Almost 35 years ago, Central and Eastern European political systems and even borders were redefined – but in vastly different ways: While Germany became reunited, Czechoslovakia dissolved and split into two new states: Czech Republic and Slovakia. Poland experienced system change within existing borders while Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
What effects did these massive changes have on the public and the media landscape? What are the chances and risks of changing media environments? The Mediadelcom research project gathers experts from 14 European countries that aim to answer these questions. Four of them discussed these issues on Wednesday, 8th November in the Auslandsgesellschaft.de: Halliki Harro-Loit from Estonia, Lenka Waschková Císařová from Czech Republic, Michał Głowacki from Poland and Marcus Kreutler from the Erich Brost Institute in Dortmund, which had organized the event in cooperation with the DJV NRW, Europe Direct Dortmund and the Auslandsgesellschaft.de. The discussion was moderated by Louisa von Essen.
Four countries, four perspectives
Marcus Kreutler started by pointing out how instructive it is to look at media systems in other countries – thereby finding differences and similarities and, amongst other things, learning “how to make great journalism with limited resources”. While comparing Germany and other countries, he said: “How gifted are we? The glass is half full in Germany.” Overall, the constitutional court had shielded the media from attacks. As for research purposes, German federalism does pose a challenge, Kreutler said: “If a colleague asks me to send them my countries’ press law, I say ‘We have 16!’”.
Kreutler described the situation in Germany after reunification as “pretty multifaceted”. Differences between East and West Germany could still be detected in studies that examine media use or trust in the media. Kreutler pointed out that through the “Treuhand”, media outlets were largely given to the best bidder with no concern for media plurality in the East. In the end, only one big player remained and the East was left without its own big brands.
This turned out to be different in Estonia. As Estonia became independent from the Soviet Union, Estonians founded new media as a collective, therefore having their very own brands. Halliki Harro-Loit declared that Estonians had great trust in journalists and cherished the “depth of the intellectual debate”. Because of their socialist past, Estonians would very much value freedom of speech and their journalists were “very sensitive to pressure or restriction”. Still, there were cases where journalists were silenced using economic means, Harro-Loit emphasized.
The challenges: media ownership, disinformation and polarization
Moderator Louisa von Essen asked about Russian disinformation campaigns and how that could pose a threat to the Estonian media landscape. “It’s always dangerous to underestimate Russian propaganda”, said Halliki Harro-Loit. She stated that she had trained her children how to detect it. But at the same time, it would be more of a social or geographic issue than an inherent problem of the media. She explained that the Russian minority in Estonia that lives in less developed areas and mostly speaks Russian is more prone to fall for Russian disinformation because Russian media is more accessible to them. Still, Harro-Loit said that this was more of a problem for politicians.
The biggest challenge for the media in Czech Republic, according to Lenka Waschková Císařová, is foreign ownership. Businessmen and oligarchs had bought media outlets and thereby hold influence. “We had the naïve thought that having a free market and private media equals freedom”, Waschková Císařová said. But after the financial crisis, many media outlets were shut down because they were not profitable enough.
Simultaneously, media outlets were “used as a weapon and a shield” by their owners. As a resolution, Lenka Waschková Císařová called for an initiative for independent media.
Pluralistic ownership of media is also declining in Poland, said Michał Głowacki. However, Poland actually was a pioneer of democratic media and had a very diverse and robust media system in the 1990s, Głowacki stated. Still, freedom of the press suffered after judicial changes were made in Poland. The social divide between liberals and conservatives led to a deep polarization of polish society, “but the people were getting tired of it”. The question now for Poland, according to Michał Głowacki, is how the media can reinvent itself after their democratic basis was jeopardised and under attack for years. Głowacki also pointed out the importance of new bottom-up, citizen-driven efforts in the media: “We need to strengthen our system of checks and balances. We need to hear different voices”, Michał Głowacki concluded.