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In Post Totalitarian States Media Are Free But Dependent

Published on , , Sofia, Twitter: @AdelinaMarini
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In the end of October, in Bulgaria, the protests against oligarchy, totalitarian drifting and, generally, the "facade democracy", as called by local analysts, entered a new phase when students got involved with an occupation of the central building of the Sofia University. A quick review of the local media then showed unequivocally the depth of the problem. On the one hand there are media which have long turned into propaganda machines. They change course with the change of government. The ownership is not clear, but fits into the category of a "public secret". Television outlets, radio stations, websites, prints are sprouting like mushrooms after rain. Rarely it is immediately understood who is behind them, but they always succeed in situating themselves comfortably and pour propaganda, sometimes well masked under "investigation" or "exclusivity". It is also a public secret that members of the government, the protesters continue to demand the resignation of, refuse to be interviewed by media who are critical to the cabinet.

On the other hand are the social networks, the blogs, the few left addicted to media standards media or individual journalists. Access to information, however, is difficult. Transparency is the last thing you can say both about media ownership and the work of the government and the forces that form its policies. The polarisation is huge and is growing on a daily basis. On Facebook this can be seen very clearly. My morning feed looks like a press clipping - comments about the participants in the early morning TV political shows. The reactions are polarised. Throughout the day permanent press review is going on, as prevailing is criticism against published information about a face of the protesters. The accusations that corporate interests are behind the protesters and the government alike are not just daily, they happen every minute in Bulgaria.

On Saturday and Sunday, the social networks start boiling with indignation or praise for the comments of a famous Bulgarian journalist with the national radio, who is a presenter of a programme with a name that more than ever sounds odd "Deconstruction". No ethical border in Bulgarian media is left not crossed. Hate speech, lack of an effort toward unbiasedness, facts checks, analyses, and, generally, fundamentals of journalism are striking. Even the few remaining media who are still sticking to the main rules of the profession are panicking whether they had not crossed one of the red thin lines, as was the case with the Bulgarian section of the Deutsche Welle. Against this backdrop, I had the honour to moderate one of the many interesting panels* from this year's Sofia Platform, dedicated in principle on the transformation processes in the Arab world.

The topic was more than challenging - The Fourth Estate in Times of Transition: Role and Impact of the Arab Media of Today. Challenging precisely because such a discussion was taking place exactly at that particular political moment in Bulgaria. The forum took place in the brand new building of the European Commission and the European Parliament in Sofia - the House of Europe - in one of the central Sofia streets. The participants were more than interesting and additionally enhanced the significance of the issue because they focused on the experience of Central and Eastern Europe and the potential lessons the Arab world could learn from the region.

The Balkans went through a very long and very complex transition

A very strong beginning of the 90-minutes long discussion gave Remzi Lani, executive director of the Albanian Media Institute, who made a relentless dissection of the media environment in the Balkans. After more than 20 years, in the Balkans we have vibrant, vivid, overcrowded, chaotic, defragmented, non-transparent and generally free media. If you look at the transition from the bright side, it can be said that there are pluralistic media systems in the region. The legal framework is very good, even better than in many countries in Western Europe and even USA. The process, however, has a negative side, which Remzi Lani described as a failure to create functioning media markets. The result is strong clientelism, partisanship, polarisation and a very divided media environment. In short, the Albanian expert said, a complete failure to create independence.

Media in the Balkans are free, but are not independent. They are pluralistic, but are not independent, he added. The region went through a transition from censorship to self-censorship. The red lines of the past are no longer there, but there are grey lines that impose self control because, otherwise, you will get fired. We made a transition from repression to pressure, Mr Lani continued. Media in the Balkans are stuck in a not tasty sandwich between business and politics. Ownership is not clear, nobody knows who owns what and who pays whom. It is also not known who owns the owners. He was cautious in giving pieces of advice to the Arab countries in transition, pointing out that, after all, the Balkan countries went through a period of a system change, while in the Middle East and the Arab World it is about a regime change.

Nonetheless, he recommended to avoid a direct copy-paste of foreign legislation and quoted the example of Albania which copy-pasted the media law of Westphalia in Germany, including with the size of the fines - between 20 000 and 50 000 then Deutsche Marks. The average salary of an Albanian journalist then was 20 DM and the president's was 200 DM. It is also good to put an end to the "mystification" that media are a pillar of democracy. Not that it is not true, Remzi Lani said, but we should not forget that media are also an industry of capitalism. We are talking mainly about media freedom, but we do not mention media markets. The consequence is that in the Balkans journalists are missionaries of democracy and proletarians of capitalism, who can be fired by a text message or are poorly paid.

Journalism is dying, long live the journalists!

Another very interesting participant in the panel was Igor Janke, a journalist and author from Poland, who, from the very beginning, challenged the audience by saying that not media were making revolutions, but people - their desire for freedom and better life. Media are only a tool. He recalled that during the Polish Solidarity revolution there were over a thousand underground newspapers, printed in attics and basements. If you wanted to be an active member of Solidarity you were to be able to print and distribute. It was easier then, he said, because media were a weapon in the battle. The big challenge today is how media can succeed to build democracy and sustain it. To build independent media, that really are the fourth estate like the American, British or the Western European ones, you need to have responsible professional editors, investigating journalists, you have to be unbiased, not to be involved in political battles, to be a professional, well educated and independent.

But this is not the case in Central Europe, neither in Poland, which sometimes is perceived as a leader of transition. Why? Because in order to have independent media you have to build independent business, as the key question is "Who pays you". Independent media are built only on the basis of independent income sources, like readers who want to pay and various advertisers, from various circles. Moreover, the public media need to be independent too. At the moment, they are completely dependent on the political scene no matter what rules will be introduced, the Polish author continues with passion. The crisis is another factor for the creation of a bad media environment. It is much cheaper to invite in the studio two cocks (politicians) and leave them to fight. For the purpose you appoint a 25-year old girl to simply pass the ball. The outcome is that media are more and more turning into tabloids, focusing on entertainment.

This is the reason why nothing important has happened in Poland in the past 20 years, no deep reforms have taken place because no one is pressing th politicians. Besides, the situation will only get worse, Igor Janke continued with a great dose of pessimism. Traditional media are dying. Technological revolution entirely changed the business model of traditional media. It is no longer lucrative to be professional, he concluded.

Regulation? No, thanks

The word "regulation" caused a severe allergic reaction among the audience and the participants themselves. Most reactions were directed to the Bulgarian panelist Ms Maria Stoyanova, a member of the Council for Electronic Media (Bulgaria's regulator of electronic media). The most criticism was caused because in totalitarian states to talk about regulation is very dangerous. Most eloquent was Ahmet Han from the Kadir Has university in Turkey. He pointed out that his country was a member of NATO, of the human rights charter, it was negotiating for EU membership and on top of it is labelled as a democracy, but against the backdrop of the summer protests in the Gezi park the word "regulation" only causes deep hostility. According to Ms Stoyanova, however, there need to be rules. With even greater force this is valid for the social networks, especially in terms of fighting child pornography or when it comes to protection of personal data. Facebook has to be regulated. She refrained from going further answering a question by a female participant from Libya whether the distribution of rumours should be regulated on Facebook.

Before we talk about regulation we should have the right balance through an appropriate legislation about the freedom of information and media, said Lina Attalah, chief editor of Mada Masr from Egypt, She described media in her homeland as PR machines of the military regime. When there is extreme polarisation, when actively are silenced voices considered critics of the current pro-military regime, to talk about regulation is very dangerous and is a synonym of censorship, she added. The newspaper she takes care of reminds of those times Igor Janke spoke of. It has the size of an old newspaper but its structure is somewhat similar to a magazine or even a blog. It is printed in English and talks a lot about media freedom.

EU is finally addressing this issue

Since relatively recently the EU has started to pay serious attention to the problems and a "contribution" for this certainly has Hungary, whose drifting towards authoritarianism Prime Minister Viktor Orban tried to take away media freedom with amendments to the Constitution. The sick and deteriorating media environment in Bulgaria also attracted European attention when last year in Sofia went Neelie Kroes, the media commissioner, to try and understand what the problems were. She later tasked a high level group to make an in-depth analysis and to come up with specific recommendations. Among them:

- To reinforce European values of freedom and pluralism, the EU should designate, in the work programme and funding of the European fundamental rights agency, a monitoring role of national‐level freedom and pluralism of the media. The agency would then issue regular reports about any risks to the freedom and pluralism of the media in any part of the EU. The European Parliament could then discuss the contents of these reports and adopt resolutions or make suggestions for measures to be taken.

- Media freedom and pluralism should play a crucial role in the assessment of the preparedness of the enlargement countries. Free and pluralistic media environment should be a precondition for membership to the EU. Something the Commission has started to deal with by reviewing in much detail the media environment situations in the enlargement countries as of this year;

- Media literacy to be taught at school and high school. The role media play in a functioning democracy should be critically assessed as part of the national education curriculum and should be integrated in the relevant subjects.

The problem with media environment has been put on the agenda of the Council of the EU too. The ministers of education, youth, culture and sports adopted conclusions precisely about media freedom and pluralism. They invite the member states, which means themselves, to ensure the independence of the regulators; to undertake appropriate measures to bring to light media ownership; to protect the right of journalists to protect their sources and also themselves from influence; to prevent "possible negative
effects of excessive concentration of media ownership
", whatever that means. The expectation is rather to prevent excessive concentration and not simply to mitigate its negative implications. The ministers also invite the Commission to continue to support projects that enhance the protection of journalists and media.

The Commission is also expected to continue to support the independent monitoring of risks for the media pluralism, done by the European University Institute in Florence. It is great that the issue has entered the EU agenda, but, alas, this is quite insufficient. On the one hand, there is a problem in the post totalitarian countries and they are a significant part of the EU while several more are queueing up to join. As Remzi Lani pointed out at the Sofia Platform this year, there is a huge risk of restoration. On the other hand is the crisis and the challenges the new technologies pose for journalism. The problem is not that traditional media may "die". The problem is to prevent journalism from dying, as such a fate drew for it Igor Janke. However, Remzi Lani disagreed with such a vision saying that just like when one is ill they go to see a professional doctor, the same way society will continue to need professional journalism. Does it really?

*The entire panel in English you can watch in the attached video file

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