Hungary’s descent into the Partly Free category in Freedom House’s just-released annual assessment of global media independence should set off alarms for those who believed the country’s press freedom was firmly established, writes Christopher Walker.
In a stunningly short time, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used his Fidesz party’s supermajority in parliament to push through a raft of measures that are patently hostile to media independence. A controversial media law that came into force 1 January 2011 drew sharp criticism from a range of international observers, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Commission.
Hungary’s fall from Free to Partly Free has exposed the relative fragility of its young democracy, but it also reflects growing vulnerabilities for press freedom in the broader region. Findings from the new Freedom House report, Freedom of the Press 2012, suggest that illiberal politics and a grim economic environment are conspiring to shrink the space for independent media in new democracies in Central Europe and the Baltics, democratic hopefuls in the Balkans, and semi-authoritarian states to the east.
Of the 10 new European Union members, three – Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – are now Partly Free. And as a result of harsh economic conditions, poor media-ownership transparency, and a progressively weaker capacity for investigative reporting, Latvia’s media environment is now four points away from Partly Free status.
The pressures on outlets producing news that is civically and politically relevant are global but have particularly serious implications for young democracies. If the already stressed news outlets in countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Latvia continue their downward drift, these states’ ability to achieve further democratic reforms will be hobbled. Major overhauls in the fields of health, education, and economic management could go awry without substantive media scrutiny, and making headway in the fight against corruption – a corrosive problem throughout the region – will be all but impossible.
The costs will be even higher for countries with weaker democratic institutions, like Ukraine, if the watchdog and other important functions of the media are disabled by political and economic pressures.
This is an extract from a longer piece on Transitions OnLine. Read the rest here.
Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House and a member of TOL’s advisory board. He tweets at @walker_ct.