-adjusts norms of public communication, getting more and more harrasive. To the point when journalists’ families began worrying about them. In such environment, investigative journalism is much more challenging in smaller communities or rural areas than in big metropolises, where journalists can “hide”. What’s worse: journalists becoming PR officers of the government, getting misused for political reasons or politicians turning into journalists? How to ensure that journalism keeps proper distance from the reality? What is the role of self-reporting?

There are still “pockets” of the internet where journalists receive a lot of praise from the readers and the level of hate speech is relatively low – that is, luckily, Christian Davies’ current status in Poland. Although he could voke situations in which he found himself in the spotlight: being a writer in Poland with his Polish-British provenance caused a lot of confusion among trolls or Poles living in Australia since the 1980s – indoctrinated with the right-wing narrative – attacking him until they found out who his father was. What’s a fact is that way worse abusive hate speech touches female journalists.  

Media hate campaigns against politicians (the murder of Mayor Paweł Adamowicz) and threats to journalists (the assassination of Jan Kuciak) is an everyday phenomenon. It’s difficult to eradicate hate speech without eliminating hate itself. We cannot “stop” hate speech, because we cannot stop speech. We should try to pull other strings. The rise of hate speech is clearly linked to social media, they have been a catastrophe for democracies but also for our mental health. Generally, we should stop seeing them as an opportunity but as a problem requiring to be managed and way too few people talks about it.

According to Gergely Dudás, journalism is indeed endangered by the social media but we need to learn how to deal with them as, unfortunately, we cannot just erase them. We should think then: how can we acknowledge their presence and do our job better? Media started to depend on the social media economically and create content designed for Facebook. Still, infotainment (not a new word!) can be good. Can we focus on media literacy and our readers? How to ensure quality?

Irina Nedeva made an attempt to disagree with Chris although she admitted he was right. The social media are the result of a deficit of the common public space and our need to share. They give us an illusion of such space but also offer an escape for the society in the authoritarian regimes. The Internet, therefore, should stay free. There are a lot of options to make good impact, eg. an (investigative) app which tells you who is behind the service/product you are buying. Social networking, especially the commercial social media can be harmful but as there are already here, we can only be smarter in using them.

Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019 || IN WHOM WE TRUST || April 4-5, 2019 Gdańsk, Poland || CC BY-NC-SA Photo by Dawid Linkowski

Christian Davies stated that just like nuclear weapons, the social media cannot be uninvented, however their existence should be managed properly. CNN reporting on the Arab Spring was picturing how America invented technology (social media) which will liberate the world… and did it? The problem with the social media is that a lot of people think they need it more than they really do. With all the data people have given them, we all should at least delete our current accounts and start from scratch. The social media make people miserable, they may hurt thousands of people at once, they brought a whole wave of mental illnesses: addiction, isolation. It is a threat that has to be managed.

On the example of the Arab Spring we can see that the authoritarian regimes can both be changed by the social media but they can also established and built on the social media. In Azerbaijan, it was the only way to freely communicate. This differs depending on how developed democracies we talk about. Gergely Dudás argued that what is really threatening us is not the platforms themselves but uneducated people who use the social media and are used by them. Christian Davies responded that this resembles the gun debate – it’s people who kill not guns but it’s always better to have fewer guns. Irina Nedeva noted that there are still so many unheard voices. The concept of connecting people and giving them a communication platform is essential for underrepresented groups, minorities like LGBT people in Bulgaria. We live in a post-paradise world where we do not have the common grounds any more. The question is: how to restore the public sphere, the public interest, the public media who by default should be obliged to keep all the voices heard?

Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019 || IN WHOM WE TRUST || April 4-5, 2019 Gdańsk, Poland || CC BY-NC-SA Photo by Dawid Linkowski

What are the hopes and fears regarding media freedom in your countries in the nearest future?

Gergely Dudás’ prognosis is to expect the situation will get even worse than it is currently.  Well, a year ago we thought it is so bad it cannot gets worse but it kept getting worse. doesn’t know who the real owner of the medium is and admit being endangered with strong political influence. How long can the few independent media voices left in Hungary survive? Economically they could, but institutionally… Presumably there will be steps taken to overtake all independent media after the European elections or after the local elections in autumn.

Irina Nedeva predicts that the question of majority and minority in the upcoming elections in Bulgaria will heaten up the debate about democracy and public space. Bulgaria si facing the governmental crisis. It is essential for the public media to keep the pockets of autonomy and insist on formal legislation that keeps the media content non-partisan. The third point is education – people should be educated and they are many options and civic tech tools available (like boycotting) but too few people know them. I still believe that media could provide education and information important for citizens to manage in the “social media wild”.

Christian Davies’ forecast for Poland: as we know, the EU started official investigation against violations of judiciary independence (-> rule of law -> democracy) in Poland but the counter-argumentation of the Minister of Justice has been significantly (sorry to use this world) primitive and irrelevant. If it persuades anyone, we have a fundamental problem than the state of the journalism, which is in a pretty good shape in Poland – the public media are a joke but there is competition and diversity. The main problem is that the media contribute to polarisation of the Polish society. The second problem is that when investigative journalism publish an alarming story, no one reacts to it and the government is allowed to operate on an openly primitive level instead of dealing with it. And beyond journalism itself, the main (and sad) conclusion is that if Poland was a truly sovereign country, it wouldn’t be a democracy by now – every intervention to stop the worst excesses in the past months has been foreign. That shows a very dangerous dynamic in a long term: to make European Court of Justice or the American Embassy our “safeguards” – the dark side is that they might be easy to blame for parachuting and consequently, to stop being allowed to intervene.


Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019: In Whom We Trust

April 4-5, 2019, Gdańsk, Poland


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*to be continued

Check also:

PDF CEE 2019 – Introduction
Broken Feedback Circle
Citizen Fake-Xperience
Good Collaboration Hurts

Text by: Matylda Szyrle & Marta Skotnicka