Journalism, at least what passes for independent or objective journalism, is not enjoying the best of times worldwide. And Central Europe is one place where freedoms gained and consolidated over the past 25 years look like they are being eroded. That trend was this week highlighted by journalists in Prague as they pledged to cooperate in trying to defend media freedom across the region.
Prominent journalists from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland, including some who were dissidents during the Communist era, signed up to the Prague declaration this week. It followed sobering assessments of the state of media freedom in some of their countries and pledged to take joint action. A Central European committee to defend press freedom is one specific result.
Poland was particularly under the spotlight, with accounts how the governing Law and Justice party has taken control of public television and radio and is putting pressure on private media which take an independent line by banning adverts with them by state companies. Hungary has already travelled further down this path already.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia were judged to be slightly better but the dual pressure of more private media outlets in the hands of oligarchs and greater pressure of politicians to curb the independence of public service television and radio were also highlighted. Adam Černý is the chairman of the Czech syndicate of journalists and took part in the Prague meeting:
“In the Czech Republic, the situation concerning media freedom is relatively good, but I should underline the word relatively. The situation has degradated in the past year and when we see what is happening in Budapest and Warsaw with the respective governments of Viktor Orbán and, so to say, Jaroslaw Kaczynski shows that the situation can change swiftly after political changes.”
Černý adds that more done to boost the independence of the boards of public broadcasters Czech Television and Czech Radio where, he says, political fingerprints are already clear in the current nominations.
These warnings are not alone. Media watchdog Freedom House recently issued its 2017 report, entitled Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy. It noted that there were setbacks in civil rights, political rights, or both in a number of countries, still regarded as “free.” The Czech Republic was included in the dozen or so states it chose to highlight in this context.
The Czech Republic still has a solid score of 94 out of 100 in the overall report, down from 95 a year earlier, and slightly below the likes of Germany and Austria. But it is still well ahead of other Central European neighbours. Poland and Slovakia scored 89 and Hungary a lowly 76. But given the stand of certain prominent figures in the Czech Republic, no names given, the report warns that further steps towards “illiberal democracy” can be feared.