Budapest, Hungary – Hungary and Poland have fallen to their lowest ever positions in the latest World Press Freedom Index, while the Czech Republic and especially Slovakia show some signs of improvement.
Nordic countries top the ranking, with Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden occupying the first four places respectively.
According to the report, compiled by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism, with the coronavirus pandemic “highlighting and amplifying the many crises that threaten the right to freely reported, independent, diverse and reliable information”.
Hungary: more and more difficult for independent journalists
Ranked 56th out of 180 countries in 2013, Hungary has now recorded its sixth consecutive decline in the ranking, falling to the 89th position, the lowest of all four Visegrad countries.
The report states that while the pro-government media foundation still dominates the media landscape and market distortion of state advertising to media is still going on, “access to information is more and more difficult for independent journalists”. Press departments of public institutions “typically do not reply to questions of independent media”, it adds.
The report also points out that in December 2019, only the nominees of the ruling Fidesz party were elected as new members of the Media Council, “Hungary’s most powerful media regulatory body”.
The Orban government has indeed recently come under media scrutiny over its handling of the coronavirus crisis. Its coronavirus emergency bill was passed with penalties of up to five years in prison for false information, a “completely disproportionate and coercive measure”, according to the report.
The United Nations, along with numerous NGOs and civil society organizations, had already expressed deep concerns regarding the bill, warning some of its measures threaten “the rule of law and the freedom of the press”.
Poland: government propaganda mouthpieces
Like Hungary, Poland has also recorded its fifth consecutive decline in the World Press Freedom ranking, falling from 22nd in 2013 to 62nd in 2020.
The report claims that “partisan discourse and hate speech are still the rule within state-owned media, which have been transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces”.
It also adds that “the government’s drive to subjugate the judicial system and a growing tendency to criminalize defamation are beginning to have an effect on the freedom of expression of independent media outlets, with some courts now using article 212 of the criminal code, under which journalists can be sentenced to as much as a year in prison for defamation”.
“The Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza continues to be the leading target of government lawsuits”, states the report.
Czech Republic: in the hands of a few oligarchs
Like in 2019, the Czech Republic remains at the 40th position of the World Press Freedom Index, which is still its worst ever ranking, even if its global score has improved. In 2013, the country ranked 16th, the highest out of all four Visegrad countries.
The report argues that “Czech journalists face major challenges, including threats to public broadcasting from government-controlled supervisory bodies and online smear campaigns”, resulting in the fact that “there are fewer and fewer critical journalists”.
It adds that while “intemperate verbal attacks against journalists by officials at the highest level has fuelled distrust of the media and violence against journalists and media workers, there is growing concern about the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few oligarchs”.
This process notoriously culminated in October 2019 with the acquisition of the Central European Media Enterprises (CME) group by the country’s wealthiest billionaire, Petr Kellner, which alarmed several Central and Eastern European countries where CME controls influential TV channels.
Slovakia: political vice tightens
The highest ranked Visegrad country in the World Press Freedom Index for the fifth year in a row, Slovakia climbs up two spots to the 33rd position in 2020.
While the country’s ranking and overall score have improved, the report notes that, much like in the Czech Republic, Slovak media that were previously owned by leading international media companies have been acquired by local oligarchs, such as Markiza, the biggest Slovak TV channel, which was bought by Petr Kellner.
The report also highlights the fact that “the independence and professionalism of the public radio and TV broadcaster RTVS has been questioned since several dozen of its journalists were replaced by younger, less experienced journalists sympathetic to SNS leader Andrej Danko, because the new management was close to the ultranationalist party”.